Christmas and its Interfaith Traditions

The Interfaith Christmas WreathMany traditions come with advent season in Christianity; it is Margasheera month in Hinduism – a month that is kept aside for spiritual activities. It is also the time of Chanukkah of the Jewish Faith. The Persian religion – Zoroastrianism – has the Shab-e-Yalda night, the victory of light over darkness, good over evil. In this time of the coming of the Christ Child, we explore the many traditions of several religions.

Hanukkah – Jewish Festival from 22 December – 30 December 2019

Hanukkah, one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays, is a festive eight-day celebration that for many people falls during the darkest, coldest season of the year. Also called the Festival of Lights, the holiday brings light, joy, and warmth to our homes and communities as we celebrate with candles, food, family, and friends. Light comes literally, with the lighting of an additional candle each day, and metaphorically, through a newer emphasis on charitable donations and a commitment to the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam) during the holiday.

MenorahHanukkah (alternately spelled Chanukah), meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates the victory of a small group of Jewish rebels (led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, collectively known as “the Maccabees”) over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. Modern celebrations of Hanukkah focus on family and friends and include the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiyah); singing and playing special songs and games (dreidel); and eating foods prepared in oil including latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), bimuelos (fried dough puffs) and keftes de prasas (leek patties). You can read Hanukkah Prayers and Blessings here.

Catholic Traditions leading up to Christmas

Advent wreath: The Advent wreath, which has German origins, is probably the most recognised Advent custom. It is a wreath made of evergreens that is bound to a circle of wire. It symbolises the many years from Adam to Christ in which the world awaited its Redeemer; it also represents the years that Christians have awaited His second and final coming. The wreath holds four equally spaced candles, the three purple candles lit on the penitential Sundays and a pink candle for Gaudete, the joyful third Sunday in Advent.

The empty manger
The empty manger
The empty manger: Each child may have his own individual manger, or there may be one manger for the whole family. The idea is that when acts of service, sacrifice, or kindness are done in honour of Baby Jesus as a birthday present, the child receives a piece of straw to put into the manger. Then, on Christmas morning, Baby Jesus is placed in the manger. Encourage your children to make Jesus bed as comfortable as possible through their good deeds. In the process, explain Christ’s incomparable self-gift at Christmas and Easter that enables us to be part of Gods family.

The Jesse tree: The Jesse tree tells about Christ’s ancestry through symbols and relates Scripture to salvation history, progressing from creation to the birth of Christ. The tree can be made on a poster board with the symbols glued on, or on an actual tree. You can read more about the Jesse Tree and its traditions here and here.

St. Nicholas Day: The feast of St. Nicholas is on Dec. 6th. It is a highlight of the Advent season. Each child puts out a shoe the night before St. Nicholas Day in the hope that the kind bishop with his mitre, staff, and bag of gifts will pay a visit. The current Santa Claus is modelled after St. Nicholas, but commercialism has tarnished the true story. Many families give gifts on both December 6 and Christmas.

The Christ candle: Any large white candle can be used for the Christ candle. The idea is to decorate it with symbols for Christ. Use old Christmas cards, sequins, holly, etc. The candle can be lit on Christmas Eve to show that the Light of the World has arrived. Then continue to light the Christ candle throughout the year at Sunday dinner to remind your family of our waiting for Christ, as well as celebrating His birth and Resurrection.

The Mary candle: Some families have the custom of decorating the Christ candle with a blue veil on December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. On this great feast, others place a candle with a blue ribbon before a statue or picture of the Blessed Virgin, whose yes to God enabled the coming of Jesus at Christmas. The candle is lit during meal times to serve as a delightful reminder of Marys eager expectation of the Light of the World. It can also serve as a reminder to each family member to keep their own light of grace burning as a preparation for Christ’s coming.

St. Lucy cakes: The feast of St. Lucy, virgin and martyr, is on December 13th. This marks the opening of the Christmas season in Sweden. Her life story can be found here and here, as can the recipe for the traditional cakes. The symbolism is rich and her life story worthwhile reading.

The Nativity scene: The world has St Francis of Assisi to thank for the Nativity scene. This is the event in which the entire family shares setting up the Christmas manger. Mary and Joseph should be far off travelling and their approach to Bethlehem can be adjusted daily. Older children can make life-size Nativity models, carve them, cut them out from cardboard, or set up pre-made figurines. The creative ideas are without limit.

Christmas baking: There are many recipe books available to find great traditional Christmas baking ideas. The BBC has Christmas Baking treats here! The baking usually starts around December 20th. As Christmas approaches, the house will smell of baking and fresh wreaths. The glory of Christmas is at hand! The manger is sometimes moved to a focal point; others add lights to the Nativity to be lit on Christmas Eve.

Blessing of the tree: More and more frequently families are blessing their Christmas trees. It is good to remind children that the tree relates to many aspects of our faith. Christmas tree blessings can be found here (short), here (with psalms and lessons) and here (a full order of service for Blessing of a Tree).

In Hinduism, the month is Margasheera:

Lord Rama
Lord Rama of the Hindu religion
The Tamil Margazhi Month, is the month of Devotion and Music. In 2019, Margazhi month begins on Tuesday, December 17, 2019 and ends on Tuesday, January 14, 2020. The importance of Margazi Month was announced by none other than Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita when he says Maasanam Margasheershoham – “among the twelve months, I am Margasheera”. The giving of religious discourses and music festivals are the major highlights during the period.

The month is kept aside for spiritual activities. Auspicious events and marriages are not performed during this month. The reason for avoiding auspicious activities is that the month is the dawn period for Devas and people do not want to engage in any other auspicious activities other than worship of God.

One Hindu Divine gives the following summary of the Hindu view of Christmas:

Through His exemplary life on earth, God demonstrates to the humans what one’s innate true characteristics are and how one should be. Lord Rama (who was peerless among all men in propriety of conduct,) descended on earth in Treta Yuga to show the idealistic values necessary for a human. Lord Krishna took birth in Dwapara Yuga to teach how to reach God through unconditional love and surrender. Lord Jesus Christ descended in this Yuga and demonstrated the ideal divine attributes of forgiveness and compassion which should be the innate characteristics for any human. Prophet Mohammed practised and preached the importance of faith in God and submission to Him. Lord Buddha taught the importance of purity of thinking and action to escape the cycle of rebirth. Lord Mahavir taught and practised the supreme principle of non-violence.

Zoroastrianism – Merry Yalda

The Faravahar, also known as Farre Kiyâni, is one of the most well-known symbols of Iran and Zoroastrianism, the primary religion of Iran before the Muslim conquest of Persia

Shab-e-Yalda (Yalda night) marks the beginning of Shab-e Chella ye bozorg (night of the great forty). These forty days start (in the Fasli calendar) on first day (Hormazd roj) of the month of Dae (December 20/21 in the Gregorian calendar) and marks the night of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The darkest and the longest night is celebrated in Iran today as a social event; feasting on pomegranates and watermelons with family and friends, and reading poetry (mainly Hafez) until past midnight.

Though the origin of this celebration is unknown, it is believed that it started in pre-Zoroastrian times and was known during Parthian and Sassanian times as “Zaveshmehr;” the birth of Mithra, the sun god that symbolises light, goodness and strength on earth. Zaveshmehr was observed to celebrate victory of light over darkness and renewal of the sun. The forces of darkness (Ahriman) were assumed to be at their peak on the last day of the month of Azar (December 21), being the longest night of the year. The next day, the first day of the month of Dae (December 22) was known as “Khorram rouz” (day of the Sun), to mark the victory of sun over darkness and of good over evil.

Mithra slaying a bull
“Taurotony” – Mithras killing a steer, Roman 2nd C. CE, Pio-Clementine (inv 437) Vatican Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In spite of claims by some scholars of displacement of Mithra by the advent of Christianity, worship of Mithra is immortalized in Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. In Avesta, (Parsee scriptures) as in the Hindu Vedic Hymns, Mithra is invoked as the Lord of Heavenly Light. Sun (Khorshed) is his vehicle, and Mithra (Meher) is its light. In Zoroastrian ritual, the Khorshed Nyaayesh, Litany to Khorshed (Sun) is always followed by Meher Nyaayesh, a Litany to Mithra (light) in which Mithra is said to have hazangragaoshahe baêvare- cashmanô a thousand ears and ten thousand eyes. He is ever awake, watches over all creatures, hearing and seeing all. He is the Lord of truth, loyalty and contracts. Those who break their promise or bond are answerable to him. He represents heat and life and is known as the Lord of wide pastures. He rewards his worshippers with peace, wisdom, glory, great health, wealth, and offspring. Darkness, vice and impurity are his enemies.


The Interfaith Christmas Wreath





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