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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(December 7 to 13, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton
THIS WEEK, Jewish families begin lighting candles on a Menorah for the eight-day festival of Hanukkah; Buddhists recall Buddha’s enlightenment and Catholics celebrate one of the most famous Marian apparitions on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Virgin Mary is also in the thoughts of Catholics early in the week, when her Immaculate Conception is honored. Meanwhile, Christians of Scandinavian descent celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. (If you know of a girl who loves American Girls, show this “Season” column to her—she might want to learn more about a holiday that’s important to “Kirsten”!) And around the globe this week, communities focus on human rights—while in America, the attack at Pearl Harbor is memorialized. Read all about these holidays and events below …
MONDAY, it’s the anniversary of the Japanese raid on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Many Americans mark this day as pivotal in U.S. history, because it helped to bring the nation full-force into the throes of WWII. (The U.S. Navy offers numerous photos and detailed descriptions of this day.) When Japan sent a massive force of aircraft carriers across the Pacific Ocean—one with more aerial striking power than had been seen on any ocean before—it hit Pearl Harbor just prior to 8 a.m. The American naval base lost more than 2,400 human lives, 180 aircraft and many ocean-going vessels. (Check out this Library of Congress site for a thorough overview of the Pearl Harbor attacks and a photo of the Naval Dispatch.)
Eighteen months prior to the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the U.S. Fleet to Pearl Harbor in efforts to halt the Japanese desire to expand in the Pacific region. As Japan had been at war with China since 1937, it was desperately in need of oil; when the Western powers stopped trading with Japan in July of 1941, Japan grew even more desperate. The world expected a Japanese attack on the oil-rich countries of Southeast Asia or the East Indies, but no one expected the attack on Pearl Harbor. To this day, historians debate the finer points of Japanese-American relations that led to the attack—and exactly what details individuals might have known prior to Dec. 7. But in 1941, Americans united in unprecedented fury, prepared to enter the worldwide war.
TUESDAY, many Buddhists recognize the day Siddhartha Guatama—or the Buddha, as he was to become known around the world—attained enlightenment. As the Sanskrit word for “enlightenment” is “bodhi,” this day is known as Bodhi Day (or Rohatsu). Buddhists believe that Siddhartha underwent many years of internal conflict in his search to find a meaning to life. When his inquiring mind was unsatisfied by the answers he received from others, Siddhartha meditated until he found his answer and his enlightenment. (The Buddhist Channel describes how Zen Buddhists bring some of their traditions to America.)
According to Buddhist tradition, it was more than 2,500 years ago when Prince Siddhartha sat beneath a Bo tree and said, “Even though the flesh falls from my bones and the bone themselves crack, I will not get up from this seat until I have achieved supreme and perfect enlightenment!” Today, monastic Buddhists of the Zen tradition often have a 10-day retreat, or sesshin, in honor of Rohatsu. (For a kid-friendly approach, try this site for lesson plan ideas from the UK.) During this retreat, monks will meditate 10-12 hours per day and, on the last day, many will stay up through the night as Siddhartha did when he achieved enlightenment.
While all of the meditations and religious doctrines in the world at the time had not satisfied Siddhartha, a deep meditation that allowed all of his worldly obstacles to fall away led him to enlightenment. (This site takes an unusual look at Siddhartha’s life, as though he lived in modern day.) The Buddha contemplated his former thoughts, works and experiences, the experiences of lifetimes past, birth and death and the indivisibility of all living things. (Wikipedia gives a comprehensive overview.)
Bodhi Day doesn’t have carols or candles as part of its tradition, but its teachings can be incorporated into a celebration of another winter holiday! As suggested by FamilyDharma, stringing multicolored lights around the home can represent the many paths to enlightenment; candles can be lit to represent enlightenment; a small, potted Bo tree can be decorated, in honor of the Bo tree that Buddha attained enlightenment beneath; and Bo tree leaf cookies can be made, as Bo leaves are heart-shaped. What other winter traditions can you think of that can be incorporated into Bodhi Day or Rohatsu? Email about your experiences and ideas.
Also on TUESDAY, Roman Catholics honor the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Not to be confused with the conception of Jesus, this day recalls the Catholic teaching that Mary, the mother of God, was also born free of all sin. According to tradition, Mary was conceived by her parents, Joachim and Anne, but she was conceived “without stain.” It is believed that Mary was born without Original Sin. (More info can be found on the Catholic Network.)
In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared in a statement that “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God … was preserved free from all stain of Original Sin.” Catholics hold to this belief because of two biblical references: In one, the archangel Gabriel greets Mary with, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you;” and in the second, parallels were drawn between Eve and Mary in Genesis. (Read more on Wikipedia.)
Muslims, too, believe that Mary was born pure from sin, although Muslims don’t recognize this feast day. Mary is referred to by a multitude of names in the Quran (including “Tahirah,” or “She who was purified,” and “Mustafia,” or “She who was chosen”).
THURSDAY, focus on breaking down barriers of discrimination during Human Rights Day 2009. Human Rights Day is a holiday of the United Nations, celebrated annually on December 10; the date was chosen because it was on this day that the UN adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
At the UN headquarters in New York City, Human Rights Day often contains major political conferences and meetings—as well as cultural exhibitions—that focus on human rights issues. (Wikipedia has more information.) The United Nations also awards the UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights and the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10. (At right, a boy gazes at paper lanterns, set up for Human Rights Day in Vancouver.)
This year, officials say they hope that all global citizens will embrace diversity to work toward discrimination-free societies. Students from across the world are getting involved by taking part in the first World Human Rights Moot Competition, during which participants will argue a mock human rights case before a fictitious court of high-level judges in South Africa. Universities are asked to partake in their own Moot Competition, and people everywhere are asked to raise awareness about diversity.
FRIDAY at sundown, the Festival of Lights begins as Jewish families light the first candle for Hanukkah. The commercialism of December’s Christmas may overshadow Hanukkah in American culture, but Hanukkah predates Christmas. (Here’s a take from the BBC.) During this eight-day festival, Jews commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem during the 2nd century BCE and the miraculous oil that burned for eight days. (Judaism 101 offers an in-depth look at this holiday and its traditions.)
Hanukkah begins on the 25th night of the Jewish month of Kislev. Each night during Hanukkah, devotees light a candle on the nine-branched Menorah. The ninth branch—which usually sits in the middle of the Menorah and is higher or lower than the other branches—is typically set with a lit candle so that the other candles can receive a flame from it. This extra branch is known as the shamash, or “servant.” (PBS Kids has a colorful, simple scrapbook of Hanukkah traditions that even young children can enjoy.)
Historically, these events unfolded when Judea was ruled by a Syrian king, Antiochus. Jews grew fearful of losing their religion and culture to the overwhelming influence of Greek culture. When a statue of Antiochus was placed in the Jewish temple, the faithful knew that—according to the 10 Commandments—they couldn’t worship idols. A small group of Jews known as the Maccabees refused to worship Antiochus’ statue, and they eventually defeated one of the most powerful armies of the ancient world (the Syrian Greeks). (Visit Chabad.org for a lesson on the Miracle of the Maccabees in audio.)
Although their temple was destroyed, the Jews cleaned and fixed it until it was like new. According to traditional accounts: Once restoration was complete, the Jews rededicated the temple to God by lighting the Temple’s central flame. Only one small jar of sanctified oil was located, yet the Temple lamp miraculously stayed lit for eight days.
Today, some children receive gifts and money during Hanukkah, and many families play games with dreidels. (Here’s a quick summary of a common dreidel game: Give each player 10-20 treats, like golden-wrapped chocolate coins. Before each round, everyone puts one treat into a pot. Each person takes a turn spinning the dreidel, and the Hebrew letter that falls on top of the spun dreidel determines each player’s score.) The four Hebrew letters that decorate a dreidel are an acronym for “a great miracle happened there.”
When gifts and games are through, families feast upon fried food to commemorate the miraculous oil, such as fried potato pancakes (called latkes, pictured above at left) or doughnuts. (Cook up something tasty with the help of Chabad.org.)
Just as Christmas is not the most important Christian holiday, Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, either; according to tradition, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavu’ot are all more significant than Hanukkah. The reason for this is that Hanukkah is included in the book of Maccabees, and is not among the central observances decreed in the Hebrew Bible.
So, you think you know everything about Hanukkah now? Take this quiz from the BBC to find out!
SATURDAY, Catholics look to Mexico for the annual Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. According to tradition, an image of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared on the front of a peasant’s cloak in the 16th century. This image can be viewed today at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City (here is the site for the shrine), and it is the focus of one of the most popular Catholic pilgrimages in the world (between 18 and 20 million visitors make the journey each year).
After the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City, in 1531, she became known as the “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas.” (Here is Wikipedia’s take on Our Lady of Guadalupe.) Beyond the Catholic tradition, the nation of Mexico has come to embrace the Virgin Mary as a primary symbol of national culture.
In 1521, the capital city of the Aztec empire in Mexico came under Spanish rule. In less than two decades, the territory’s 9 million inhabitants converted from the polytheistic religion of their ancestors to Christianity; many Mexican Catholics attribute this conversion to the Marian apparition made to Saint Juan Diego.
Believers hold that in 1531, the Virgin Mary asked St. Juan to build a church on the site where he stood. At the time, St. Juan had been standing at the sacred site of the ancient Aztec mother goddess, Tonanzin. The Virgin Mary assured that she was the mother of the Christian God and also linked to the native deities!
According to tradition, a local bishop asked for a further sign before acting on the church-building—and Mary sent St. Juan to the top of a hill to gather roses. The bishop complied, and Mary left another sign—an image of herself on St. Juan’s cloak. (Find out more at Sancta.org.) The cloak, made of poor-quality cloth, should have deteriorated within 20 years. Today, 478 years later, this cloak shows no signs of decay. It is also said that the image reflects in her eyes what was in front of her in 1531.
A total of 25 popes have officially honored Our Lady of Guadalupe, including Pope John Paul II. John Paul II visited this sanctuary four times, the latest in 2002. As many miracles, cures and interventions have been attributed to the Virgin Mary, so Pope John Paul II gave the lives of innocent children over to her protection during one of his visits.
It is also on this site that Pope John Paul II proclaimed his vision for the church in the third millennium of Christianity. Many believe that Mary’s request and miraculous sighting at Guadalupe led to a new world for the church, just as European settlers were coming to the “New World” of the Americas in 1521 (AmericanCatholic.org has a great feature on this). Promoters of this message have great hope that this New World for the church will be one of peace, compassion and love.
SUNDAY, Christians of Scandinavian descent are most likely to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. Fans of the American Girls will probably associate a St. Lucy’s observance with Kirsten Larson, the Swedish immigrant who settles in the Minnesota Territory with her extended family in 1854. In Kirsten’s third book, “Kirsten’s Surprise,” she dons the white robe and evergreen crown of candles most associated with St. Lucy’s devotional events.
The Feast of St. Lucy is most commonly honored by Christians in parts of the U.S. with Scandinavian ancestry, Scandinavia and some areas of southern Europe (including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Iceland and Croatia). St. Lucy’s Day is one of the few “saint days” observed in Scandinavia, and observing households often feature a young girl wearing a wreath of candles, sometimes followed by others holding a single candle. (Wikipedia has a general description of St. Lucy’s Day.)
Historically, St. Lucy was a Christian martyr in the early fourth century. Although little is known about the life of St. Lucy, many admire her bravery because Christians commonly underwent significant torture under Diocletian’s persecutions. The root of St. Lucy’s name comes from the Latin word for “light.”
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