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 . . . Hanukkah

Tonight at sunset begins the Jewish Festival of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, which is an eight-day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.

The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing upward to eight on the final night. (One extra candle called the shamash candle is present to provide light as needed throughout the holiday.)

By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful and the Temple, which had been desecrated, was subsequently liberated and purified. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the rededicated Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.

The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle. Hanukkah lights should burn for at least one half hour after it gets dark.

Hanukkah is further celebrated by a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals. Many families exchange gifts each night, and fried foods are eaten.


DID YOU KNOW . . . Veteran’s Day

Today we celebrate Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, which is an annual United States federal holiday honoring military veterans observed on November 11th. It coincides with other holidays around the world such as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, which mark the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. (Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the German government signed the Armistice agreement.)

The U.S. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed “Armistice Day” for November 11, 1919. The United States Congress passed a concurrent resolution seven years later on June 4, 1926, requesting that then President Calvin Coolidge issue a proclamation to observe November 11th with appropriate ceremonies.

In 1953, an Emporia, Kansas man named Alvin King the owner of a shoe repair shop, had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans, not just those who died in World War I. He began a campaign to turn Armistice Day into “All” Veterans Day. With the help of U.S. Representative Ed Rees, also from Emporia, a bill for the holiday was pushed through Congress. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on May 26, 1954 and Congress amended this act on June 1, 1954, replacing the word “Armistice” with “Veterans,” and it has been known as Veterans Day ever since.


DID YOU KNOW . . . All Souls’ Day/ Day of the Dead

In many Christian denominations, today, November 2nd is designated as All Souls’ Day, a special day which specifically commemorates the “departed faithful”.

This day attempts to extend the care and help shown towards those in need here on Earth towards those who have already died, presuming at least some, if not many, benefit from prayers offered for them, even after death. In the Roman Catholic tradition, special masses for the dead are usually said on this day, and although mass attendance on this day is often common, it is not a requirement.

The custom of setting apart a special day for intercession on November 2 was first established by St. Odilo of Cluny at his abbey of Cluny in France in the year 998. The celebration was soon adopted throughout the region, and from there it spread throughout the Christian West.

The “Day of the Dead” celebration (in Spanish “Día de los Muertos”) is a special culturally-oriented observance of the All Souls Day in Hispanic countries and communities which focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico, where it attains the quality of a National Holiday, celebrated over three days.

Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. During the three-day period, from October 31st through November 2nd, people often go to cemeteries where they will clean and decorate the graves as well as build small altars there containing the favorite foods and beverages, as well as photos and memorabilia, of the departed. Celebrations can sometimes take a humorous tone, as celebrants may remember funny events and anecdotes about their departed loved ones.

Among Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, there are several All Souls’ Days celebrated during the year. Most of these fall on Saturday, since Jesus lay in the Tomb on Holy Saturday. These are referred to as Soul Saturdays.

DID YOU KNOW . . . All Saints Day

Today is the celebration of All Saints’ Day, observed annually every November 1st by much of Western Christianity (the first Sunday after Pentecost in Eastern Christianity) in honor of all saints, both known and unknown. Saints are defined as those who have died and are believed to have achieved the eternal home of heaven. It is from this solemnity that the secular holiday of Halloween was derived – “All Hallows Eve” being an archaic term for the night before “All Saints” (“Holy” or “Hallowed” People).

The Christian Calendar celebrates many of the well-known saints throughout the year, with many variations by country and culture, but since the number of canonized saints (meaning those who are officially known and recognized) vastly outnumbers the available days in a year, this day is meant to serve as a remembrance of all those holy people who might not be remembered otherwise.

Protestants generally regard all true Christian believers as saints and, if they observe All Saints Day at all, they use it to remember all Christians both past and present. For example, in the Methodist Church, on All Saints’ Day, the universal church as well as the deceased members of a local congregation, are honored and remembered. This holiday is generally celebrated in the Anglican/ Episcopalian Church, as well as in many Lutheran and Wesleyan churches.

Roman Catholics in particular celebrate All Saints’ Day in the fundamental belief that there is a prayerful spiritual communion between those who have died in the state of grace (that is either those in heaven or those being purified in Purgatory) with those who are still living here on Earth.

DID YOU KNOW . . .Diwali

Today is the Hindu celebration of Diwali, which is regarded as one of the most important festival of the Hindu calendar. It is celebrated across the nation with great pomp and excitement.

The festival is mainly associated with lights as it is called the festival of light. On the day of the festival diyas (small clay lamps) are lit in everybody’s home irrespective of their social status since the word Diwali signifies ‘rows of lighted lamps’.

Diwali is a five-day festival, beginning on the 15th day of the Hindu calendar month of Kartika (Ashwin). Diwali marks the beginning of the Hindu and Gujarati New Year and is celebrated with the lighting of lamps and candles, and lots of fireworks. People decorate their home with beautiful diyas and making rangoli pattern in the courtyard and in front of the gate. They put flowers and mango leaves on their doors and windows. Diyas and candles are placed on rooftops, rooms, and kitchen and even in the bathrooms. On this day, people worship Lord Ganesha, the foremost of all Hindu Gods and Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. It is time to exchange gifts and sweets with friends, relatives and neighbors.

Due to India’s varied cultural diversity there are many manifestations of the Diwali festival. The festival begins with Dhanteras, a day set aside to worship the goddess of prosperity, Goddess Lakshmi. On this day, homes are cleaned and paintings are done. There are various legends associated with the celebration of Diwali. But people mostly associate the celebration with the legend of Lord Ram returning to his kingdom of Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile and defeating Ravana, the demon king. Joy and festivity reins every corner of the nation during the Diwali season. Diwali festival is the one Hindu festival that unites the whole of India. The exchange of sweets and the explosion of fireworks customarily accompany the celebration of the festival. Diwali is an occasion for cheerfulness and togetherness. This is that time of the year when people of all age and all class take part in its celebration.


DID YOU KNOW . . . Simchat Torah

Tonight at sunset begins the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah ( in Hebrew, literally “Rejoicing with/of the Torah”) which is a celebration marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Simchat Torah follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot in the month of Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar and lasts for two days, ending at sunset on the second day following.

The main celebration of Simchat Torah takes place in the synagogue during evening and morning services. In many Orthodox and Conservative congregations, this is the only time of year on which the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and read at night.

The Simchat Torah festivities begin with the evening service. All the synagogue’s Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and are carried around the sanctuary in a series of seven hakafot (plural – singular hakafa – Hebrew for “circuits”). Although each hakafa need only encompass one circuit around the synagogue, the dancing and singing with the Torah often continues much longer, and may overflow from the synagogue onto the streets.

In Jewish synagogues, each circuit is announced by a few melodious invocations imploring God to Hoshiah Na (“Save us”) and ending with the refrain, Aneinu B’yom Koreinu (“Answer us on the day we call”).The hakafot are usually accompanied by traditional chants, including biblical and liturgical verses and songs about the Torah, the goodness of God, Messianic yearnings, and prayers for the restoration of the House of David and the Temple in Jerusalem. Congregations may also sing other, popular songs during the dancing. Children are often given flags, candies and treats. The vigor of the dancing and degree of festive merriment varies with congregational temperament. In some congregations, the Torah scrolls are carried out into the streets and the dancing may continue far into the evening.

In the morning, the last parashah (in Hebrew, “portion” meaning a particular section of a biblical book in the Hebrew Bible) of Deuteronomy and the first parashah of Genesis are read in the synagogue. On each occasion, when the ark is opened, all the worshippers leave their seats to dance and sing with all the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration that often lasts for several hours and more.

The morning service is also uniquely characterized by the calling up of each male member (in some Orthodox and the majority of non-Orthodox congregations, male and female members) of the congregation for an aliyah (in Hebrew, “ascent” or “going up” wherein the designated reader recites a blessing over the Torah, between each verse) as well as a special aliyah for all the children in attendance.


DID YOU KNOW . . . Columbus Day

Today is the official celebration of Columbus Day in the United States which remembers the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, which occurred on October 12, 1492.

The event is called Columbus Day in the United States, but is known as Día de la Raza (translated as “Day of the Race”) in most countries throughout Latin America. It is called Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día de la Hispanidad (translated as “Day of the Hispanic World”) or Fiesta Nacional in Spain, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity) in Argentina, and Día de las Américas (Day of the Americas) in Belize and Uruguay. These holidays have been celebrated unofficially since the late 18th century, and officially in various areas since the early 20th century.

In the United States, Columbus Day first became an official state holiday in Colorado in 1906, and became a federal holiday in 1937, however, people have celebrated Columbus’ voyage since the colonial period. In 1792, New York City and other U.S. cities celebrated the 300th anniversary of his landing in the New World. During the four hundredth anniversary, in 1892, teachers, preachers, poets and politicians used Columbus Day rituals to teach ideals of patriotism. These patriotic rituals were framed around themes such as support for war, citizenship boundaries, the importance of loyalty to the nation, and celebrating social progress.

Columbus Day was first popularized as a holiday in the United States through the lobbying of Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian, in Denver in the early 20th Century. The first official, regular Columbus Day holiday was proclaimed by Colorado governor Jesse F. McDonald in 1905 and made a statutory holiday in 1907. In April 1934 Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made October 12 a federal holiday under the name Columbus Day.

Since 1971, the holiday has been fixed to the second Monday in October, coincidentally the same day as Thanksgiving in neighboring Canada (which was fixed to that date in 1959). It is generally observed by banks, the bond market, the U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies, most state government offices, and some school districts.

San Francisco claims the nation’s oldest continuously existing celebration with the Italian-American community’s annual Columbus Day Parade, which was established in 1868, while New York City boasts the largest celebration. Virginia celebrates two legal holidays on this day, both Columbus Day and Yorktown Victory Day, which honors the final victory at the Siege of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War.

Actual observance varies greatly in different parts of the United States, ranging from large-scale parades in support of the holiday in some areas to replacement events to stress non-observance of the holiday in others.

DID YOU KNOW . . . Sukkot

This evening at sunset begins the first day of the seven-day celebration of the Jewish celebration of Sukkot , otherwise known as the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles.

Sukkot is of Biblical origin celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar, which falls in late September to late October on the Julian calendar. It is one of the three biblically mandated festivals known as Shalosh Regalim on which Jews were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Sukkot holiday is agricultural in origin as its biblical name means “The Feast of In-gathering”. As such it bears some similarity to many harvest or fall festivals celebrated during this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Coming as it did at the completion of the harvest, Sukkot was regarded as a general thanksgiving for the bounty of nature in the year that had passed.

In Leviticus, God told Moses to command the people: “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev. 23:40), and “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42-43). According to Zechariah, in the messianic era Sukkot will become a universal festival and all nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there.

The Hebrew word sukkōt is the plural of sukkah, “booth or tabernacle”, which is a walled structure covered with skhakh (plant material such as leafy tree overgrowth or palm leaves). The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The holiday meals are eaten inside the sukkah and many sleep there as well.

During the holiday, some Jews recite the ushpizin prayer which symbolizes the welcoming of seven “exalted guests” into the sukkah. These ushpizin are intended to represent the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. According to tradition, each night a different guest enters the sukkah followed by the other six. Each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson which teaches the parallels of the spiritual focus of the day on which they visit.


DID YOU KNOW . . . Yom Kippur

Beginning at sunset this evening and continuing until tomorrow evening at sunset is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Known as the “Day of Atonement”, it is the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jewish people.

Yom Kippur is the culmination of the High Holy Days, (Yamim Nora’im in Hebrew, which properly translates as “Days of Awe”) which began 10 days earlier with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally this entire time period is meant to mark a time of repentance, reconciliation and new beginnings. 

Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.

The word “Yom” means “day” in Hebrew and the word “Kippur” comes from a root that means “to cover or hide” with a secondary meaning of “to obliterate” (as relates to sin) with the broader meaning of “to expiate”. Some say there is a link to kapporet, the “mercy seat” or covering of the Ark of the Covenant. Since the blood of the Yom Kippur sacrifice was sprinkled in its direction (Lev. 16), it was the seen as a gesture of appeasement.

Traditionally, Yom Kippur is considered the date on which Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments, following the completion of the second 40 days of instructions from God at Mt. Sinai. At this same time, the Israelites were granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, hence, the designation of this holiday as the Day of Atonement.

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening before and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt called the Vidui. At the end of Yom Kippur, those who participate consider themselves absolved by God.

Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer at dusk the night before, Shacharit, the morning prayer, and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) service which has four prayer services (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Mussaf and an additional prayer called Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Musaf, Mincha and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer).

Yom Kippur is a legal holiday in the modern state of Israel. There are no radio or television broadcasts, airports are shut down, there is no public transportation, and all shops and businesses are closed. It is considered impolite to eat in public on Yom Kippur or to even drive a motor vehicle, except in emergency situations.

As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. The High Holy Days are the only recurring times of the year in which many attend synagogue, causing attendance on that day to often soar, not unlike the rising attendance at Christian services on Christmas and Easter.


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

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sunset this evening, September 24th, and ends on at sunset on Friday September 26th.

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.