Religious Celebrations

Members were treated to the sights and sounds of the celebrations of five different faiths. After the meeting, we feasted on traditional foods prepared by our Muslim sisters to break the Ramadan fast, which ended at 4:40 p.m.

Ramadan (Islam)—Beatrice Muhammad

Beatrice explained that Ramadan, which this year began on October 27 and continues through November 25, is a period of purification. The word Ramadan means “burning” or “purifying.” During this period, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. It is important, Beatrice noted, to understand that Muslims are not starving themselves. If they are ill or pregnant, or if fasting can harm them for any reason, they are not required to fast. Children are encouraged to practice fasting, but it is not required. Fasting allows Muslims to identify with the hungry, the homeless, and the persecuted. They are encouraged to give to the poor and to live simply without becoming angry or argumentative. Beatrice handed out a chart giving the times of sunrise and sunset each day of Ramadan this year, as well as the prayer times for each day. Muslims often break the fast with an iftar (meal) at the masjid (mosque), especially on the weekends, but many have an iftar in their homes. The entire Qur΄an is read during Ramadan, a different portion on each of the 30 days.

 Rohatsu (Buddhism)—Roko Sherry Chayat

Rohatsu, which commemorates the enlightenment of the historical Buddha and of us all, concludes on December 8 after lasting for eight days. During this time, Buddhists meditate together and keep silent, except for the chanting of sacred texts and for the teacher’s talk of the day. The periods of meditation last for 45 to 60 minutes, break for ten minutes of movement, and then resume. They run from 4:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. or later. The diet is very Spartan during Rohatsu; even at mealtimes, hand signals (rather than the voice) are used for communication.

During the meditation periods, Buddhists seek enlightenment, as Buddha did centuries ago. They seek the nature of reality, which is often distorted by the three poisons: anger, greed and delusion. People are often caught up in anxieties and anger, and when their vision is clear, they can “let it go.” They come to understand that “I and all beings together are perfect and complete… [They reach] a compassionate and enlightened awareness of all life and see no separation between Buddha and our own lives.”

Festival of Diwali (Hinduism)—Smita Rane

The Festival of Diwali is a five-day festival of lights that occurs sometime in October or November, based on the Hindu calendar. Smita displayed a beautiful oil lamp that she uses in her own celebration, and she showed us one of hundreds of small oil lamps that decorate shrines and are placed outside of houses. Diwali is a time when people visit the temple for prayers and the chanting of mantras. It is also a time that brings people from different parts of India together to share joy and happiness.

Smita said that Hindus make preparations for a month ahead of time, cleaning and decorating their house, buying new clothes, and cooking a variety of sweets.

Although each part of India has its own way of celebrating Diwali, it is customary everywhere to exchange sweets with one’s neighbors and friends and to set off firecrackers from evening until midnight.

•    On the day of Dhanteras, cows are offered special veneration, and the family gathers together to pray.

•    Lakshmi Pooja is a very important time, when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is worshipped by displaying cash, gold and sweets in front of the shrine.

•    Naraka Chaturdashi is a day when all family members get early-morning oil baths—body massages with hot oil and sandalwood paste followed by a hot-water bath—and when sweets are distributed to friends and neighbors.

•    Bestavarsh is the financial new year for business people, for the inauguration of new homes, and for the buying of property.

•    Bhai Dooj is the day when brothers take gifts to their sisters’ homes and sisters prepare delicious meals for their brothers.

Women wear traditional saris; and men, the traditional kurta pajamas. Each region of India has its own traditional sari. Two of Smita’s friends from other areas of India modeled their traditional saris and explained how Diwali celebrations differ in their parts of the country. Smita shared pictures and some examples of beautiful rangoli designs. Rangoli refers to an art form that is popular in India (a type of sandpainting, with the “sand” actually being natural-colored and tinted rice powder) as well as to the paintings that are created using this technique. During all five days of Diwali, rangoli are placed in front of doorways along with hundreds of small lamps.

Hanukkah (Judaism)—Joan Burstyn

Hanukkah, Joan told her audience, is not a major holiday in Judaism, but it has taken on added significance in predominantly Christian countries because of its proximity to Christmas. The festival lasts for eight days and begins this year on December 19 at sundown. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem (165 bce), three years after its desecration by soldiers on orders of Antiochus IV, king of Assyria. In the hundred years or more following the death of Alexander the Great, the Jews who lived in Judea had been allowed to keep their own festivals. Antiochus IV, however, wanted the Jews to become more Hellenistic and abandon their religion. Led by Judah the Maccabee, the Jews revolted and recaptured the Temple. When it came time to rededicate the Temple, according to the story, there was only enough oil to burn in the lamp for one day, yet it miraculously burned for eight days.

Jews celebrate this event by lighting candles in the menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum), beginning with one candle on the first night and progressing daily, one candle at a time, until eight candles are lit on the last night. (The ninth candle, the shamash, is set somewhat apart; it is lit every night and is used to light the other candles.) Joan said that when you are facing the menorah, the candles are lit from right to left, but the newest candle on the left is always lit first.

Hanukkah is a time to welcome friends. Each family might bring its own menorah. Blessings are said to thank God for the Hanukkah celebration, for looking after those who fought to save the Temple, and to praise God for enabling the celebrants to reach this season. Gifts are exchanged, often money, often chocolate money. Children play the dreidel game. Each side of the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, has a Hebrew letter that denotes whether the player gets candy and, if so, how much. Joan brought some dreidels and candy and invited women to play after the meeting.

La Nit de Sant Joan, Los Reyes Magos, and Tio Catalonio (Christianity in Spain)—Ester Brooks

Ester comes originally from Barcelona in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain, which has its own language. She shared with us three holidays celebrated there.

•     La Nit de Sant Joan (St. John’s Night) occurs on June 23 and 24. It is a pagan holiday that celebrates the summer solstice (the shortest night of the year). Big bonfires are lit all over the city.

•     Los Reyes Magos (The Three Wise Men) occurs on January 6. Prior to that day, people set up a nativity scene, with the three wise men on their camels. As January 6 approaches, they move the camels closer and closer to the crèche. Ester demonstrated this with her own nativity set and camels. Children leave food and water for the camels and messages for the kings. Because the kings brought gifts to the Christ child, the children receive gifts on that day.

•     Tio Catalonio (Catalonian Log) occurs on December 24. This celebration, which has a Roman origin, is named after the Yule log, or tio. As children repeatedly hit the log with a stick, presents keep coming out of it, thanks to the person hiding behind it. Ester showed pictures of her own children hitting the Yule log.

Ester explained that Muslims lived in Spain for seven centuries, leaving a legacy of many Arab words and other Middle Eastern influences. She illustrated this by playing some traditional music and by explaining that the sweets eaten during the Tio Catalonio season are made with almonds and honey, much like Middle Eastern sweets.