Orthodox Christian, Rastafarian: Welcome the Nativity

Traditional sports are common on Christmas Day in EthiopiaFRIDAY, JANUARY 7: The majority of Christian churches ended the Christmas season with Epiphany yesterday—but some Churches are celebrating the Nativity of Christ today. Orthodox Christians who follow the older Julian calendar will be exchanging Christmas greetings today, and Rastafarians worldwide will be joyfully shouting “Melkam Yelidet Beaal!” or “Merry Christmas!” in traditional Ethiopian tongue. Nativity fasting comes to an end today for Russian Orthodox Christians overseas, and for those and Serbian Orthodox Christians, Christmas means a table with white cloth; straw strewn on the dinner table to symbolize Christ’s bed; and candles lit to represent Jesus as the light of the world. (Wikipedia has details.) Today is a day of peace and unity.

Perhaps the only place where a Nativity scene can be set up with Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wise men, collectively, is in some Armenian Apostolic churches; today combines both the Nativity and the Feast of the Epiphany into one. Coptic Christians across Africa sing carols today, and because Ethiopia is considered the spiritual homeland of Rastas, the followers of Haile Selassie I celebrate Christmas today, too. (Find more Julian dates on a site for the Coptic Christian Church.)

The hundreds of millions of Christians in Africa observe Christmas rather differently than Christians on other continents do. Due to the poverty in Africa, few gifts are exchanged at Christmas; rather, many use extra money on a new outfit to wear to Christmas liturgies. African children often play carols in a community using homemade instruments, and feasts including various meats are hosted. (Rastafarians eat vegetarian feasts in compliance with Rasta food laws.) As Africa is hot, many families go to the beach, barbecue and enjoy time outside on Christmas! Some worshippers will celebrate the Nativity in ancient buildings carved from volcanic rock.

Christian: Wise men seek Him; it’s the Epiphany!

THURSDAY, JANUARY 6: It’s the visitation of the Magi that most Christians recognize today, but the feast of Epiphany runs much, much deeper than that: Today, officially, is the high point that Christians have been waiting for throughout Advent and the Christmas season. (Read more at the Global Catholic Network.)

This may not be stressed in many modern churchs, for example, but Christian tradition holds that the visit of the Magi represents the first non-Jewish worship of Jesus, revealing Jesus’ larger religious mission. The very word “Epiphany” translates from a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”—and referring, of course, to the infant Jesus Christ. (CatholicCulture has one perspective.)

For centuries, Christians clustered a lot around Epiphany: the crescendo of the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the Magi, all of Jesus’ childhood and even the miracle of the wedding at Cana. (More is at the Orthodox Research Institute.) Eastern Christians call this feast “Theophany,” and place utmost importance on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River as his time of manifestation to the world. (Note that some Orthodox churches still follow the Julian calendar, and mark Epiphany on Jan. 19, while others recognize it today. Wikipedia has details.)

Customs abound on this important Christian holiday! In Russia and other primarily Orthodox Christian countries, priests place a cross in a body of water and perform the “Great Blessings of Waters,” and where Church waters are blessed, parishioners usually take the water home to bless their residences. In Western Christian regions, “king cakes” are often baked and eaten, and some devotees exchange gifts in representation of the Magi. (These remembrances haven’t disappeared from the Western church, of course, but they have evolved over the centuries—some American Protestant churches will remember baptism on Sunday, January 9, for example.)

In parts of Europe, children walk door-to-door and sing songs to receive a coin or sweet at each home; in some areas, a puff pastry is baked with a bean inside, and the recipient of the bean is king or queen for the day (similarly to older Twelfth Night traditions). Puerto Rican children often place a box with hay beneath their beds, for the Magi’s camels, similarly to American children’s milk and cookies for Santa; and in Mexico, children often leave a letter near a pair of shoes for the Three Kings, hoping for new toys and treats. Americans love to have fun and a few events in the U.S. have become downright silly: In Colorado, there is a Great Fruitcake Toss on Epiphany! In Louisiana, the Carnival season begins and counts down to Mardi Gras.

So how much do you really know about the Magi? As with many popular holidays, the customary stories and pictures don’t portray the complexity of the ancient accounts. For example, most people assume there were three wise men or kings—but how about a dozen of them, or even more? ReadTheSpirit published an interview with Brent Landau, a Bible scholar who has just released a new book indicating that early Christians may have envisioned a whole crowd of Magi coming to see the baby.

Looking for a low-key, fun way to celebrate Epiphany with your family? (Women for Faith and Family has a variety of neat ideas.) Try cooking spicy foods to symbolize the Magi from the East, and create a fun cake shaped like a crown and decorate it with candy “jewels.” (Crayola’s site has coloring and craft ideas.) Or take one of the customs listed above, from another country, and make it your own!


Memorial: Armenians Solemly Recall Genocide

SATURDAY, APRIL 24: Armenians around the world solemnly observe Genocide Remembrance Day to commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923). In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, hundreds of thousands of people walk to the Genocide Memorial to place flowers near the eternal flame and remember more than 1.5 million victims. (For more, check out the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s fact sheet on the Armenian Genocide.)

Despite centuries of peace in the Ottoman Empire, conflict arose as nationalism spread, fueling a desire for Armenian independence. Turks had other ideas and wanted to rid the Ottoman Empire of Armenians altogether so that they could establish a Pan-Turkic empire. Massacres were ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II and more killings continued to occur. (Wikipedia has a lengthy history.) WWI provided the ideal opportunity for Turks to quietly carry out their Pan-Turkic plans; the plans began on April 24, 1915, when almost 300 Armenian leaders were summoned and then killed. (For the latest news and more, visit the site of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute.)

Last year, the State of Hawaii officially declared that its residents should observe the Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide. According to the State of Hawaii, which has a sizeable Armenian-American population, this series of tragic events represented the first instance of genocide in the 20th century. However, this genocide is still unrecognized by the Republic of Turkey, which blames the mass killings on an internal civil war.

Many historians credit the Armenian Genocide as a crucial event paving the way for the Holocaust in the mid-20th century. Since worldwide response to the Armenian tragedy was so muted, Nazi leaders regarded it as evidence that they could get away with their Final Solution. For more on the Holocaust, see ReadTheSpirit’s “Holocaust Educational Resources” page.

(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)

(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)