What is Vaisakhi?

Vaisakhi, also spelt Baisakhi, celebrates the founding of the Sikh community. It is celebrated on April 14th each year.

On 14th April 1699 group Gobind Singh summoned Sikhs from all around the world. When they were gathered together, he asked who amongst them would be prepared to give his life for his faith.

One man stepped forward and Guru Gobind Singh took him into a tent and then reappeared shortly after with a blood covered sword. The Guru repeated the question and another man stepped forward. Again he was taken into a tent and again the Guru reappeared with a blood covered sword. Three more times the question was asked and three more times a volunteer stepped forward to be taken into the tent.

After the fifth time, all five of the men stepped out of the tent. Guru Gobind Singh called them the five beloved ones and they became the first Sikh community, known as the Khalsa. He presented each of them with the 5Ks as symbols of their purity and courage, and he announced that from then on all men would be given the name Singh (meaning lion) to represent courage, and all women would be given the name Kaur (meaning princess) to represent dignity.

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)

The Festival of Yule

As part of their Christmas celebrations, many people will probably be tucking into a delicious chocolate cake called a “Yule Log”, or they might even recognise the name “Yuletide” for this time of year, which features in the odd Christmas song.  But what does that strange little word mean?  What was, or is, Yule?

In actual fact, it is an ancient Germanic pagan festival that was traditionally celebrated throughout Northern Europe and was brought to Britain by settlers from those lands.  The full period of Yule lasted for almost two months through December and January, centred on Midwinter’s Day (21st December in the modern calendar – when the days are at their shortest before they start to get longer again), which was followed by the main 12-day festival.

As Christianity started to spread through Western Europe, one of the ways that conversion and assimilation to the new religion were encouraged was to hold the new Christian festivals at times when people were accustomed to holding major feasts and celebrations.  In the case of Yule and the Midwinter celebrations, the new Christian festival was Christmas and the 12-day Yule celebrations gradually became the 12 Days of Christmas familiar to us even today, with Christmas itself at the beginning and Epiphany (6th January) at the end (Easter, All Saints’ Day and many more were deliberately timed to coincide with earlier festivals too).

Because of its associations with the nights starting to get shorter at midwinter, Yule was a festival linked to the cycle of the year and people’s belief in the rebirth of the sun and was one of the main pagan fertility festivals.  It is also a fire festival, with celebrations centring on people gathering around a fire.  However, while the midsummer festival was all about public and community celebrations, Yule was a quieter, more reflective time when families and loved ones would gather at home around the fire.  At the centrepiece of the ancient festival was the “Yule Log”.  This was a large oak log which was brought into the house with great ceremony and lit at dusk, using a small piece of wood from the previous year’s Yule Log.  According to tradition, the log would remain alight throughout the festive period (it was considered unlucky for it go out), and was generally burned away completely apart from the small piece saved for next year.  Ashes from the Yule Log were used to make charms to bring luck, or scattered over the fields to bring fertility.

While most of us don’t burn a big oak log at Christmas, the name has persisted in one of the things we eat.  But that’s not the only link between Yule and our Christmas traditions – in fact some of the things most associated with Christmas festivities can be traced back to the ancient celebrations.  Some of us might be lucky enough to get to kiss the one we love under a sprig of mistletoe at a party or at home in the coming days, but bringing mistletoe inside at this time of year was originally a Yule tradition.  It was a sacred plant in many forms of pagan religion, especially if it had been growing on oak trees.  Midwinter was traditionally when the high priest would cut the first mistletoe, after which people would take some of the plant into their homes for decoration during the festival and because it was thought to protect the house against lightning and fire.

Light was an important element of the festival and people would try to make sure their homes and buildings in their community were as well-lit as possible to mark the time of year – just like we do by putting lights on a tree, on our houses or even on ourselves.  When you sit down on Christmas Day for dinner, you might have a lovely decoration in the centre of the table, with flowers, holly and other plants surrounding a candle that will be lit during the meal.  If you have one of these, you are also following a Yule tradition.  The Yule Candle was surrounded by evergreen plants including holly and was lit on the first evening of the festival to light the festive meal, then  burned throughout the night and all the following day.  It was then put out and relit on each of the 12 days of celebration.  Like the Yule Log, it was considered unlucky for it to go out unless extinguished deliberately.  The candle was thought to bring light and good fortune to a household for the coming year.  Burning a candle through the 12 days of Christmas was a tradition that persisted long after pagan beliefs had been largely replaced by Christianity – in fact it was common until around 150 years ago.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing a knock at the door and opening it to be greeted by people regaling us with well-known carols.  But although most of the songs they sing tell the Christian Christmas story, they are actually continuing the ancient tradition of Wassail.  The word was a common Yuletide greeting meaning something like “Good health”.  It was used as a toast while passing the “Wassail bowl” around a gathering for everyone to drink from, and when meeting friends and strangers.  People would go from house to house singing traditional festive songs and bringing their good wishes to others in the community.

It’s actually quite amazing how many of the much older Yuletide traditions gradually became incorporated into Christmas over the years.  Although the name of the festival and what people were marking and thinking about at that time of year certainly changed, many of the things they did remained the same, and some of them are still around today.  When we gather with loved ones in the coming days, we should remember that we are doing what our ancestors have been doing in late December for many centuries, and we are sharing not only a modern Christmas and all that goes with it, but also some ancient winter traditions.

Thanks once again to my amazing husband, Blue badge Guide, Ian Braisby for writing this for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox    Summer Solstice

How do they celebrate Christmas in Greece?

This is a guest post from Andrea Michael of Olive Translations.

If there’s one thing the Greeks know how to do it’s celebrate an event in style and Christmas is no exception.

The festivities begin before Christmas on 6th December (St Nicolas’ Day ) when children roam the streets with drums and triangles singing carols or ‘kalanda’ as they’re called in Greek. These carols have been handed down from generation to generation from Byzantine times.

Going from door to door, it’s a nice way to sing carols and children earn a few Euros (which in this economic climate is no bad thing!)

Greece being a Christian country, tradition and religion dictate many of the events that take place and Christmas is no exception. There is no doubt that Christmas is about celebrating Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, a bread called ‘Christopsomo’, literally ‘Christ Bread’ is homemade and a sign of the cross is imprinted before it goes in the oven. On Christmas Day, the bread is sliced and each piece is given to a family member.

Christmas Day itself is usually spent in church in the morning then home for lunch with the family. Whilst turkey can be bought at supermarkets due to the influx of tourists, most families will have a leg of lamb or pork roasting on a barbeque spit cooking for hours. This is usually served with a traditional ‘spanakopita’ or spinach-cheese pie and lots of vegetables and rice.

For dessert there are two varieties of cakes ‘melomakarouna’ and ‘kourapiedes’ which are normally baked in large quantities. ‘Melomakarouna’  are semolina, cinnamon biscuits covered in honey, and ‘kourapiedes’ are rosewater and butter cookies coated with powdered sugar that are normally served on New Year’s but are often eaten earlier as they are too good to resist!

All this good food makes for partying and it’s not uncommon for music to be blaring all night long whilst everybody dances around their houses and into the street with neighbours joining in just for fun.

Gifts are not actually exchanged on Christmas Day, but are given on 1st January. Things then wind down but not before the Epiphany on 6th January. This is the date the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism when he was a man.

The Epiphany is also known as ‘The Blessing of the Waters’. All over Greece, priests throw a cross which he has blessed into the sea ( or lake or river) and the male members of the family will dive into the freezing waters to be the first to get the cross. Whoever comes out first holding the cross is said to have good luck in the coming year.

If you happen to be in Greece and want to wish someone a ‘Merry Christmas’ it’s ‘Kala Christouyenna!’.

Related posts: Tuesday 13th   How do they celebrate Christmas in Germany    How do they celebrate Christmas in France?

Many thanks again to Andrea for this guest post.  Olive Translations, based in Birmingham, is a translation company with a difference. Certified to the highest European Translation Standard, EN 15038 and with an ISO 9001:2008 Certified Quality Management System in place, when we say Quality; we mean it. Let us be your Partner for the provision of serious, quality translations and we can work together to tailor make a service and price that’s right for you. For a quote please email: info@olivetranslations.com