Journey Through the Sacred Year

The Jewish Year—Iris Petroff

Iris, who is director of membership and programs at Temple Society of Concord, explained that the Jewish calendar is very complex. It is a lunisolar calendar consisting of 12 months in a non-leap year (totaling 353, 354, or 355 days) and 13 months in a leap year (totaling 383, 384, or 385 days). In every 19-year cycle, there are 7 leap years. This summary is simple, but computing the calendar is a very complicated task.

The new moon is celebrated each month. On that day, Jewish women traditionally take time for themselves, time to be and talk with other women.

To a great extent, Jewish celebrations are grounded in the agricultural year. Even though most people think of Rosh Hashanah as the “Jewish New Year,” the year actually begins in the spring, with the month of Nisan and the holiday of Passover, or Pesach, which commemorates the ancient Jews’ exodus from Egypt. This was the time when the Jewish people became free and, just a few months later, accepted their relationship and covenant with God.

The days and weeks leading up to Passover are a time for cleaning and scrubbing. Jews are commanded to eat only unleavened foods during Passover (as a remembrance that their ancestors, in their haste to leave Egypt, did not have time to let their bread dough rise), so before the holiday begins, they remove all traces of chametz, or leavening, from their house. They scrub all surfaces that might have come into contact with food; they buy food that is kosher for Passover and dispose of food that is not; they put away their everyday sets of dishes and utensils and unpack their Passover sets; they replace or rigorously clean their cooking pots. Many women find that these rituals, in addition to satisfying the proscription against consuming chametz during Passover, also provide them with an opportunity to focus on the basics of their lives and to ground themselves.

Later in the spring, Jews celebrate Shavuot in remembrance of the time when their ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai. They recall the promises their ancestors made to pass on their faith, and they celebrate the importance of being part of a faith community. Jews have a tradition of counting each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot; each day is a time to remind themselves that they are important and to reconnect with their faith.

Half a year after Passover is Rosh Hashanah, the “new year,” which really begins on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. Just as others celebrate their birthday on a specific date and flip the calendar over on January 1, Jews celebrate the birth of their communal faith at Passover but flip the calendar over at Rosh Hashanah. This holy day is another opportunity for reflection.

Rosh Hashanah is followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews think about the past year, talk to others to ask forgiveness, and make a plan for improvement in the future.

Jews then move into the celebration of the harvest, Sukkot, called the Feast of Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths. It is at this time that Jews build a booth (sukkah). In some climates, Jews live in the booth for seven days. In Syracuse, some may eat outside in the booth or even sleep there if the weather is nice. Staying in the booth reminds Jews of the fragility of life, that no matter how much money one has, all people are equally subject to forces beyond their control.

Hanukkah, which is actually a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, is celebrated next. Hanukkah is based upon light. It is a holiday of dedication and, in the United States, of gift giving. Hanukkah is a chance for Jews to spend time with family, light candles against the darkness, and recommit themselves to their faith.

The Jewish calendar is one of constant reflection and personal renewal. Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, is celebrated each week from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. This is a time to slow down, count one’s blessings, express gratitude, and reflect upon what is really important. Iris portrayed Shabbat as a gift that can be a great joy.

The Chinese Year—May Becker

May was born in China and immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong. May told us that the Chinese calendar was started in the time of the emperor Huang-di (literally, the “Yellow Emperor”) in 2697 bce. It is both a lunar and a solar calendar. Its months have 29 or 30 days each and never coincide with the months of the Gregorian calendar. Years with 13 new moons are leap years; they have 13 months and therefore 30 more days than non-leap years. Today’s year on the Chinese calendar is 4705; February 7, 2008, will mark the beginning of the year 4706, the Year of the Rat. Each year is named after an animal; May told a folk tale about which animal gets to be first in the cycle.

The Chinese New Year is a 14-day celebration. Chinese people visit each other and pay their respects to their elders and their boss. In an urban setting, they may pay their respects to their boss at the office rather than calling on the boss at his or her home, as is the traditional way. Children and servants love the New Year celebration because anyone visiting their house brings them money in a red envelope. May told us that whenever a guest left money at her house, her mother would check the amount so she would know how much to leave at the guest’s house when her family called on them. Green tea is served in a tea cup with a lid; on top of the lid is always a fresh olive. Dried fruits and seeds are served on a platter; each of these represents money or wishes for prosperity. On New Years Eve, the family gets together and cooks “hot pot” in a communal vessel; various foods are cut up, and each member of the family chooses what she or he wants to add to the broth that is simmering in the pot. Firecrackers are set off to scare away the devil.

In Chinese culture, children celebrate two birthdays: their Chinese birthday and their birthday on the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in China in 1912. The Chinese birthday is usually about a month earlier than the Gregorian birthday. The Chinese consider a child to be one year old at birth because of the time spent in its mother’s womb. May assured us that when she gives her age, she does not give her Chinese age!

Chinese culture is very respectful of its elders, who always come first in all celebrations. The Chinese never call a person older than they are by his or her first name, but rather address that person as “aunt” or “uncle.”

The Wiccan Year—Terra Harmatuk

Terra has been a Wiccan high priestess for ten years. She told us that Wiccans hold lunar celebrations (esbats) at the full moon and the dark moon. Wiccans work with the old gods and goddesses as archetypes of Spirit and as a way of connecting with Deity. They recognize the Goddess in all women; therefore, all women are sisters. Similarly, they recognize the God in all men. Each person has a spark of the divine within. Deity is everywhere and in all living things, not in heaven or some other place.

The full moon is a time for celebrating the Goddess and doing healing work. The dark moon is considered a time of women’s mysteries; sometimes men will work separately on men’s mysteries. Wiccans do deep inner work at these times, dealing with pain, fear and anger that might remain unresolved and be holding them back. These emotions are brought into the open and acknowledged by the other members of the group. As people open themselves up to love and compassion, healing can begin, and they can go forward.

Wiccans also meet eight times a year for the Sabbats, which are based on the solar Wheel of the Year, for God is often seen as the light of the sun. The Sabbats are celebrated at the winter and summer solstices, the spring and fall equinoxes, and the cross quarters.

•    At Yule (winter solstice), Wiccans may sit in the darkness and reenact the birth of the sun child, born of Mother Goddess from the darkness. They light and jump over the Yule log, carrying with them their hopes for the world. There is often drumming and wassailing.

•    Imbolc, on February 2, marks the quickening within the earth and is often celebrated with candle lighting.

•    Ostara is the spring equinox, a time of balance between light and darkness. This is a time when Wiccans seek harmony in their lives, often planting seeds and/or dyeing eggs red to symbolize fertility and rebirth.

•    Beltane is celebrated on May 1. The maypole is a phallic symbol thrust into Mother Earth, a symbol of the marriage of the God and the Goddess. Wiccans put their dreams into the ribbons of the maypole, so as they dance around it they are sending those dreams and good energies out into the universe.

•    Litha, the summer solstice, is a time of extreme power and strength and is traditionally celebrated on a beach at dusk.

•    Lughnasadah, or Lammas, also known as Loaf Mass Day or the Feast of the Bread, usually falls on August 1. It celebrates the first harvest. The first grain is ground, and from that grain, bread baked. Just as the grain has sacrificed itself, Wiccans believe that they too need to make a willing sacrifice for the good of others.

•    Mabon is the fall equinox, another time of balance. It celebrates the second harvest and is the Wiccan Thanksgiving.

•    Samhain (Halloween) is the Feast of the Dead, a time to recognize beloved ancestors and friends who have crossed over. Most Wiccans see death as just one more step along our paths.

The Bahá’í Year—Mam Yassin Sarr-Fox

Yassin is a member of the Bahá’í faith and a graduate student at Syracuse University. In her native land, the Gambia, West Africa, she was educated in Baptist, Methodist and Catholic schools. She was born a Muslim but became attracted to the Bahá’í faith because of its inclusiveness. Bahá’ís accept the teachings of all faiths as paths to the same God. As a Bahá’í, Yassin gets to celebrate others’ religions. This feels familiar to her because even as a Muslim child growing up in the Gambia, she would celebrate Christian holidays with her Christian friends from school.

Every 19 days, Bahá’ís gather for a Feast. Yassin explained that you are supposed to treat all the other people at the Feast as if they are better than you. Each Feast comprises a devotional portion, a consultation portion (where people talk honestly about what is going on in the community), and a social portion (where people eat and socialize). The Bahá’í calendar has 19 months of 19 days each, totaling 361 days. Each month is named for a quality of God, such as Splendor, Mercy or Light, so as to help Bahá’ís better understand God. The 19th month (Loftiness) is a month of fasting. The four or five days of the year needed to make a total of 365 or 366 days are gift-giving days with much celebration.

At the end of each day, Bahá’ís are supposed to do a reckoning, asking themselves, “What did I do right today?” They thank God for doing good through them. They also ask God, “What did I not do right today?” For these, they ask forgiveness and for help to do better the next day. Bahá’ís recite an obligatory daily prayer, the words of which Yassin wrote on a handout that she passed out to us. Bahá’ís are strongly encouraged to meditate every day. They also celebrate nine holy days, many of which pertain to events in the lives and deaths of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, the two prophets of their faith.

When Bahá’ís get together, it is not just for worship, but also to discuss ways to serve their communities and help bring about the oneness of humanity. Bahá’ís believe that the purpose of religion is to bring the world together, and that the highest form of worship is work done in the spirit of service. Bahá’ís study not only their own scripture, but also the books of other faiths, for they believe that, “The Heavenly Books—the Bible, the Qur΄an and the other Holy Writings—have been given by God as guides into the paths of divine virtue, love, justice and peace.”

The Christian Year—Nancy Sullivan Murray

Nancy is an active Roman Catholic laywoman and a former president of the Syracuse Interreligious Council (predecessor of InterFaith Works of Central New York). She remarked that upon hearing the other presentations, she was fascinated by how similar we all are. The fact that some groups of us do not get along is very sad. What we are talking about today, Nancy said, is “sacred time,” when we step into “holy spaces,” the mosque, the synagogue, the temple, the church. Our stories and symbols are what unite us.

Christianity is a religion rich in symbols, rituals and liturgies. Christianity has many connections to both the agricultural year and the lunar year. In urban societies, however, many Christians are less aware of where the Church places them in sacred time and seasonal time.

•    The Christian year begins with Advent, the darkest time of the year, the four weeks before Christmas. One of the prayers said repeatedly during Advent is, “The people who wait in darkness have seen a great light.” They wait for the time when people will come together in the great light and will rejoice at being one with each other. Back in the days when common people did not read, the Church used colors to denote the seasons. The color for Advent, a time of fasting and reflection, is purple.

•    For a time of great joy, such as Christmas or Easter, the vestments and accoutrements are white or gold. After the joy of Christmas, Christians enter into a time between seasons.

•    February 2 is the Feast of Candlemas, which officially closes the Christmas season.

•    Then Christians enter the six-and-a-half-week season of Lent, another long period of fasting and reflection, of giving up things they enjoy doing. The day before Lent is Mardi Gras (meaning “fat Tuesday” in French). Mardi Gras has other names, including Pancake Tuesday (the day when people fried pancakes in order to use up all their oil before Lent), Carnival (from the Latin carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat”), and Shrove Tuesday (a day when people are looking for forgiveness, to be “shriven” of their sins). The earliest date Nancy found for Mardi Gras was in the 13th century, when the festival was celebrated in Venice. Mardi Gras was brought by Europeans to the Louisiana Territory, where it is still celebrated. The first Mardi Gras parade in the United States might have been in Mobile, Alabama, in 1703.

•    Whereas Christmas is a set date on the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory who devised the mathematics of the calendar), Easter is based on the lunar calendar. It is the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox.

•    Fifty days after Easter is the Feast of Pentecost, which was originally a celebration of the first harvest. Pentecost was the time when followers of Jesus first took to the streets to preach their belief that Jesus had become the Christ, had died and had risen; that their lives were intertwined with his; and that we are all one with each other.