I loved it and thought I'd share it...
Dear Family and Friends -
I have been pondering miracles, during this time of winter holidays. So much of what is currently happening in the world is - as a friend recently said to me at breakfast - “a mess.” Therefore many of us are wishing for miracles of some kind or another. For an end to war and violence. For better governments and world leaders. For attention to be paid to our planet and environment. For a return to hope, decency and kindness. For people to honor and cherish other individuals, instead of focusing so much on power and money. As Pope Francis, the Holy See of the Catholic Church, stated: “The future does have a name, and its name is Hope. Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn't lock itself into darkness, that doesn't dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow."
Of all these great miracles we hope for, and the miracles we see around us every day, a new birth is perhaps the greatest of them all. The birth of a child. The birth of an idea. The birth of a movement. The birth of a new beginning. The birth of the sun (or the Son, if you’re of a Christian persuasion.)
It only recently occurred to me that most of the major religious winter holidays revolve around births. For those who are Muslim, the main winter holiday is the birth of Muhammad, often celebrated in December or late November. This holiday is called Mawlid al-Nabi al-Sharif, or “The Birth of the Prophet.” The origin of this holiday observance reportedly dates back to the time of the early four Rashidun Caliphs of Islam. Ottomans declared it an official holiday in the year 1588. For those who love a little etymology, the Arabic word “Nabi” sounds very close to English word nativity, having to do with birth. It’s close to the French word nee, meaning “born.” The term Mawlid is also used in some parts of the world as a generic term for birthday celebrations of other religious figures, such as sufi saints. Mawlid is recognized as a national holiday in most Muslim-majority countries of the world, except Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Mawlid is celebrated as a festive occasion. Entire cities are decorated. Along with parades, there are tents in which treats and candy are distributed to children. At these festivities, there is a long tradition of powerful devotional songs performed. These musical narratives portray the prophet Muhammad not simply as the deliverer of the last divine dispensation (the Qur’an, or Koran) but as a being of cosmic significance, an opening of a channel of divine mercy onto this world, and a means of intercession for sinners. This vision of Muhammad is much more than simply a child; he is the cure for pain, one who is not separated from God, and a saintly being (a “friend of God”), whom all will call upon to deliver them from sin in the days of the Hereafter.
In Christian religions, the miracle of Christmas is celebrated as the main winter holiday. (Like you didn’t know that, right?) Christmas is on December 25th, but is celebrated two weeks later by some Orthodox Christian religions. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ the Savior, and hence “A Mass for Christ” is held that day to celebrate His coming. Christ Mas. Mas is an old English way of spelling the word Mass. As in Sunday Mass.
Here are some little know facts about Christmas which I find interesting. Have you ever thought about the fact it takes place exactly nine months after Easter? This apparently means something very important to many theologians. (The Circle of Life” and all that.) Most people are aware that December 25th wasn’t really the day when the baby Jesus was born; it was more likely closer to sometime in the summer. When Christianity began to spread during the time the Romans ruled the world, the date was probably changed so as to be closer to the Winter Solstice, which many pagans societies celebrated. Sort of like our Veteran’s Day being November 11th but we always celebrate it on a Monday or a Friday so we can have a three-day holiday weekend.
Christmas, before Victorian times, was actually a quite raucous holiday. It wasn’t for children, and mainly involved drinking a great and threatening your neighbors with bodily harm if they didn’t share their booze and treats with you. Hence the lyrics “bring us some figgy pudding” and “we won’t go until we get some!” Victorians turned Christmas into a sentimental giftfest for kids. They also gave us Christmas trees, brought from Germany by Queen Victoria’s Teutonic husband Prince Albert. Clement Moore (“A Visit From Saint Nick”) and Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”) helped make Christmas more of a family gathering celebration. A 19th century newspaper ad introduced us to Santa Claus, who was then used to sell toys, games and books to children. Pretty soon after that, Santa Claus and the Baby Jesus got all mixed up together on people’s lawn ornaments for Christmas. God bless us every one.
For Jews, the winter holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. (We all knew that, right? Show of hands, please.) Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar. It may occur at any time from late November to late December. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication. How “birth” figures in here is that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had been captured by the Greeks many years before. Then it was recaptured by the very brave Maccabees. In other words, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem was reborn.
What happened next in the Hanukkah story is that when the Temple was rededicated, everyone freaked out because all of the containers of oil with which to light candles were spoiled… all except one. That one container of oil stayed lit in a menorah for eight days and nights. As we learned in last year’s letter, that’s why so many of the Hanukkah treats, like latkes and donuts, are fried. One research book I perused said that 17.5 million donuts are eaten each Hanukkah in Israel. The real reason behind those “Hanukkah candles staying lit for so long” is to show us that everything in the natural world is a miracle given to us by God, and that nothing happens without God willing it. P.S - I am alternately delighted and amused by the menorahs below. SHALOM!
And what of ye Pagans, Wiccans and Druids? What is this winter holiday you call Yule? Well, in ancient times, to celebrate the day when nights began to get shorter, bonfires were lit in the fields. Crops and trees were “wassailed” with toasts of spiced cider. Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove-spiked apples and oranges, which were put in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun. The boughs were symbolic of immortality (evergreens were sacred to the Celts because they did not “ die," thereby representing the eternal aspect of the Divine). The wheat stalks stood for the harvest, and the flour was the accomplishment of triumph, light, and life. Holly and ivy not only decorated the outside of the houses, but also the insides, in hopes that Nature Sprites would come and join the celebration. A sprig of holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to visit the residents. Mistletoe was also hung as decoration. It represented the seed of the Divine and… fertility! Midwinter, Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest it. Then there’s the Yule Log. Keeping away the ever-present darkness, the Log would burn brightly all night long. When the flames died, the Log was left to smolder in the hearth for twelve days, to bring good luck.
Although the Twelve Days of Christmas are technically about marking the time between Christmas and Epiphany (the arrival of Magi, or The Three Kings), I’m sort of guessing here that because of the Druids ancient tradition of leaving the Yule Log to smolder for twelve days, this is actually where we get the inspiration for the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song… and the title of Shakespeare’s play TWELFTH NIGHT. Thank you, Druids!
If this missive seems a little heavy on religion this year, it’s because in the midst of “the mess” we are struggling to get through, sometimes a strong belief in something can be helpful, whether it is a spinning dreidel, a Yule log, a tiny baby swaddled in a manger, or the prophet who helped create Islam.
One more thing about miracles. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that miracles do happen. Every day. Often when you least expect them.
The birth of every child, every idea, every great love, every moment of hope, is a miracle.
Whatever winter holiday you celebrate, turn on a light. Banish the darkness. Hold hope in your hands and in your heart. Do good. Be kind. Be gentle. Love your neighbor. Treat all people with dignity. Make peace with your enemy. Show mercy. Respect our planet.
Most importantly, in the immortal words of The Staple Singers, Respect Yourself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnJtgggdhdg
The Staple Singers perform "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" at the 1999 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, when they were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Eid. Good Yule.
All the best and much love,