by Kirk Maltais
The month of November is well underway, which means that the holiday season has begun in our nation’s stores and retail outlets. It also marks the beginning of a season filled with a slew of holidays and religious observances. Urban Views Weekly takes a look into the various celebrations taking place this winter, from the most prominent to some that do not receive as much press or airtime.
CHRISTMAS: Clearly the most prominent of all celebrations during the holiday season, Christmas is the celebration of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the Christian Lord and Savior. Celebrated every December 25, Christmas is observed by all denominations of Christianity, ranging from Roman Catholics, to Protestants, to Mormons. It is also celebrated thoroughly in Richmond, with events such as the Dominion Christmas Parade, which is taking place on December 3.
Christmas is not the only event these denominations are celebrating. On December 8, Catholics will be pausing to meditate on the Immaculate Conception, or the impregnation of the Virgin Mary by God. Later on December 23, Mormons will celebrate the birthday of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. There inlies the variety that exists within just this one religion. However, there are many other faiths celebrating during the season.
HANUKKAH: Perhaps the most widely known religious holiday of the season outside of Christmas, Hanukkah is the “Festival of Lights”, an eight-day Jewish celebration of the commemoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt of the 2nd century B.C.E. This year, Hanukkah will take place from sundown of December 20 to December 28. To mark each day of Hanukkah, a candle is lit in a Menorah, the iconic symbol of Hanukkah.
According to the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, there are nine different synagogues and religious schools in the Greater Richmond area. In addition, there are a variety of Jewish agencies in the area, making it clear that the Jewish community in Richmond is a sizable one.
The Jewish community is pretty massive,” says Josh Phillips, Counselor at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center, “I didn’t realize it until I started working at the JCC. It’s pretty far-reaching.”
According to Phillips, the Jewish community in Richmond is a mix of various strains of the faith, from conservative Orthodox Jews to the more liberal Reformed Jews. The Weinstein JCC represents the more liberal approach, which Phillips reflects in his view on what Hanukkah means to the Jewish community.
“In terms of the holidays that Jews celebrate, Hanukkah is not one of the more major holidays. It’s been made to be big to compete with Christmas, but in terms of [synagogue] attendance for Hanukkah versus Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the high holy days, it’s not quite that big,” he says. However, he notes that the existence of schools such as the Rudlin Torah Academy in Richmond shows that the city boasts an established Jewish community, one that is clearly active and vibrant in our city.
FEAST OF SACRIFICE, ISLAMIC NEW YEAR, ASHURA: While these three days do not loom particularly large in the Islamic tradition, they do coincide with the holiday season and are important to the Muslim faith. Muslims just celebrated the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) from November 6 to 9. Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael on God’s command, as a test of his devotion. Muslims use these days to fuel their desire to follow in Abraham’s example. This year, the Islamic New Year will mark the year 1433 AH on the Islamic calendar, also known as the Hijri calendar. This event will take place on November 26, after other Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving. Much like New Years Day for followers of the Gregorian calendar, the Islamic New Year is not an official religious holiday, but a time for reflection on the past year and the upcoming new year. Lastly, Ashura takes place on December 5, which is a day of fasting for Muslims. Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
Ammar Amonette, Imam of the Islamic Center of Virginia, points out that while Muslims have a variety of important days taking place during the holiday season, they are not offended by the amount of Christmas-related advertising surrounding them.
“Muslims are not offended by seeing Christian symbols and decorations. They wish well for everybody, and they hope everybody enjoys themselves,” says Amonette, also pointing out that much of the celebration is simply a commercial commodity anyway.
According to Amonette, the Islamic Center draws crowds of thousands for prayer gatherings on major holidays. For regular religious services, Amonette estimates about 700 attendees per week. There are currently eight mosques scattered around the Greater Richmond area, with about 15,000-20,000 members. According to Amonette, the Islamic Center draws Muslims from all over the state, making the organization’s place in the community an important one. However, he stresses that Muslims have an attitude of peace and acceptance for those of other faiths.
“We want to wish everyone a peaceful and joyous time of the year. We hope that all our neighbors enjoy their holidays and find fulfillment in their religious observances.”
KWANZAA: Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held in the United States to honor African-American heritage. While not attached to any one religion, Kwanzaa has been a movement since its creation in 1966 by African-American professor Maulana Karenga as the first specifically African-American holiday. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits of the harvest.” It is held every year from December 26 to January 1.
There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, called Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles of blackness. According to Karenga, these principles represent “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.” Candles are ceremoniously lit to symbolize each of these principles, and much of Kwanzaa’s imagery is representative of these principles.
Today, many estimates are available as to how many Americans observe Kwanzaa. According to the National Retail Federation, which only counts the holidays ofThanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa in its research, 1.6 percent of those surveyed planned to celebrate Kwanzaa. However, Karenga asserts that 28 million Americans celebrate Kwanzaa per year.
In Richmond, The RKK (Richmond Kwanzaa Kollective) is active in organizing Kwanzaa celebrations. Members of this group include various organizations all over the city (an up-to-date list is currently unavailable on the group’s website). While Kwanzaa may be a holiday observed by a relatively small number of people, the evidence is there to show that these same people are keeping the tradition alive.
BODHI DAY: In the Buddhist tradition, Bodhi Day, celebrated on December 8, commemorates the day that Siddhartha Gautauma, the first Buddha, experienced enlightenment. As the story goes, Gautauma meditated under a Pipul tree until he found the answer to the cause of human suffering. After maintaining his meditation and withstanding temptation from the god Mara, he discovered the answers he sought, finding that man goes through a cycle of countless lives and rebirths. By discovering this and the concept of karma, among other things, Gautauma was able to achieve the enlightened state of Nirvana and was reborn as the first Buddha.
Traditionally, Bodhi Day is commemorated by services from Buddhist places of worship. In our city, this includes the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha, which houses a wide variety of Buddhist-related groups in the area. Outside of services, the observance of this day is rather open-ended. Buddhists are allowed to supplement it with meditation, engaging in Buddhist texts and study, or just performing acts of kindness unto others. Certainly the least organized of the religious days occurring during the holiday season, but no doubt just as holy and important, to its believers, as any of the other holidays the season bears.
This article does not include all religious holidays or celebrations, but there is one point that is certain. Our community is home to people of all types and all backgrounds. This holiday season is arguably universally important, but clearly not experienced the same way universally.