Hanukkah

Hanukkah is sometimes also written as Chanukkah, and both spellings are equally acceptable. This is because the word is actually pronounced with a soft ch sound, like in the Scottish word loch which is a sound that doesn’t exist in English.

The festival begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev and last for 8 days. This year that will be from 24th December to 1st January.

It is called the Festival of Dedication (hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew) or the Festival of Light, and is to commemorate the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

About 2500 years ago the land had been taken over by the Syrian-Greeks. The King, Antiochus, wanted the Jewish people to worship the Greek gods. The Jewish temple was desecrated and a statue of Antiochus was placed inside.

Against all the odds, a small group of Jews defeated the Greek army and reclaimed the temple. They cleaned it up and reconsecrated it, but they only found one jar of sacred oil, which was only enough to keep a flame burning for one day. Miraculously the flame remained burning for 8 days, which was long enough to prepare more of the oil to keep it burning.

At Hanukkah now Jews celebrate this miracle by lighting 8 candles on a special menorah, called a hanukkiyah, which has nine branches – one for an attendant flame and eight to represent the eight days during which the one jar of oil continued burning. One candle is lit on the first day, two on the 2nd and so on until all eight candles are lit on the final day.

The celebrations include spending time with family, eating foods which have been fried in oil (such as potato pancakes and doughnuts) and exchanging gifts.

Related posts: Sukkot

Diwali (Sikh festival)

The Sikh festival of Diwali is celebrated at the same time of year of the Hindu one, but they celebrate very different events.. For Sikhs, Diwali is a celebration of the release from prison of Guru Hargobind, the 6th Guru.

The story says that the Emperor, who was holding Guru Hargobind prisoner, finally agreed to release him. However the Guru asked for 52 Princes to be released at the same time. To limit the number of prisoners who would be released, the emperor said that only those who could hold on to the tails of Guru Hargobind’s cloak would be allowed to leave.

Guru Hargobind very cleverly had a special cloak made with 52 tails, and so the emperor had no choice but to release all of the princes.

The Golden Temple was lit up to celebrate his return, and this is why the Sikh celebration of Diwali is also a festival of light.

Related post: Diwali (Hindu festival)

What is Sukkot?

Sukkot falls two weeks after Rosh Hashanah and a few days after Yom Kippur, and is quite a fun festival after the more serious ones. It begins on 15th Tishrei and lasts for seven days.

This festival celebrates the Jews being freed from Egypt, and is a commemoration of the following 40 years which they spent in the desert before reaching the promised land. During this time they had to live in temporary shelters, and sukkot is the Hebrew word meaning temporary shelters. It’s a joint thanksgiving / harvest festival as they remember God feeding the Jews while they were in the desert.

For the festival, Jewish people live in a sukkah (singular of sukkot) for seven days. Usually they just have their meals in the sukkah, but some people choose to sleep in them as well. Guests are invited to dine in the sukkah and Abraham and Sarah are thought of amongst the guests.

Although the festival is fun, there are some rules for building a sukkah: it must have at least three walls, it must be made from natural materials such as wood or stone – definitely no plastic (!) , and you must be able to see at least three stars through the roof.

Related post: Hannukak

Summer Solstice

In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year).  It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.

Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them.  The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky.  These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society.  As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year.  In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day.  In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness.  Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.

Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations.  As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling.  Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.

As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance.  In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.

No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!).  As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays.  And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.

Thank you again to my lovely husband, Ian Braisby (Blue Badge Guide), for writing this piece for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox, Yule

How do Jews celebrate Passover

According to the stories, the Jewish people left Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to wait for the bread they had been baking to rise. To mark this, during Passover they now eat only unleavened bread. The night before Passover they cleanse the house of all leavened bread, including crumbs.

A special meal called a Seder is eaten, and they lean on cushions as a symbol that they are no longer slaves. The meal also represents the escape from slavery. The first item on the plate is the lamb bone. This is not eaten, but symbolises the lambs that were sacrificed for the original Passover. The roasted egg is also a symbol of sacrifice, as well as of springtime (when Passover takes place) and new beginnings. The green vegetables are for the humble origins of Jews and these vegetables are dipped in saltwater for the tears they have shed. Bitter herbs (usually horseradish) are for the bitterness of slavery, and a dish called Charoset (a mixture of apple, walnut and wine) symbolises the mortar used for building in Egypt during the time of slavery.

The youngest child asks four questions, beginning “Why is this night different from all other nights?” to prompt the retelling of the story of the story of the escape from Egyptian slavery.

During the evening, four toasts are made – one for each of the four expressions God used to describe the escape from slavery, and a glass of wine is also poured for the prophet Elijah. The doors are left unlocked and sometimes open so that Elijah can enter in case this is the day he chooses to return.

Related post: Why do Jews celebrate Passover