This seven day period begins with Christmas Eve.
This seven day period sees the Winter Solstice on Dec 21 – also known as the pagan festival of Yule.
Yule is the time of the winter solstice, when the sun child is reborn, an image of the return of all new life born through the love of the Gods. Within the Northern Tradition Yule is regarded as the New Year.
The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world.
Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Because of this many ancient people had a great reverence for, and even worshipped the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.
The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year (21st December) and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
Many of these customs are still followed today. They have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas.
This week sees on Dec 13 St Lucy’s Day or the Feast of St. Lucy and is marked by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and also celebrated by members of the Lutheran Church.
Saint Lucy’s Day or the Feast of St. Lucy is marked by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and also celebrated by members of the Lutheran Church.
Celebrations take place in the USA and Europe, especially Scandinavia.
Lucy, whose name means ‘light’, is the patron saint of the blind.
Lucy was born in 283 AD in Syracuse, Sicily, and was killed there in 303 AD during Roman persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.
Most of the other details about Lucy are probably fabrications.
The legend of Lucy
Lucy is said to have been the daughter of a rich nobleman who died when she was young. Her mother was not a Christian and wanted to arrange a marriage between Lucy and a rich Pagan man. Lucy had committed her life to Christ and pledged to remain a virgin. She wished to spend the money intended for her dowry on alms for the poor.
Lucy travelled with her mother to the tomb of Saint Agatha. As they prayed at the tomb, Lucy saw a vision of Saint Agatha and her mother’s longstanding illness was miraculously cured as Lucy had hoped it would be. Lucy’s mother converted to Christianity.
Lucy was then able to spend her money helping the poor, but her intended bridegroom was not pleased and denounced her to the Roman governor as a Christian. (The governor’s name is sometimes given as Paschasius.)
The governor first ordered Lucy to make sacrifices to his idols, but she refused and said she would only sacrifice to Christ through her good works.
Hearing this, the governor sentenced Lucy to forced prostitution as an intensely degrading punishment, but she claimed that her soul would remain pure no matter what was done to her against her will. When the guards came to carry her out, the Holy Spirit made her body heavy and immobile, impossible to lift.
Lucy was put to death after suffering various tortures. She was burned alive and came out miraculously unharmed. According to the somewhat fanciful thirteenth-century retelling found in The Golden Legend, despite being stabbed through the neck with a dagger she continued to prophesy the downfall of the governor, the emperor and his co-regent, all of which came to pass after her death.
In other versions, Lucy’s eyes were torn out and later healed by God, a legend that supports her association with the blind and explains why she is often pictured holding two eyes on a dish.
Dec Thu 16
Ashura (Muslim )
Islamic holy day observed on the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram. Shi’ite Muslims regard it as a major festival marking the martydom of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein.
Ashura has been a day of fasting for Sunni Muslims since the days of the early Muslim community. It marks two historical events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the Ark, and the day that Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah.
Shi’a Muslims in particular use the day to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet, in 680 CE.
In Shi’ite communities this is a solemn day: plays re-enacting the martyrdom are often staged and many take part in mourning rituals.
Every year in London Shi’a Muslims gather for a mourning procession and speeches at Marble Arch. The procession attracts up to 3000 men, women and children from many different ethinic backgrounds.
This week sees on Dec 7 Al-Hijira, the Islamic New Year which marks the migration of the Prophet Mohammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina.
Al-Hijra, the Islamic New Year, is the first day of the month of Muharram. It marks the Hijra (or Hegira) in 622 CE when the Prophet Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina, and set up the first Islamic state.
The Muslim calendar counts dates from the Hijra, which is why Muslim dates have the suffix A.H. (After Hijra).
It’s a low-key event in the Muslim world, celebrated less than the two major festivals of Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha.
New Year rituals
There is no specific religious ritual required on this day, but Muslims will think about the general meaning of Hijra, and regard this as a good time for ‘New Year Resolutions’.
The start of Islam as a community
The date marks the beginning of Islam as a community in which spiritual and earthly life were completely integrated. It was a community inspired by God, and totally obedient to God; a group of people bound together by faith
By breaking the link with his own tribe the Prophet demonstrated that tribal and family loyalties were insignificant compared to the bonds of Islam.
This Muslim community grew steadily over time, unifying the many tribes that had made up the Arab world beforehand.
Earthly and heavenly power
Islam now developed as a combined spiritual and earthly community, with political and military power working hand in hand with spiritual power and guidance.
At the same time the community developed the religious and ethical codes of behaviour that still provide the foundation of Muslim life.
Dec Wed 8
Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Christian )
Celebrated by Roman Catholics who remember Mary’s conception as being without sin, therefore, immaculate.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, the mother of Christ, was conceived without sin and her conception was thus immaculate.
Mary’s sinless conception is the reason why Catholics refer to Mary as “full of grace”.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated by Catholics on December 8th each year.
Bodhi Day (Buddhist )
On Bodhi day some Buddhists celebrate Gautama’s attainment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, India.
The beginning of the ecclesiastical year on the Sunday closest to November 30. Advent is the season before Christmas – In Western Christendom, four Sundays are included. In Eastern Christendom, the season is longer and begins in the middle of November.
Nov Tue 30
St Andrew’s Day (Christian )
Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, Greece and Russia. The flag of Scotland is the Cross of St. Andrew. St Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was originally a fisherman and became the first Apostle.
Saint Andrew’s Day is November 30.
Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, Greece and Russia and was Christ’s first disciple.
There are around 600 pre-Reformation churches in England named after Saint Andrew, in contrast to Scotland’s handful of churches of all denominations named after the saint. Nevertheless, it was Scotland that adopted Andrew as its patron – probably because, Saint Andrew being the brother of Saint Peter, it gave the Scots considerable political leverage with the Pope in pleading for help against the belligerent English!
In Greek Andrew means ‘manly’. St. Andrew’s biographical details are simple: he was born between AD 5 and AD 10 in Bethsaida, the principal fishing port of Palestine. His parents were Jona and Joanna; his brother was Simon. Jona, along with his business-partner and friend Zebedee and his sons James and John, was a fisherman.
Andrew had a strong sense of curiosity. He would have gone to the synagogue school at the age of five to study scripture and then astronomy and arithmetic.
Later, on the banks of the Jordan, Andrew met John the Baptist: he was the first disciple and the first apostle. It was he who brought the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus before the feeding of the five thousand.
According to the apocryphal ‘Acts of Andrew’ he is said to have travelled to Asia Minor and the Black Sea. In the city of Synope he is believed to have suffered great hardships and the house he was in was nearly burnt down. He returned twice more to Asia Minor and Greece, even travelling as far as Hungary, Russia and to the banks of the Oder in Poland.
In Greece, Andrew forced his way through a forest inhabited by wolves, bears and tigers. Finally, in Patras, he was given the choice of being offered as a sacrifice to the gods or being scourged and crucified. By his own request the cross was diagonal. He, like his brother Peter, felt himself unworthy to be crucified on the upright cross of Christ.
He hung for three days on the cross, fixed not by nails but by rope round his hands and feet. Even in his last agony, he continued to preach. So ended the life of Saint Andrew. What happened to his body, however, is the next part of the story.
Andrew’s bones come to Scotland
How did the bones of Saint Andrew come to Scotland? There are two versions – the first a pious fable. In this, Saint Regulus (later known as Rule), a Greek monk and keeper of St Andrew’s relics at Patras, was told in a vision to set hide some of the relics until further instruction. A few days later, the emperor Constantine removed the remaining parts of Andrew’s body to Constantinople.
An angel again appeared and told Rule to take the bones he had hidden and go west by ship. Wherever they were shipwrecked he should lay the foundations of a church. The angel foretold how pilgrims would travel to this shrine from all parts of the West to receive health of body and soul.
Saint Rule’s ship was driven ashore by a storm onto the headland of Muckross in Fife, into the little village of Kilrymont (later St Andrews). Halfway between the Castle and the harbour is said to be Saint Rule’s cell.
At the time Saint Rule landed, the Apostle appeared to the Pictish King, promising victory to his enemies. In gratitude, the King confirmed the dedication of St. Regulus Church to God and Saint Andrew.
This is, one suspects, an arresting fable that telescopes more mundane and complicated historical fact. A second (and probably more reliable) explanation says that the bones were brought to St Andrews about 732 AD by Acca, Bishop of Hexham (near Newcastle), a well known venerator of Saint Andrew.
Around the year 832AD (although some say 735 AD) the Northumbrian King Athelstane is said to have camped at what is now Athelstaneford in East Lothian, before his battle with the Picts under King Angus mac Fergus. Saint Andrew appeared to Angus in a dream and promised victory. During the battle, a saltire cross was seen in the sky, putting heart into the Scots (note, this was not jumbo-jet vapour trails or even necessarily a cloud formation!).
Athelstane was killed at the ford over the Cogtail burn. In gratitude, Angus gave gifts to the church of Saint Regulus at St Andrews. He then ordered the Cross of Saint Andrew to be the badge of the Picts.
However, this foundation story of a more stable kingdom in what would become Scotland is almost certainly modelled on the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great’s victory at the Milvian Bridge, Rome in 312 AD at the banks of the River Tiber when he became convinced of the power of Christianity by seeing the symbol of Christ (the Chi Rho – the Greek letters Χ Ρ, the first letters of ‘Christ’) in the rays of the setting sun.
Whatever route the bones of Saint Andrew may have taken, we do know that in AD 908, the only bishopric in Scotland was transferred from Abernethy (the royal residence) to St Andrews. Subsequently, the town rapidly became famous as a pilgrimage site.
Increase in popularity
During the reign of Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret, devotion to Saint Andrew became nationwide and Andrewmas was made a national festival. Scottish soldiers fighting in the Crusades honoured Saint Andrew as Patron of Christian Knighthood.
In 1318 St. Andrew’s Cathedral was dedicated and became known as the Canterbury of the North. It was the largest church in Scotland before the Reformation. In 1411 Saint Andrew’s University was founded and sixty-one years later, the See of St. Andrews was raised to Metropolitan status.
At the Reformation, the great Morbrac (reliquary) which carried the bones of the saint and weighed one third of a ton, was destroyed. The street games, the festivities, the fireworks and the processions with evergreens, which used to take place on 30 November, were banished for ever.
Andrew’s significance to the Scots
What, in practice, did Saint Andrew mean to the Scots? When, in 1603, the new King James I and VI tried to make one united flag, the Scots resisted because the saltire cross had been given an inferior position in the design. Scottish ships at sea persisted in flying the Saint Andrew’s Cross.
The Union Jack was the official flag from the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. But, while the red Lion Rampant is the proper Royal flag for Scotland and the Thistle the national badge, official heraldic decrees state that the national flag and arms of Scotland are the Saint Andrew’s Cross.
Saint Andrew is patron of Russia and Greece but has special significance for the Scots. The Declaration of Arbroath (1320), written by Scottish clergymen to Pope John XXII, was an appeal to the Pope against the English claim that Scotland fell within the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York.
The Declaration argues that the Scots were a distinct people who had long enjoyed the protection of Saint Andrew, brother of Saint Peter. Saint Andrew is described in the Declaration of Arbroath as “our patron or protector”.
At the Battle of Bannockburn, near Stirling in 1314, the Scottish soldiers had worn the white cross of St Andrew on their tunics and before the battle began they knelt in prayer, invoking his protection.
Four years later Robert the Bruce, at the dedication of St Andrews Cathedral on 5 July 1318, placed a parchment at the High Altar expressing nation’s thanks to the saint.
William Wallace’s battle-cry was “St. Andrew mot us speed” (May Saint Andrew support us). Prior to the disastrous Scottish defeat at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, a great many Saint Andrew’s crosses were made at the Boroughmuir in Edinburgh.
The Blue Blanket flag gifted to the Trade Guilds of Edinburgh also bore the Saint Andrew’s Cross, while Scotland’s largest ship, the Great Michael, was full of Saint Andrew’s Crosses, as were the Honours of Scotland.
Mary, Queen of Scots’ forces carried the saltire at the battle of Carberry; many Jacobite flags in the ’45 Uprising also displayed the saltire. It soon became incorporated into the official badges of Scottish regiments. There was even a Saint Andrew coin issued by Robert II and a bawbee Scots halfpenny marked with the same cross.
Movement of relics
In modern times, the bones of Saint Andrew once more returned to Scotland. In 1879 the Archbishop of Amalfi in Italy (where the bones had been brought in 1453 after the fall of Constantinople) sent to Edinburgh what was believed to be the shoulder-blade of St Andrew.
At St Peter’s, Rome in April 1969, Pope Paul VI gave another relic – part of the skull of the saint – to Cardinal Gordon Gray, at that time Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. “Peter greets his brother Andrew,” were the words of the Pope to the Archbishop. The relics of the Apostle are today displayed at St Andrew’s altar in the Metropolitan Cathedral of St Mary in Edinburgh. At St. Andrew’s Cathedral by the shore at Patras, Greece other parts of the skull of Saint Andrew are cherished in a place of honour.
While it is permissible to be sceptical about the authenticity of relics, there can be no doubt about the value of an annual celebration of St. Andrew as representing strength and curiosity, two qualities which are by tradition very much part of the Scottish psyche.
Saint Andrew was a ‘networker’ – a fisherman but also the one who brought the Gentiles (non-Jews) to Jesus and preached about him as far as the Black Sea. The saltire cross is a multiplication sign – reminding us that it was Saint Andrew who brought the little boy and his loaves and fishes to Jesus. Perhaps Saint Andrew was good at shaming those who had hidden their food to share it with the 5,000 others?
Dec Thu 2
Hanukkah (Jewish )
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights and marks the restoration of the temple by the Maccabees in 164 BCE. Hanukkah is celebrated at roughly the same time as Christmas, but there is no connection at all between the festivals.
Hanukkah or Chanukah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It dates back to two centuries before the beginning of Christianity.
The festival begins on the 25th day of Kislev and is celebrated for eight days. In the western calendar Hanukkah is celebrated in November or December.
The word Hanukkah means rededication and commemorates the Jews’ struggle for religious freedom.
The festival marks the phenomenal victory of a group of Jews called the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks, the most powerful army of the ancient world.
At the end of the three-year war, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the temple.
When the Maccabees rededicated the temple, they discovered a single cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact.
When they came to light the eight-branched temple candelabrum, the menorah, they had enough oil to last only a day.
But the menorah miraculously stayed alight for eight days. This became known as the miracle of the oil.
Lighting the Menorah
It is because of this miracle that candles are lit from right to left during Hanukkah.
On day one, the first candle is lit; on the second night Jews light two candles, and the pattern continues. By the eighth night, all eight candles are alight. They are lit from a separate candle, the Shamash or servant candle.
During Hanukkah Jews follow simple religious rituals in addition to their regular daily prayers from the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book.
They recite three blessings during the eight-day festival. On the first night, they recite three and on subsequent nights they say the first two.
The blessings are said before the candles are lit. After the candles are lit, they recite the Hanerot Halalu prayer and then sing a hymn.
Traditional Hanukkah foods
Potato pancakes and deep-fried doughnuts are traditional Hanukkah treats.
Fried food in particular reminds Jews of the miracle of the oil and the candles that burned for eight days after the Maccabees won back the temple in Jerusalem.
Dairy products are often eaten during Hanukkah. The tradition has its roots in the story of Judith (Yehudit) who saved her village from the Syrians by making an offering of cheese and wine to the governor of the enemy troops.
Judith encouraged the governor to get drunk. After he collapsed on the floor, she beheaded him with his own sword and took his head back to the village in a basket.
When the Syrian troops discovered their governor had been beheaded, they fled.
It is customary to play games at Hanukkah. The most common game uses a dreidel and is a popular way of helping children to remember the great miracle.
A dreidel is a spinning top with a different Hebrew letter inscribed on each of its four sides.
The four letters form an acronym that means: ‘A great miracle happened here.’
The stakes are usually chocolate coins but sometimes pennies, peanuts or raisins are also used.
Each player puts a coin in the pot and takes it in turns to spin the dreidel. The letter on which the dreidel stops determines each player’s score.
Other games include trying to knock other players’ dreidels down and trying to spin as many dreidels as possible at any one time.
The exchange of gifts or gelt is another old and cherished Hanukkah custom that dates back to at least the Middle Ages, possibly earlier.
Gelt is the Yiddish term for money. Modern day gelt includes saving bonds, cheques and chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was one of the greatest religious innovators of all time and the founder of the Sikh religion.
Guru Nanak’s birthday is celebrated by Sikhs on April 14th by the Nanakshahi calendar. (The date according to the lunar calendar changes annually but is usually in November.)
Nanak’s religious ideas draw on both Hindu and Islamic thought, but are far more than just a synthesis. Nanak was an original spiritual thinker and expressed his thoughts in extraordinary poetry that forms the basis of Sikh scripture.
Little is known about the life of Nanak, but Sikh tradition has a much-loved set of stories or janam sakhis which relate various incidents from his life, and include many of his important teachings.
Nanak was born about 40 miles from Lahore (now in Pakistan) in 1469. Sikh traditions teach that his birth and early years were marked with many events that demonstrated that God had marked him out for something special and was keeping an eye on him.
His family were Hindus, but Nanak soon showed an advanced interest in religion and studied Islam and Hinduism extensively. As a child he demonstrated great ability as a poet and philosopher.
One famous story about Guru Nanak tells of his rebellion at the age of eleven. At this age Hindu boys of his caste would start to wear the sacred thread to distinguish them. Nanak refused, saying that people should be distinguished by the things that they did, and their individual qualities, rather than by a thread.
Nanak continued to demonstrate a radical spiritual streak – arguing with local holy men and sages, both Hindu and Muslim, that external things like pilgrimages, penances, and poverty were of far less spiritual importance than internal changes to the individual’s soul.
He worked for a while as an accountant but while still quite young decided to devote himself to spiritual matters. He was inspired by a powerful spiritual experience that gave him a vision of the true nature of God, and confirmed his idea that the way to spiritual growth was through meditation and through living in a way that reflected the presence of the divine within each human being.
In 1496, although married and having a family, Nanak set out on a set of spiritual journeys through India, Tibet and Arabia that lasted nearly 30 years. He studied and debated with the learned men he met along the way and as his ideas took shape he began to teach a new route to spiritual fulfilment and the good life.
The last part of his life was spent at Kartarpur in the Punjab, where he was joined by many disciples attracted by his teachings.
The most famous teachings attributed to Guru Nanak are that there is only one God, and that all human beings can have direct access to God with no need of rituals or priests. His most radical social teachings denounced the caste system and taught that everyone is equal, regardless of caste or gender.
Nov Tue 23
Niinamesei (Shinto )
Labour Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in Japan and originally a harvest festival. Late summer and autumn feature many aki matsuri, autumn festivals, often thanking the kami for a good harvest. Different shrines countrywide hold their own celebrations on varying dates.
This national holiday is marked on 23 November. Nowadays it is celebrated as a labour-thanksgiving day.
It was originally a harvest festival in which rituals were performed by the Imperial family to give thanks for a good crop yield.
Nov Wed 24
Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur (Nanakshahi calendar) (Sikh )
Guru Tegh Bahadur was the ninth Sikh Guru and is honoured as a champion of religious freedom. He was executed in 1675 for refusing to convert to Islam.
Guru Tegh Bahadur, 1621-75
Born in Amritsar, Guru Tegh Bahadur was the ninth of the ten Gurus who founded Sikhism.
He’s honoured and remembered as the man who championed the rights for all religious freedom.
He taught liberation from attachment, fear and dependence. Strength should be gained through truth, worship, sacrifice and knowledge.
During the reign of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, Islam was imposed on the people. Hindu temples were demolished and turned into mosques, higher taxes were charged to non-Muslims and the Emperor persecuted those who would not conform to Islamic law.
Guru Tegh Bahadur spoke out amid this persecution. He refused to convert to Islam and in 1675, he was beheaded in Delhi. The site of his execution was later turned into an important Gurdwara.
He’s also remembered for his poetry, much of which is included in the Guru Granth Sahib.
He married Bibi Gujjari and they had one son: the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.
He founded the city of Anandpur which later became a centre of Sikhism.