Putting mystery back in the holidays of miracles and light


December’s mainstay holidays are cloaked in mystery and miracles. Darkness to light summarizes the current holiday season theme regardless of which ones you observe.

Hanukkah, Christmas, and even the winter solstice share those common qualities. They each come with their own history, a bit of mystery, and a requisite for reverence. The three even overlap in time, traditions, and symbols.

Hanukkah and Christmas each have deep, overlapping religious roots, while the winter solstice has pagan origins. All three, however, connect winter’s darkness with some concept of light. In fact, the triumvirate celebrates light in authentic, yet distinctive practices.

Besides illuminating light in the year’s darkest time, this triune of holidays has another commonality. The celebration of all three can last for days in keeping their specific purposes.

The winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its farthest southward point for the year. That is precisely 9:19 p.m. EST on December 21. In Universal Time, the winter solstice is December 22 at 4:49 a.m.

The winter solstice marks the latest dawn and the earliest sunset. It is the longest night and shortest day for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, it’s just the opposite for those south of the equator.

History and archeology show us that earth’s early peoples recognized this critical point in whatever way they marked time. They understood that the sun’s path could be predicted on a regular route across the sky.

Archeological wonders like England’s Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu stand as evidence of this. Indigenous peoples in America’s southwest also marked the end of darkness in similar light-filled ceremonies.

Historians are still unraveling the mysteries of these cultural rituals. Fire and light were essential symbols in most of these ancient celebrations. I marvel at how those two entities connect to Hanukkah and Christmas.

This year Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish faith from December 22 to 30. Hanukkah is the commemoration of a historic miracle involving light.

The Jewish holiday arose after the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured from cruel ruler Antiochus. Wanting to rededicate the holy temple, the Judah victors found only enough olive oil to burn sacred candles for one night. Mysteriously, the menorah candle burned for eight consecutive nights, establishing the miracle of Hanukkah.

Christmas, of course, is December 25, most likely assigned that date to coincide with the winter solstice and Hanukkah celebrations, according to some historians. They reasoned that if the shepherds were guarding the grazing sheep, the season would have been one other than winter.

Regardless, Christmastime is a celebration of another kind of light. It, too, is rooted in a miracle, that of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, meaning, “God with us.”

Christians begin the Yuletide season with the Advent preparation four weeks ahead of Christmas Day. Some sects of Christianity then extend the celebration to January 6 or Epiphany or Old Christmas, which the Amish humbly celebrate.

For me, in this blend of holidays, the light brings anticipation of better things to come: lighter, longer days, a hope for a better, sunnier new year, the joy of personal peace by walking with the light, and the love of all Creation.

The vibrant spirits of the season, miracle and mystery, gently weave the interconnected holiday celebrations together with the threads of hope, joy, peace, and love. Will we allow ourselves to be wrapped lovingly in this warm garment more radiant than the brightest star?

I pray that the mystery of miracle envelops you and yours in joy and light this holiday season.

Winter solstice sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

In 2016, embrace the joy of laughter in your life

transposition, funny sign
Mixed marketing?

By Bruce Stambaugh

As we approach Epiphany, the Advent season of hope, love, joy and peace comes to an end. The challenge for us, however, is to keep that quartet of ideals alive in the New Year.

The Amish celebrate Jan. 6 as Old Christmas, a time of gathering with family and friends, reflecting on what has been and what may yet be. In reality, it is more solemnity than celebration. Still, they gather to commemorate and converse, glad for another year of life.

Knowing some of my ornery Amish friends, I doubt the day will pass without a few light-hearted ribbings and laughs. Everything in moderation as the saying goes.

Just like music, laughter can bind folks together so long as the merriment doesn’t ridicule anyone. Coming out of the holidays into the New Year, we had plenty of opportunities to laugh with friends and family.

humorous sign
The 11th Commandment.

My six-year-old granddaughter led the way. When visiting our home over the holidays, I asked her one evening if she wanted anything. Her reply made me laugh.

“A glass of cranberry juice and a large carrot,” was Maren’s reply. I complied with a grin on my face. She was happy, and so was I but for a very different reason.

I wondered why the rest of the world’s entreaties couldn’t be so simple. We live in a fearsome, troubled world. Here was a kindergartner who only made a simple request, and in the process innocently made the seasonal celebration even more joyful.

Her comment wasn’t the only one that made me chuckle. Given my circle of family and friends, we laughed a lot.

A gathering of the cancer support group I belong to was one such setting. The six of us met with our spouses, and given the mix of characters among the couples, laughs were guaranteed. It’s always good to face down cancer with a group snicker or two.

At a friend’s open house for his new baby, the small congregate laughed and laughed at story after story. Good-natured chiding made for one lively evening. All the while, the baby slept and slept, apparently comforted by our genuine regard.

We hosted a long-standing Christmas Eve tradition of breakfast with lifetime friends. You should have seen my friend smile when he opened his gift of a travel mug from our 50th high school reunion that neither of us attended.

reunion items, smiles
All smiles.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” he said. I know. But I did. It was fun.

Grandchildren at Christmas can be as antsy as any time of year. Determined to keep things moving, I challenged my granddaughter to play the board game Candyland. She got bored at winning. I adored being her patsy.

At our son’s place, the nine-year-old grandson stole the act. Prompted by his uncle, Davis’ timing was perfect when he disrupted an adult guest’s soliloquy with the man’s own conversational trick, “Sorry to interrupt you, but…” Davis brought down the house.

Other cheery times are less visible but just as productive. I put my car keys where I’m sure to find them instead of their usual location, and then I can’t remember where the surefire spot was. It’s good to go easy on yourself.

Like beads on a bracelet, each moment of laughter is strung together to brighten and lighten life. In 2016, I hope your world is filled with lots of laughter, even if it is only a cup of cranberry juice and one large carrot.

funny sign, laughing
May 2016 bring lots of laughs.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

How Amish celebrate the holidays

Amish church by Bruce Stambaugh
Amish on their way to church near Mt. Hope, Ohio. Church was held in a member's home.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The Amish enjoy celebrating the holidays just as much as anyone else. They simply go about it a bit differently.

Defining how the Amish celebrate America’s most time-honored holidays deserves an introductory explanation. The Amish are divided into church groups, usually about 100 persons per church. And by church, they mean fellowship, since they hold church in their homes, shops or barns.

There are actually many different types or orders of Amish. The Swartzentruber Amish are considered to be the lowest order, with the New Order Amish the highest, since they hold Sunday school on the alternate worship Sundays.

Using the terms “lowest” and “highest” is not intended to be derogatory or even hierarchical. It simply is the way it is with the Amish. Those in between are the Old Order, by far the most numerous in among the Amish population. The orders are simply determined by rules of the church leaders.

Clearly, defining the Amish is a lot harder than their simple lifestyles might let on. Nevertheless, they all celebrate the holidays one way or another.

The key to understanding how the Amish do so lies in this understanding. You can’t generalize about the Amish. Their holiday traditions and rituals vary from family to family, church-to-church and sect-to-sect, not much different that any other culture or ethnic group.

Modesty is a major principle in the values of the Amish. That fact can be seen in exactly how the Amish keep the holidays. In living out their faith beliefs, they do so joyously surrounded by food, family and friends.

Here then is an overview of how any given Amish family, save those in the Swartzentruber order, might celebrate the holidays.

Thanksgiving

Most Amish take advantage of this national holiday just the way the rest of the country would. They gather with family, extended family and friends and enjoy turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, a vegetable and of course dessert, usually homemade pie.

However, instead of breakfast, many of the Amish fast prior to the large noon meal. Fasting is a physical sign of purification in preparation for the celebration.

The lower order Amish, however, have a different take on Thanksgiving. They see it as an opportunity to prepare for the winter months ahead. For them, Thanksgiving is the big hog-butchering day. They’ll save their substantial meal for another later.

Christmas

From the Amish perspective, anyone not Amish is considered “English.” The Amish recognize and respect the “English” demarcation of Christmas on December 25. For them, Christmas is a sacred day in honor of the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. And here again, many, though not all, will fast prior to their family gathering.

Amish actually celebrate Christmas twice, once on the standard date of December 25, and again on January 6, commonly referred to as Old Christmas. In higher religions, that day is known as Epiphany.

Unlike the rest of society that celebrates Christmas, the Amish do not have Christmas trees or decorations. They will, however, burn Christmas candles in honor of the day.

After the usual Christmas meal of turkey or ham and all the trimmings, the Amish will spend the afternoon and evening away playing table games, board games and cards. None of the card games would involve using face cards.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without gifts and the Amish carry out this tradition of gift giving as well. The gifts will be wrapped, but usually nothing elaborate. Children will receive toys.

Since not all of Amish Country is Amish, the usual holiday decorations and activities occur like in the rest of Christendom. Millersburg, the Holmes County, Ohio seat,  holds a Christmas parade, Santa included, and on December 10 will initiate its first candlelight church walk from 6 to 8 p.m.

Berlin, Ohio, the hub of Amish Country, has a luminary ceremony. Even little Mt. Hope, where mostly Amish live, has a Christmas parade and a live nativity scene. Santa, however, is nowhere to be found.

Old Christmas

Old Christmas harkens back to the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar during the latter stages of the Reformation when Pope Gregory XIII switched Christmas to December 25. Out of tradition and reverence for their forefathers, the Amish have continued to honor Christ’s birth on January 6.

Unlike the more jovial December 25 celebrations, Old Christmas is more solemn. It begins with fasting, followed by another typical Christmas meal and some more gift giving. However, the emphasis is on reflecting and visiting as apposed to reveling.

No matter which holiday is being celebrated, family is always an important element in any get-together for the Amish. And that is true for any Amish order.