New Year: Mahayana Buddhists mark a fresh start with meditation and cleansing

Buddhist New Year Mahayana

A line of Buddhist statues. Photo by kmarius, courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, JANUARY 28: A Gregorian New Year was observed by most of the world just a few weeks ago, but for Mahayana Buddhists, the New Year comes today: on the first full moon day of January. Though customs and moon sightings vary by region, devotees in Mahayana countries—such as Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, China, Japan, Nepal, Vietnam and Indonesia—mark the New Year as a time of both meditation and gatherings.

Did you know? The Mahayana tradition began in India and claims a majority of Buddhist practitioners—the largest tradition within Buddhism today. Traditions within Mahayana include Zen, Chinese Chan, Pure Land, Tiantai, Nichiren and Vajrayana.

Though Buddhism stresses the importance of frequent and even daily self-reflection, the New Year stands apart as celebrated with visits among family and friends (though many may be virtual this year) and the release of old karma. In many regions, statues of Buddha are bathed in a sacred ceremony. Having cleaned their homes in preparation for the New Year, many homes host a feast of traditional foods and the exchange of well wishes.

Buddha statues, half view

Photo by Martin Vorel, courtesy of LibreShot

A quieter, more solemn custom involves the printing of past sins onto slips of paper, then casting them into a fire in attempts to free oneself from the negative consequences of bad karma and to garner a fresh start.

BUDDHISM TODAY: STATS AND FACTS

  • Buddhists make up approximately 1 percent of the adult population in the United States, and about two-thirds of U.S. Buddhists are Asian Americans, according to Pew Research Center estimates and an article released in 2019.
  • Mahayana Buddhism is commonly practiced in Northeast Asia, and it is common for local customs to blend with religious customs. In the United States, Mahayana Buddhism is more prevalent among immigrants from countries where Buddhism is practiced than in the general population.
  • Mahayana Buddhists believe that adherents to Buddhism—not just monks—are capable of achieving enlightenment. A goal of Mahayana Buddhism is to serve others and to assist others in reaching enlightenment, too.

Tu B’Shvat: Plant a sapling, green the earth for the Jewish New Year for Trees

“In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature—meadows full of flowers, majestic mountains, flowing rivers. For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest of people.”

-Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, cited by Rabbi David E. Stein in “A Garden of Choice Fruits,” Shomrei Adamah, 1991

Tu B'Shvat New Year trees

Trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27: Winter is still in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, but today in Israel, a vital component of nature is honored: It is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees. Known also as Jewish Arbor Day, it’s customary (in places where the ground isn’t frozen) for Jews to plant a tree today—and this tradition has done wonders for the Holy Land (keep reading to find out why). The purpose of Tu B’Shvat is to calculate the age of a tree for tithing and for eating.

Many observant Jews have long followed a passage from Leviticus that forbids the eating of a tree’s fruit for the first three years of its life, and so by following this easy-to-remember holiday, Jews can keep the biblical instructions. (Read more, plus lots of related articles, at Chabad.org.)

What do Jews do on this day dedicated to trees and fruit? Plant trees, and then eat plenty of fruit, of course! Customarily, devotees either eat a new fruit today or eat one of the Seven Species abundant in the land of Israel. Since the Seven Species consists primarily of grains and sweet fruits, today’s meal is usually a sweet one. For Jews who can’t plant trees today, the tradition of collecting money to plant trees in Israel is popular.

ISRAEL: A LAND ABUNDANT IN TREES

In modern-day Israel, Tu B’Shvat is celebrated as an ecological awareness day. Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora often promote environmental-awareness programs on this day, and trees are planted in celebration.

In the global green movement, Tu B’shvat has been attracting major media attention as Jews around the world remember, today, that “man is a tree of the field”—and non-Jews can take part in Tu B’shvat by reflecting on our connection with nature. (Green Prophet has an environmental perspective on Tu B’shvat.) A dedicated tradition of tree-planting can make a major difference. Israel was one of the few countries in the world to have more trees on its land at the end of the last century than it had at the beginning.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Serve from home, honor the nonviolent civil rights leader

“Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

MLK Jr. before crowd

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JANUARY 18—Serve in your community—even if virtually, or by delivering something on the doorstep of a neighbor in need—and learn more about civil rights, as the nation collectively remembers the legendary life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. An American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday in January annually brings the celebration of a pivotal figure in American history who, during his lifetime, worked ceaselessly for the civil rights movement and nonviolent activism.

Click the image to access viewing options for the film

An inspiring resource: Daniel Buttry’s Interfaith Peacemakers project has published this inspiring story about Dr. King’s life. Readers are welcome to republish and share Buttry’s story about King with friends.

Looking for ways to serve from home? Check out this list of 10 at-home service projects that both children and adults can participate in, courtesy of Southeast Michigan’s Metro Parent Magazine.

Additional resources: The main federal website to get involved in MLK Day-related service is the National Service website; this year, the site also features a video on service during the time of COVID-19. Plus, there’s a helpful link to free lesson plans for kids, courtesy of Scholastic. For those looking to get creative with their service, CNN has an article on simple, at-home projects—such as crocheting, making homemade cards and putting together care packages—for MLK Day.

“MLK/FBI”: A 2021 film: MLK/FBI, a recently-released film by Emmy Award-winning director Sam Pollard, shows just how difficult it was for this nonviolent leader to speak his message, with a stark difference between our popular memory of the civil rights movement and its complex history. According to an article from the Smithsonian, the film is based on newly discovered and declassified files, and ” … tells the story of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of King, and explores the contested meaning behind some of our most cherished ideals.”

Additionally, the Smithsonian’s History Film Forum is hosting a related virtual event—a conversation with Pollard, along with Larry Rubin, a former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—today, on January 18.

MLK DAY: A HISTORY

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929. He became a Baptist pastor and helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, serving as its first president. In 1963, King helped to organize the March on Washington and, there, delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.

When a bill was introduced for a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King, some representatives argued that an additional paid holiday would be too expensive and that Dr. King, having never held public office, was ineligible. Supporters of the bill began rallying the public, and when Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday” in 1980 to raise awareness of the campaign, 6 million signatures were collected. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill that established a federal holiday on November 2, 1983. The holiday was first observed in 1986, and today, Americans are urged to honor the “King Day of Service” by spending the day doing something Dr. King viewed as unparalleled: serving others.

COOK THIS: A FAVORED FOOD OF DR. KING

Feed the Spirit: Journalist, author and activist Desiree Cooper writes this FeedTheSpirit column about one of Dr. King’s favorite foods—sweet potato pie—and includes a delicious recipe.

World Religion Day: Baha’is celebrate 70 years of recognizing religious similarities

“O Thou kind Lord! Unite all. Let the religions agree and make the nations one, so that they may see each other as one family and the whole earth as one home.”
Portion of a Baha’i prayer, frequently read on World Religion Day

Multiple religions checked against world graphic

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET SATURDAY, JANUARY 16: Take a few moments to consider unity through diversity, joining Baha’is on this, the 70th observation of World Religion Day.

Initiated in 1950, World Religion Day follows an essential tenet of the Baha’i religion: the belief that all religions are one, with each prophet or messenger delivering God’s truth for his time and place. Though deeply engrained in the faith, the call to “consort with followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship” is particularly emphasized on World Religion Day. When a feeling of oneness amid world religions is lacking, Baha’is believe, true global peace can never be achieved.

Established by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States for the third Sunday of January, World Religion Day brings interfaith panels and discussions, conferences and multi-faith gatherings to Baha’i communities—many of which will be held virtually, this year. While followers of Baha’u’llah’s religion recognize Baha’u’llah in a primary way—as one who brought a message of unity that is essential for our time—adherents also accept such religious figures as Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. World Religion Day was created to raise awareness of similarities between the spiritual principles of various faiths.

A United Nations week devoted to interfaith: The first week of February, the United Nations will observe Interfaith Harmony Week. This week is devoted to encouraging dialogue among faiths and recognition of similarities.

Twelfth Night, Epiphany & Theophany: Closing Christmas, celebrating the Magi

“We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain; following yonder star.”
-“We Three Kings,” written by John Henry Hopkins Jr., 1857
Twelfth Night procession and festivities

Twelfth Night festivities near London, England. Photo copyright Stephen Craven, courtesy of Geograph.org and licensed for reuse

TUESDAY, JANUARY 5 and WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6: Mayhem and jolliness rule on Twelfth Night, the final event of the 12 days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany. On the following day, January 6, Epiphany is celebrated in in Western Christianity, thus officially ending the Christmas season in the church; this feast is known as Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. Also, many Christians in the U.S. marked Epiphany on Sunday January 3 this year. In fact, the official U.S. Roman Catholic calendar considers all of this week to be an extension of “Christmas week,” so the first week of the next Christian season (Ordinary Time) does not begin until January 11, 2021. 

TWELFTH NIGHT: TRADITIONS AND (VIRTUAL) JOVIALITY

Three kings, magi, night

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In the Christian church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, and the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

NEWS 2021: As with many holidays this year, virtual celebrations are taking the place of many in-person festivities for Twelfth Night 2021. From New York, reenactors present Salutations of the Season, an online event (read more here); similarly, an annual Twelfth Night event in Pennsylvania will be moving online this year. From the Cathedral of the Incarnation, the Cathedral Choirs will perform on January 3, with their annual program, “Twelfth Night and the Procession of Three Kings” (get the Zoom link on the cathedral’s website).

Did you know? In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night.

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY: REVELATION

ON EPIPHANY, Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian church anticipated the coming of Jesus—and, of course, Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses—but Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi. With the arrival of representatives of other nations came the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

ON THEOPHANY, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, although Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

CUSTOMS AND VISITING MAGI

Epiphany Kings Day cake

A traditional galette de rois (cake of the kings). Photo courtesy of PxHere

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, and in most years, festivities include parades, parties, cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, Epiphany (called Theophany) commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River; because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God.

RECIPES & MORE

Whether baking a Spanish roscon de reyes (kings’ ring) or French galette de rois (cake of the kings), have some Twelfth Night fun!

Sip lamb’s wool (a type of wassail) and bite into a king cake, two customary dishes served on Twelfth Night. Check out recipes at Fish Eaters.

An English Twelfth Night cake recipe is courtesy of the New York Times.

Twelfth Night turkey with wild rice stuffing and ale reduction is a recipe provided by Food Network.

In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of Carnival season, which lasts through Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

Kwanzaa: Honor seven principles, unity, values on Festival of the First Fruits

Kwanzaa kinara, gifts, graphic image

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 26: Gather in the name of unity and learn the seven principles—today begins the seven-day commemoration of Kwanzaa.

Each year, Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga publishes an annual message. Now in his late 70s, these messages are heart-felt appeals to rediscovering and reclaiming African values that can contribute to the wellbeing of the whole world.

In his 2019 message, he stressed practicing good throughout the year, and the concept of living the Kwanzaa principles in all seasons. Karenga wrote, in part:

Kwanzaa’s origins are both ancient and modern and both sources serve to urge us to constantly strive and struggle to be ourselves and free ourselves, to live good lives and to bring forth the best of what it means to be African and human as both a personal and social practice. Kwanzaa’s rootedness in ancient African first fruit or first harvest celebrations offers a framework of activities that are not simply seasonal, but are all-season practices of building family and community, preserving and expanding culture, and doing good in and for the world. For it is a people-focused, environmentally caring and morally concerned holiday dedicated to cultivating, harvesting and sharing good in the world.

His 2020 message will appear just before Kwanzaa begins in the festival’s official website.

ORIGINS OF THE FESTIVAL

Created by Karenga in the mid-1960s as the first completely African-American holiday, Kwanzaa celebrations honor African heritage and culture. Though originally associated with the black nationalist movement, as Karenga today points out that Kwanzaa emphasizes connecting Africans of the Diaspora with their native roots and highlighting the universal themes in those ancient cultures that can build a healthier global community.

Specifically, Kwanzaa’s “seven principles” call to mind what Karenga refers to as a “communitarian African philosophy.”

KWANZAA’S SEVEN PRINCIPLES

Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a principle, resulting in a total of seven Kwanzaa principles. The principles, though they may vary slightly in spellings, consist of: Umoja (unity); Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kumbaa (creativity); and Imani (faith).

Kwanzaa urges participants to maintain unity in family and race, to define themselves, to build community and profit together, and to always do what is possible at the moment. Symbols and decorations aid in the unity of Kwanzaa observances, such as a decorative mat (mkeka), corn, a seven-candle holder (kinara) and a communal or unity cup. Often, an African feast—known as Karamu—is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, and gifts (zawadi) are exchanged on the seventh day.

CUSTOMS, RECIPES & MORE

Teachers and parents: You’ll find a couple of kid-oriented resources from Scholastic.com. First, there’s a lesson plan on discussing Kwanzaa’s principles and, then, there’s a second plan that also features a mancala game.

In its nearly half-a-century of observance, Kwanzaa has spread in popularity throughout the United States and into Canada.

Hungry for a taste of Kwanzaa? Find recipes for traditional dishes, from sweet potatoes and collard greens to black-eyed peas, at Food Network and GenuisKitchen.com.

Christmas: Drive-in church services, virtual gatherings celebrate Nativity in a unique year

“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”

-“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” 1944

Candle gift tree Christmas

Photo courtesy of StockSnap

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25: Christmas 2020 will look different for billions across the globe, as many are separated from family, friends and traditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, we heartily say, in spite of the hardships and challenges: Merry Christmas!

In 1944, Judy Garland was the first to sing the famous ballad “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the cinematic screen, in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Perhaps in no year since that time—until this year—have the lyrics been so appropriate, again. Though many will be unable to visit family and friends for Christmas this year, virtual gatherings will be conducted in the hopes that, next year, “we all will be together.” (USA Today has a column on this subject.)

2020 NEWS: Since traveling to see family members is incredibly risky this year, experts say—only one state in the continental U.S. remains out of the “high risk” category for Covid-19 (and, Forbes lists the 10 highest-risk states)—many will be gathering virtually for Christmas and finding unique ways to share experiences. News articles worldwide are reporting on plans to drop off favorite dishes, gifts—even complete recipe ingredients—on the doorsteps of family members and friends. In this article from The Guardian, one family hopes to still enjoy Christmas dinner together, but in the outdoor garden (despite the weather); another woman plans to virtually play board games with faraway family members on Christmas Day.

To accommodate churchgoers on Christmas Day, many houses of worship are offering virtual, drive-in or outdoor Masses. In addition, Pope Francis has, by decree, issued permission for priests to say four Masses on Christmas Day in 2020.

CHRISTMAS: A MAJOR HOLIDAY FOR 2 BILLION CHRISTIANS

It’s Christmas Day for the majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians, as the birth of Jesus is celebrated in great rejoicing. While the birth year of Jesus is only speculated, December 25 is embraced by a multitude of Christians worldwide as the day Mary and Joseph welcomed their newborn son in a manger. With the celebration of Jesus’s birth, the season of Advent closes for Western Christians; the Nativity Fast ends for Eastern Christians; and the 12 days of Christmastide begin. In many countries, Christmas Day is a public holiday.

Note: Some Eastern Christians mark Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which pushes many Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian churches to a January 7 celebration of Nativity (Christmas).

Many Christians believe the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfills an ancient Messianic prophesy. Two canonical gospels record Jesus as having been born to Mary and her husband, Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Tradition tells that the birth took place in a stable, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Nearby shepherds, told of the birth by angels, came to see the baby; magi came later, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. The Star of Bethlehem is believed to have led the magi to Jesus, and the visit of the magi is celebrated as Epiphany, on January 6.

Nativity scene Christmas

Photo courtesy of SnappyGoat.com

THE NATIVITY: A HISTORY

From the formative years of the church’s celebrations to the Nativity noted today, a multitude of customs have become associated with Christmas: displaying manger scenes, caroling, sending greetings and hanging stockings by a fireplace, to name just a few. Christian saints have been responsible for creating some of the customs—namely, St. Francis of Assisi for the nativity scene, and St. Nicholas for stockings and candy canes—while others are secular or even pre-Christian.

The Chronography of 354 AD is the oldest surviving reference to a Roman celebration for the birth of Jesus on December 25; in the East, the birth of Jesus was already observed with the Epiphany, on January 6. In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was outshone by Epiphany, though by the later medieval period, Christmas-related holidays were starting to become more popular.

Christmas encountered turbulence through the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens were creating the “heartfelt goodwill” that morphed Christmas into a more secular holiday based on goodwill, family and jollity. For billions around the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

EASTERN CUSTOMS: RUSSIA TO BETHLEHEM

Approximately half of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas with Western Christians on December 25. That list includes the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Albania, Cyprus and Finland—as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

For a variety of traditional reasons, Orthodox churches in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia hold their Nativity (Christmas) observance in January. This variance primarily involves the older Julian calendar, which pushes Christmas to January 7, but further wrinkles in the tradition affect some Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. The very last Eastern Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated by the Armenians living in Jerusalem, who travel to Bethlehem for an hours-long, centuries-old liturgy in the Church of the Nativity that takes place as late as January 18 or 19.

FOOD & RECIPES

In search of Christmas recipes? Look no further!

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Food Network, find an array of professional recipes.

From AllRecipes, gather favored suggestions for dinner, breakfast and dessert.

From Food & Wine, cook up something fancy or unique.