What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Christmas, Kwanzaa, a Jewish fast, Winter Solstice and the Day of Ashura


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(December 21 to 27, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, we wish you a merry Christmas! But
first, we recognize a seasonal milestone marked by many ancient
traditions: the Winter Solstice. Saturday, some African Americans
observe Kwanzaa, Christians honor St. Stephen and Zoroastrians mark the
death anniversary of their prophet, Zarathustra. Also this week: Muslims observe the
Day of Ashura in various ways, Jews hold a minor fast and Catholic Christians celebrate
the Holy Family. Read all about these holidays and observances below …

MONDAY, don’t feel you’re in the dark even though it’s the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Here’s a Web site with some great ideas to beat the winter blues and enjoy time inside.

    Many ancient calendars revolved around the natural world, so the
Winter Solstice has long been a time for elaborate ceremonies. This
year, the Winter Solstice (also called Midwinter) will occur in the
Northern Hemisphere at 5:47 p.m., GMT (read more about Winter Solstice on Wikipedia).
The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin words “sol” and
“sistere,” meaning “sun” and “to stand still.” Many cultures hold
festivals of rebirth, most often involving the sun or sun gods.
According to cyclical calendars, the year is “reborn.” In Greek
mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the Winter Solstice; in
ancient Roman tradition, a festival honoring Baccus occurred for one
month; according to Wiccan belief, Winter Solstice is one of the eight
solar holidays and celebrated as the rebirth of the Great God; and in
the Scandinavian Norse and Germanic tribes, Midwinter was call for a
Yule party. Today, many Wiccans still hold to the rites associated with
Winter Solstice (the Druidic tradition is where the Midwinter colors of
red, green and white originated). Circle Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education and community celebration, offers more information.
One of the world’s most noteworthy structures—Newgrange, a megalithic
site in Ireland that predates the Egyptian Pyramids and even
Stonehenge—has a very special tie with Winter Solstice (the photo above, at left, is of the entrance to Newgrange). This circular structure is, according to carbon dating, approximately 5,000 years old (Knowth.com has extensive information on Newgrange).
This Passage Tomb that took a work force of 300 at least 20 years to
build (as this was prior to the intervention of the wheel) receives a
strong shaft of sunlight in its central chamber at dawn on the Winter
Solstice. This event lasts for 17 minutes on the dawn of the Winter
Solstice, and for a few minutes on some of the mornings surrounding
Winter Solstice (Fodors has some neat tourist tips).
Archaeologists didn’t make this startling discovery about Newgrange
until 1969, although modern historians still aren’t sure of all the
reasons why this ancient structure was built.    

FRIDAY, have a merry Christmas!
    For fun recipes, activities and letters to Santa, check out Northpole.com—or, if you’re looking for carols, games or charities, visit AllThingsChristmas!
    While millions of Americans will be gathering around a decorated
evergreen tree, opening gifts from “Santa” and feasting, Christians
will also be commemorating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s
accepted that Dec. 25 was not Jesus’ real birthday. The Christmas date may
have been chosen either because of an
ancient Roman festival or its proximity to the winter solstice. (The History Channel gives a great overview of the history of Christmas.) Nevertheless, Dec. 25 and the evening of Dec. 24 have long been known as Christmas holidays (check out the entry on Christmas from Wikipedia).
    And what’s Christmas without cookies? There are lots of tasty recipes on AllRecipes.
    This year at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI will break tradition by celebrating the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at 10 p.m., instead of
midnight (a copy of the official press release was reprinted here).
Vatican aides assure that the 82-year-old’s health is fine, and that
the time was moved to allow the pope to get more rest during the
busy Christmas season.
    On Christmas day at noon, Benedict will read the
traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (a Latin phrase indicating that he is addressing the City and the
World). This annual message concerning the religious significance of
Christmas and a reflection on wars and other current events will be read from the central balcony of the basilica. The message previews concerns Benedict will carry to the world during multiple trips scheduled in 2010.
    Outside of religious traditions, many
stories, songs and cultural traditions have been integrated into the
season too, including the popular tale of moral guidance by
Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol.” (Did you know that, after two
years of research, Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in a mere six
weeks? The famous English author began writing in October of 1843 and
finished in time for Christmas publication.)
    Moral guidance remains a major theme at Christmas each year and
organizations like the Salvation Army
see donations rise significantly. This year, the Salvation Army
increased its annual Kettle Campaign and Angel Tree program efforts.

African Americans reconnect with African heritage during Kwanzaa. Celebrated from Dec. 26-Jan. 1 each year,
Kwanzaa originated in 1966 around the Black Nationalist movement of the
1960s. (Last year, the first and only feature film focused on Kwanzaa was
released. “The Black Candle,”
narrated by Maya Angelou, won Best Documentary at the African World
Documentary Film Festival.) The 2009 theme of Kwanzaa is “Principles
and Practices of Kwanzaa: Repairing and Renewing the World.” (Find out more on the Official Kwanzaa Web site.)
    During Kwanzaa, African Americans light a kinara, or candle holder, enjoy feasts and give gifts to one another (Wikipedia gives a general overview of Kwanzaa).
Kwanzaa was created by Ron Karenga, who claimed that his goal was to
“give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an
opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply
imitate the practice of the dominant society.” (Read more on The History Channel’s Web page.)
Kwanzaa was originally intended as an alternative to Christmas,
although today, Karenga says that Kwanzaa shouldn’t act as an
alternative for one’s own religious holiday. In 1997, Karenga branched
out even more by saying that people of any race can, and should, honor
Kwanzaa, just as Americans mark Cinco de Mayo and the Chinese New Year.
(Recipes, creative ideas and information are at Kaboose.)
Each day of Kwanzaa is meant to honor one principle, and the seven
principles of Kwanzaa are: Unity, self-determination, collective work
and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and
faith. Traditionally, families decorate their homes with African art
and cloth, while donning traditional African clothing and eating fresh
    No one knows exactly how many people celebrate Kwanzaa.
While the National Research Foundation claimed, in 2004, that
approximately 4.7 million Americans do so, Karenga claimed in 2006 that
Kwanzaa has 28 million followers. Lee D. Baker insists that 12 million
people honor Kwanzaa each year.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out”—it’s the Feast of Stephen!
    On Dec. 26,
Western Christians honor the first Christian martyr (Eastern Orthodox
Christians remember St. Stephen on Dec. 27). St. Stephen’s name means
“crown,” as he was the first disciple of Jesus to have received the
martyr’s crown. His feast day is celebrated on the day after
Christmas because of his significance as the first martyr.
Stephen was a deacon in the early Christian Church—one of seven
ordained by the apostles to look after widows and the poor (Catholic Culture has more).
According to the book of Acts, St. Stephen had such an influence over those who
heard him speak that his enemies plotted to kill him. St. Stephen’s
enemies persuaded men to lie about him, yet even upon his death by
stoning, St. Stephen prayed to God that his enemies be forgiven (find out more at this Catholic site, Fish Eaters). It has become tradition that Christians pray for their enemies on Dec. 26.
    Boxing Day originated from this Christian feast day, as St. Stephen was
one of the first “social workers” of the Church who organized meals for
the poor. In some homes, a box is set next to the Christmas tree, and
this “St. Stephen’s box” is filled with clothing and other articles for
the poor. According to popular song, Good King Wenceslas was able to enjoy his own holiday celebration—because he was a king who “looked out, on the Feast of Stephen” with a compassionate eye for the cold and poor. (Read the song lyrics here.)

Zoroastrians mark the death anniversary of the prophet Zarathustra, the
founder of the Zoroastrian religion. Historical accounts vary
widely—some claim he lived sometime around 6000 BCE, while many
scholars argue that it was closer to 2000 BCE—but generally, it’s
agreed that Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, died at the age of 77. (PBS published a short piece on this observance in 2004.) It
is unknown how Zarathustra died; some say he was killed while in prayer
by a foreign enemy of the king and others believe he died a peaceful,
natural death.
    The messages of Zarathustra are more concrete
than the historical accounts about his life, as his messages were
written in the Gathas Zoroastrian scriptures. Tradition holds that Zarathustra wrote the
Gathas under divine inspiration from God (as opposed to the words of these scriptures being a direct revelation from God). (The Parsi Zoroastrian Association of Singapore offers lots of information on Zoroaster’s life, philosophies and more.)
In no sect of Zoroastrianism is Zarathustra regarded as a divine figure,
and devotees teach that this prophet made a devoted effort himself to communicate with
    Zoroastrian followers have dwindled in numbers through the years and, today, they are most prevalent in India.

many Shi’a Muslims honor the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson and Sunni
Muslims honor Moses’ and Muhammad’s fasts on the Day of Ashura
(spellings vary). The word “Ashura” means “10th,” as this is the 10th
day of the Islamic month of Muhurram. (Check out what Wikipedia has to offer here.)
Shi’a Muslims spend the day in mourning for Husayn ibn (or Hussein) Ali,
the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in the Battle of Karbala
on this date in 61 AH (or, according to the Gregorian calendar, in 680
AD). After the Prophet Muhammad died, there was great conflict over who
would succeed Muhammad in leadership, and this is when the official
split of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims began—Shi’as believing that Muhammad’s
bloodline should succeed him in leadership, and Sunnis differing. (Here is the BBC’s explanation.)
    During Ashura, it is common for Shi’a Muslims to show public expressions of grief, including self-infflicted pain, reenactment plays and
processions (the photo at right is of an Ashura procession in Baghdad).
The place where Ali was killed during battle, Karbala (in modern-day
Iraq) has been a place of pilgrimage for Shi’a Muslims ever since.
Sunni Muslims recognize that Muhammad’s grandson died on this day, but
some fast out of the belief that Moses fasted on this day as a way to
thank God for the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. Sunni Muslims
believe that Muhammad fasted on this day, too, and recommended that
others do so as well. (ReadingIslam has a great article on this.)
Unlike the Ramadan fast, this fast is only recommended by Muhammad, and
not required. Some Sunnis also fast to commemorate the day that Noah
left the Ark.

Also on SUNDAY,
Jews hold a minor fast on the 10th of the Jewish month of Tevet.
The 10th of Tevet venerates the commencement of the siege that
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia placed on ancient Jerusalem, which eventually led to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (the First
Temple) and Babylonia’s conquest of the Kingdom of Judea. (Chabad.org has information and a photo.)
This is a minor observance so, unlike the longer fast of Yom Kippur, the 10th
of Tevet fasting begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. Some observe this day as
a “general kaddish day,” and solemnly remember the victims of the
Holocaust (the photo at left depicts some of the names of the millions of Holocaust victims). As many of the Holocaust victims have unidentifiable death anniversaries, some Jews honor them on the 10th of Tevet. (Find out more from Wikipedia.)

SUNDAY marks the Feast of the Holy Family for Catholic Christians—a day when Jesus, Mary and Joseph are adored together. (ChurchYear.Net offers plenty of details.)
    Little is known about the life of the Holy Family, and devotion to the
Holy Family is a fairly recent development in Christianity. (Here is Wikipedia’s entry on the Holy Family.) Many popes have suggested that observing this day may help Catholics prayerfully reflect on the general erosion of family structures around the world—and consider ways to strengthen their own families.
St. Paul gave advice about family life in Colossians, and the Catholic
Church views family life as the “domestic church,” or “church in
miniature.” (FishEaters, a Catholic site, has more.) Pope John Paul II also placed a special emphasis on families during his lengthy pontificate.


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