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Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Many people believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas occur during the days leading up to Christmas.  Actually, that is not correct.  The Twelve Days begin on Christmas Day (December 25th) and run through Epiphany (January 6th).  This period of time is also known to many of us as Christmastide, Yuletide, or Twelvetide.  But don't be confused... the twelve nights run from Christmas Eve (December 24th through January 5th.

Initially, gifts were distributed to their recipients during the course of the twelve days, as is seen in Drennon's famous song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  Today, however, these twelve days and nights are celebrated differently in different places around the world.  In some countries, gifts are only given on Christmas Day while in other places they are given only on the Twelfth Night or, in some places, on each of the twelve nights. 

But how did all of this get started?  Many believe that the lengthy holiday season is patterned after the Germanic Yuletide or possibly even the Roman Saturnalia, pagan customs though they may be.  We know that during the Middle Ages, these twelve days in England consisted of continuous feasting and 'merrymaking'.  Today, countries in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth still celebrate many of the Christmastide traditions such as Boxing Day, plum pudding, and Wassail.

When the early colonists came to the new world from England, they adapted their own version of the twelve days for their new country.  This version acquired variations through the years becoming uniquely American.    It is believed the the Christmas wreath originated with the colonists who made these decorations for their doors out of the local pine.  It was tradition to make these on Christmas Eve and then to hang them on the door through either the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. 

The Twelfth Day, Epiphany, is the day set aside to remember the visit of the Magi (wise men), or kings from the east.  In many countries, a king's cake, is baked for Epiphany.  The cake is baked with a real fava bean inside.  Whoever finds the fève is obligated to provide the cake next year.  His partner, likewise, is obligated to provide next year's champagne.  In some English-speaking countries, it is believed to be unlucky to leave Christmas decorations up past the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning, though in non-English speaking countries, they are often left up until Candlemas (February 2nd).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) Customs

Hanukkah is an eight day holiday which marks the miraculous victory of the Jews, led by the Maccabees, against Greek persecution and religious oppression. In addition to being victorious in war, a miracle occurred.  When they came to rededicate the Temple, they found only one flask of oil with which to light the Menorah. This small flask lasted for eight days. In order to commemorate this miracle, Jews light a Menorah for the eight days of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas. Although it is celebrated the same time of year, Hanukkah commemorates the physical and spiritual victory of the Jews over the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.

Hanukkah is also known as the:
o   Festival of Lights, since the flame in the Temple burned miraculously for eight days.
o   Feast of Dedication, since the Temple was rededicated after being desecrated.

Hanukkah is celebrated from 25 Kislev - 2 Tevet, according to the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, so it falls on different dates each year. This year Hanukkah began the evening of December 8, 2012. Remember that all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the evening before. 

One way Hanukkah is celebrated is through food.  Because the oil in the lamps lasted for eight days, during Hanukkah Jewish people eat foods fried in oil.  Most often this is latkes (fried potato pancakes) and deep fried donuts.  Cheese is also eaten in remembrance of how one of the greatest victories against the Maccabees was gained by feeding the enemy cheese.

Children play with the dreidel in remembrance of the brave children who lived during the time of the conquering Greeks.  Every effort was made by the Greeks to force Hellenism upon the Jews at the expense of teaching Jewish Law and the Torah schools were closed.  Hence, Jewish Law had to be taught to the children in secret in the forest.  When the Greek patrols would come by, the children would hide their books and play with tops to cover what they were doing in the woods.  Today, four Hebrew letters are on the dreidel and they are an acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”—a great miracle happened there.

Because Hanukkah is associated so closely with the education of children, it is also customary to give Chanukah gelt (money) to children on each of the 8 days of the season.  This enables the children to be taught about giving to charity from out of what one has in order to honor G-d.  The Jews remember that the Greeks did not take their possessions but rather defiled them by using them for impure pursuits.

Spiritually, Jews celebrate Hanukkah in the morning prayer service each day by reciting the complete Hallel (Psalms 113-118) and reading from the Torah about the offerings brought at the dedication of the Tabernacle.  This is a reminder to them of the Maccabean rededication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks.  A special prayer of thanksgiving (V’al Hanissim) is also inserted in the prayers and grace after meals during Hanukkah.

It is intended that the Menorah be lit by every Jew everywhere during Hanukkah in remembrance of the Menorah that burned miraculously for eight days.  Candles can be used but ideally, olive oil is considered to be more representative.  In the Torah, we see the Menorah in the first and second Temples described as having had seven branches.  After the Temples' destruction, a tradition arose among the Jewish people that nothing from the Temple should be duplicated so Menorahs began to appear having six branches.  The Hanukkah Menorah, however, has nine branches: eight to hold the oil or candles to be burned during the eight days of Hanukkah and one to hold the Shamash, which is used to light the other candles.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Evolution of Saint Nicholas

St. Nicholas was born in the third century in Turkey, in a village then known as Patara, Lycia to a wealthy family.  Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

It is said that Nicholas once learned of a poor man who had three daughters.  Because their father could not afford a dowry for them, the daughters had no hope of marriage and would be sold into slavery.  This would sentence them to a certain life of prostitution.  On three separate evenings, Bishop Nicholas threw a bag of gold through an upstairs window providing a dowry for each of the daughters, thus saving them from being sold.  As the story goes, the bags of gold landed in stockings hanging by the fire to dry and in shoes placed on the hearth.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death - Dec 6, 343.  Dressed in his red bishop’s robes, he is said to bring gifts to children just as he did in many of the stories told about him through the ages.  And, in memory of the three daughters he saved from being sold into slavery, he comes early while the children are still sleeping and leaves presents. Before children go to sleep they place a bowl or plate under their bed, hang a stocking by the fireplace or put a pair of shoes in front of the door (varies by country).  In Europe, this early advent gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day helps to preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

In Germany, Martin Luther replaced the name of the gift bringer with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl.  Through the years, this was eventually mispronounced enough that it became Kriss Kringle, another name by which we know St. Nicholas.  But, brought to the United States by immigrants, the English speaking children often mispronounced the Dutch version of his name, Sinterklaas, and he eventually became known to us here in the U.S. as Santa Claus. 

Now, in order to convince folks that Coke was not just a summer drink, the Coca-Cola Company began featuring Santa on their bottles to depict the idea that the beverage could be consumed at any time of the year. Until that time, Santa had traditionally worn Nicholas' red bishop’s robe, as we see on early Santa figures; he changed from Bishop’s attire to a red suit with trousers in the United States when he began appearing on the Coke bottles. 

Today, St. Nicholas continues to evolve each year as songs, television specials, and movies spin new and ever changing details about Santa, reindeer, and the North Pole.  Changing at a pace never before seen, it is my belief that our children’s children will know a completely different St. Nick than we do today as he is already hardly recognizable as the Bishop of Myra. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Nutcracker

The original German nutcrackers (Nussknackers) were developed in the Erzgebirge region of Germany.  Many of the village people worked in the Ore Mountains in the mines, but during the winter months, wood carving was the main source of income for poor families.  Life was hard for the miners who worked long hours and were often taken advantage of by their superiors.  Since Germans sometimes say someone has "a hard nut to crack" if they mean that the person is having difficulties, the 18th century woodworkers who created the now traditional form of nutcracker made the nutcracker figures in the shape of the people who made life difficult.  Thus, the nutcrackers were made to resemble kings, soldiers, and other authority figures.  While in everyday life the lower classes were at the mercy of sometimes harsh authorities, in their homes the tables could be turned by making figures of those authorities perform work for the poorer people.