Category Archives: Did You Know?

Interfaith and intercultural events and celebrations are presented in the “Did You Know” format, to promote understanding about the many diverse traditions and cultures around us.

DID YOU KNOW . . . Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sunset this evening, September 13th, and ends on at sunset on September 14th.

In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, “head of the year” or “first of the year” and is commonly known as the Jewish New Year.  The holiday is a solemn one and is a time of introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the new year, similar to the secular “New Year’s Resolutions” so many make every January 1st.

Rosh Hashanah is linked to the Day of Atonement holiday, Yom Kippur, which takes place 10 days later. These two days, and the days in between, are known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance and are meant to mark a time of repentance and reconciliation.

The holiday was instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25 and Jews believe that Rosh Hashanah represents, either figuratively or literally, the creation of the World or the Universe. In Jewish liturgy Rosh Hashanah is described as “the day of judgment” and “the day of remembrance”. Some early Midrashic descriptions (the Midrash is a series of early homiletic-style commentaries) depict God as sitting upon a throne, while books containing the deeds of all humanity are opened for review, and each person passing in front of Him for evaluation of his or her deeds.

No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah. Much of the day is spent in synagogue, where the regular daily liturgy is somewhat expanded. In fact, there is a special prayer book called the Machzor used for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because of the extensive liturgical changes for these holidays. One of the most important liturgical practices associated with this holiday is hearing the sounding of the shofar in the synagogue. The shofar is a ram’s horn which is blown somewhat like a trumpet and is blown at four particular occasions in the prayers on Rosh Hashanah.

The ritual of tashlikh is performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one’s sins are symbolically cast into the water. Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the “casting off” of sins. The traditional service for tashlikh is recited individually and includes the prayer “Who is like unto you, O God…And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”, and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9 (“They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”) and Psalms 118:5-9, 121 and 130, as well as personal prayers. Though once considered a solemn individual tradition, it has become an increasingly social group ceremony for many communities.

Another popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of a wish for a sweet new year. Bread is also dipped in honey (instead of the usual practice of sprinkling salt on it) at this time of year for the same reason.

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, a federal holiday observed annually in the United States on the last Monday of May for remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. On this day especially, many people visit cemeteries and memorials and many volunteers place an American flag on graves in national cemeteries.

Formerly known as Decoration Day, this holiday originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War. Southern ladies organizations and many southern schoolchildren also decorated Confederate graves during the period immediately following the Civil War, and while there was great diversity in the practices by region, most of these dates were observed in May.

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

For many Americans, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities all over the country. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the National Guard and other servicemen participating along with veterans and military vehicles from various wars.

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Visakha Puja (Buddhism)

Today is the celebration of Visakha Puja or Vesakha Day – the annual Buddhist holiday also colloquially referred to as ‘Buddha’s Birthday’. It celebrates the three important events that occurred in Buddha’s life – his birth, the day he achieved enlightenment (Nirvana) and the day he passed away, at age eighty. The day is generally celebrated on the full moon of the sixth lunar month, which falls typically in May or June of each year.  

On this day, Buddhists will traditionally visit their temples where they will participate in activities that may include singing hymns for the Buddha himself, for the Dharma (his teachings) and for the Sangha (his disciples). Many will also listen to the Buddha’s teachings by attending readings of Buddhist scriptures or by taking part in a candle lighting ceremony or procession in the evening. Devotees may also leave offerings of flowers, incense and lights  and in some temples there may be a small statue of the Buddha in the front, in a basin of water which allows devotees to pour water over the statue, as a symbol of spiritual cleansing.

Most Buddhists try and pay homage on this day reaffirming their commitment to truly and sincerely follow the Buddha’s teachings by leading noble lives and practicing loving kindness that will bring peace and harmony to humanity.

(Special thanks to Interfaith Paths to Peace for contributions to this article.)

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

Tonight at sundown begins Yom Ha Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a Jewish day of remembrance.

Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (“Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and Heroism”), known colloquially in Israel and abroad as Yom Ha Shoah and in English as Holocaust Remembrance Day, is observed as a day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  In Israel, it is a national memorial day. 

On the eve of Yom HaShoah in Israel, there is a state ceremony at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Authority.  At sundown and once again at 11:00 am the next day throughout all of Israel air-raid sirens are sounded for two minutes. During this time, people stop what they are doing and stand at attention; cars stop, even on the highways; and the whole country comes to a standstill as people pay silent tribute to the dead.  Flags on public buildings are flown at half-staff.  Commemorations outside of Israel range from synagogue services to communal vigils and educational programs.

Many people in the United States observe Yom Hashoah, which is also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day. It commemorates the lives and heroism of Jewish people who died in the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945. Many people in the United States, including those with Jewish ancestry or connections, observe Yom Hashoah on the 27th day of the month of Nisan. Many Jewish communities hold commemorative ceremonies or events to remember Holocaust victims who died during World War II. Activities may include lighting memorial candles and reciting the Kaddish, which is a prayer for the departed.

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Easter (Eastern/ Orthodox Celebration)

Today marks the celebration of Easter in Orthodox Christianity.

Eastern Christianity bases its calculations for the date for Easter on the Julian calendar in which the celebration of Easter falls between 4 April and 8 May annually. In Eastern Christianity, every other religious festival in their calendar, including Christmas, is considered to be secondary in importance to the celebration of the Easter.

In Eastern Christianity, the spiritual preparation for Easter begins with Great Lent, which starts on Clean Monday and lasts for 40 continuous days (including Sundays). The last week of Great Lent (following the fifth Sunday of Great Lent) is called Palm Week, and ends with the day before which is called Lazarus Saturday. The Vespers which begins Lazarus Saturday officially brings Great Lent to a close, although the fast continues through the following week. After Lazarus Saturday comes Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and finally Easter itself, and the fast is broken immediately after the Paschal Divine Liturgy.

The Paschal Vigil begins with the Midnight Office, which is the last service of the Lenten Triodion and is timed so that it ends a little before midnight on Holy Saturday night. At the stroke of midnight the celebration itself begins, guaranteeing that no Divine Liturgy will come earlier in the morning, ensuring its place as the pre-eminent “Feast of Feasts” in the liturgical year.

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Maundy (Holy) Thursday

Today is the Christian holiday of Maundy or Holy Thursday, the holy day falling on the Thursday before Easter that commemorates the events of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles as described in the four canonical gospels.

For many Christian traditions this day initiates what is known as the Easter Triduum, the three day period which commemorates the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The liturgy in many Christian Churches involves a ceremony of the “Washing of the Feet” of designated individuals, referencing Jesus’ actions in the Gospel of John where he did such for his disciples during the Last Supper as related in the Gospel of John.

Use of the names “Maundy Thursday” versus “Holy Thursday” varies greatly according to denomination and tradition.

Most scholars agree that the English word Maundy is derived through Middle English from the Latin word “mandatum” (meaning mandate) which the first Latin word of the passage from John 13:34  where Jesus explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. Others theorize that the word arose from the Latin word “mendicare” which means to beg, referring to the beggars and the poor who were traditionally remembered in special ways on this day.

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Holy Week 2015

This week marks the Christian Celebration of Holy Week, which in Christianity is the last week of Lent and the week before Easter.

Although observances vary by denomination, most all Christians observe at least some events from this week in some manner. While some Protestant traditions do not have elaborate special ceremonies but conduct more informal celebrations, often including sermons about the last week of Christ’s life, and possibly some special services on certain days, many mainline Protestant denominations as well as Roman Catholics and the Orthodox faiths generally have much ceremony and multiple special services during this time.

Holy Week includes the religious holidays of Palm Sunday, Holy or Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The days between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday are known as Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. The Gospels of these days recount events not all of which occurred on the corresponding days between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his Last Supper.

Holy Thursday has a special celebration of The Mass of the Lord’s Supper which commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with his Twelve Apostles, the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the commandment of brotherly love that Jesus gave after washing the feet of his disciples. Many Protestant churches make much of the foot washing ceremony on what is termed as “Maundy Thursday”, while for others it may be the only time in the year when Holy Communion is celebrated, while still other churches may celebrate versions of the Jewish Passover at this time.

For Roman Catholics, mass is not celebrated anywhere in the world after the evening mass on Holy Thursday until the Easter Vigil, celebrated shortly after sunset on Holy Saturday. In some Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, there is provision for a simple liturgy of the word with readings commemorating the burial of Christ.

Easter Sunday is generally not considered to be a part of Holy Week per se as it is generally considered to be the first day of the new season of the Great Fifty Days, or Eastertide, which is marked by the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday.

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a United States federal holiday marking the birthday of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is close the time of King’s actual birthday, January 15.

King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in both federal and state law. King has become a national icon for his eloquence and his successfully challenging the then-prevailing mindset of racism in the United States, effectively ending the legal codification of discrimination based on race and creating a new birth of equality for all people which still endures and grows in American Society today.

The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. United States Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and United States Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts) introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. However, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage.

Soon after this, the King Center turned to support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million signatures were eventually collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law, termed by some as “the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history.”

At the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill, which was proposed by Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, creating the federal holiday to honor King.  It was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.

The holiday is celebrated in many different ways throughout the nation, with many schools and businesses being closed in observance of it, but one of the most popular ways of remembering King and his contribution to the freedom of all peoples is in the viewing of his “I Have A Dream” speech, which is available for viewing on YouTube HERE.

The “I Have a Dream” is a 17-minute public speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963, in which he called for an end to racism in the United States. The speech, delivered to over 200,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. Widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric, King’s speech invoked the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The part of the speech which most excited the crowd at the time, and which has now become the most famous, is the last portion where King described dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred. Perhaps the most famous line of all, a line which is now seen as a symbol for freedom and racial equality and is know by heart by millions today is the following:

“I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

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DID YOU KNOW . . . Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held in the United States and also celebrated in the Western African Diaspora in other nations of the Americas. The celebration honors African heritage in African-American culture, and is observed from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a feast and gift-giving.

Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a specifically African-American holiday, “an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history” as he termed it. The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, meaning “first fruits of the harvest”. Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba, which Karenga said “is a communitarian African philosophy,” consisting of what Karenga called “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.” These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason.

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanzaa symbols include a decorative mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed, corn (Muhindi) and other crops, a candle holder kinara with seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), a communal cup for pouring libation (Kikimbe cha Umoja), gifts (Zawadi), a poster of the seven principles, and a black, red, and green flag. The symbols were designed to convey the seven principles.

Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art; colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women; and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. The holiday greeting is “Joyous Kwanzaa”.

DID YOU KNOW . . . Christmas

Christmas is the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated on December 25 as a religious and cultural holiday by billions of people around the world.

A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates the “twelve days of Christmastide” which ends this season on January 4th in 2015 with the Christian Feast of the Epiphany.

Christmas is a civil holiday in many of the world’s nations, is celebrated by an increasing number of non-Christians, and is an integral part of the Christmas and holiday season.

The birthday of Christ was widely celebrated in the early Christian Church as early as the late First and early Second Centuries, but it was in the early-to-mid Fourth century that the Western Christian Church first placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted also in the East. Theories advanced to explain that choice include that this date falls exactly nine months after the Christian celebration of the conception of Jesus, or that it was selected to coincide with either the date of the Roman winter solstice or of some ancient pagan winter festival.

The original date of the celebration in Eastern Christianity was fixed on January 6, in connection with Epiphany, and that is still the date of the celebration for the Armenian Apostolic Church and in Armenia, where it is a public holiday. The popular celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, Christmas music and caroling, an exchange of Christmas cards, church celebrations, a special meal, and the display of various decorations, including Christmas trees, lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly.

In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas and Kris Kringle (among other names), are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore. Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity among both Christians and non-Christians, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses.