My Holiday Cheatsheet for Nonreligious Parents is gaining a wider audience, having been picked up recently by the PBS NewsHour website. (Have I mentioned how much I love working with those guys?!) First, they ran my piece on Ash Wednesday and Lent. Then, this week, they ran my piece on Purim. You may have noticed they are a bit more conservative in their word usage; whereas it was originally called: "Quick! What the Hell is Purim?," The NewsHour changed it to "Quick! What the Heck is Purim?" Oh, PBS. You are so PG. But who's complaining?
Man, I loves me some Buddhism.
It's all just so common sensical. By following even one tenant in the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I'm certain he would be a self-help guru. He'd make a damn good one, too.
Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that you don't need to believe in a deity at all), it's still got some of the classic markers, and the celebration of holidays is one of them.
So here's a brief rundown on a biggie in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.
Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)
AKA: Wesak or Vesākha
Religion Represented: Buddhism
Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
Date: Most countries celebrate Vesak on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2014, it falls on May 14, although it's being celebrated the 15th and 16th in other parts of the world.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.
Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guantama, AKA the Buddha
Back Story: Siddhartha Guantama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother's side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha's mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king's palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or "holy man" — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his "Enlightenment" and became known as the Buddha.
What's the Deal with Enlightenment?: According to scripture, the Buddha was sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, meditating, when he devised of the Four Noble Truths (the cause of all human suffering) and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solution). This is what is referred to as his Enlightenment. His realization was rather simple: If people followed the Eightfold Path, they could eliminate their suffering (as he had done!) and thereby achieve Nirvana. It was an extraordinary conclusion, and he spent the next 40 to 50 years expanding on it so that others could practice it for themselves. Much revered, Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80(ish.)
Associated Literary Passages: The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa (A second translation is here), The Dhammapada, The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, and The Life of Buddha by Andre Ferdinand Herold, among others.
The Food and Fun: Buddhists partake in any number of Asian dishes on Vesak, but consume no meat — a symbol of their compassion for all living things. They also visit monasteries, give to charity, hang lanterns, decorate with flowers, and listen to lessons offered by monks. Often, they'll have parades of musicians, dancers, floats and dragons. A Baby Buddha statue is a commonality, and celebrants often pour water over the statue to symbolize, among other things, a pure and new beginning. Most importantly, Buddhists reaffirm their devotion to the Buddha's 10 precepts and teachings.
Conveying meaning to kids: It's never too early to introduce youngsters to the Buddha and his Eightfold path, and Vesak is a great excuse. You might also might consider making paper lanterns or drawing pictures of lotus blossoms. Show your child some pictures of Buddhist monks. Enjoy a vegetarian meal. Check out some books: I particularly like Buddha by Susan L. Roth. Make a Buddhist flag and fly it. If there's one thing I've learned about talking to kids about religion, it's that it really helps to have props: A menorah on the table during Hanukkah, a nativity scene at Christmas. Consider picking up a Buddha statue or statuette — something for your child to look at and touch while you talk about Buddhism. It’s the difference between books without pictures and those with; you're just more likely to hold the kid's attention if you present something interesting for them to look at.
This post originally appeared in April 2012.
So much of religion centers on food. The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)
Yesterday was Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans had one hell of a street party. Many Catholics were getting their ya-ya's out because today is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks, swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.
Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?
Anyway, here's the low-down on Ash Wednesday.
Holiday: Ash Wednesday
Religion represented: Christianity
Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. This year, it's March 5. In 2015, it will be Feb. 18.
Celebrates: The first day of Lent.
What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.
Star of the Show: Jesus
Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins..In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily.
Ash Wednesday: Observers attend worship services, where a priest or minister combines ashes with water or a little oil, dips his or her thumb into the mixture, and uses it to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads.
The Food and Fun: Food and fun? Um, not so much, unless you include Fat Tuesday — which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday and serves as Christians’ last hurray before Lent. Traditionally, Christians are meant to “give up” something they enjoy and instead give to charity. For example, one might give up watching TV and instead donate that time to volunteer work. Or a person might give up Dr. Pepper and use the money saved to buy toys for poor children. That sort of thing. It’s actually a really beautiful idea — taking away something we love and, in a sense, giving it away to someone else. Selflessness at its best.
Conveying meaning to kids: Maybe show a picture of a person with an ashen cross on his head. Explain that, on Ash Wednesday, lots of Christians go to church to receive this symbol. (If you haven’t touched on the fact that a cross is a religious symbol, now would be a good time.) People who receive the cross, you can say, are showing their devotion to their God and their desire to turn away from sin (bad acts), so that they will be invited into heaven when they die. Then you can explain the three aspects of Lent and introduce the idea of giving up something you love and giving to someone in need. If the children are interested in giving Lent a whirl, maybe brainstorm some ideas and embark on the experiment together.
Be sure to check out other entries in Relax, It's Just God's Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.
A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.
You know what my life is missing? A Muslim kid. There's no doubt that if I had Muslim friends with a Muslim child, I would be telling my 8-year-old a lot more about Islam than I do — not just because I would want her understand her friends' beliefs, but because it would naturally just "come up" more often.
Having a living, breathing religious person in our midst really is the perfect invitation for religious literacy I've ever found. And vice versa! That's part of the reason I'm glad some of my friend's children know about my lack of religious beliefs; it gives those families an opening to talk about atheism and agnosticism in a compassionate way.
That Muslims so far have been given short shrift in my household is particularly disappointing given that Islam is one of the most widely misunderstood of the world's religions. So, starting today, which happens to be Muhammad's Birthday, I'm determined to find a few new ways to work Islam into our conversations. Anyone want to join me? If so, here are the basics:
Deity: Allah (“The God” in Arabic)
Famous Dogma: There is only one true Allah, and this Allah neither begets nor is begotten. (This is different from Hinduism, which encourages the worship of many gods, and Christianity, which encourages the worship of Jesus as Allah’s "only begotten son." Muslims revere Muhammad, but they do not worship him.)
Methods of Worship: Prayer (required five times a day, using prayer mats that face a building called the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca), reciting/singing the Qur'an, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Formal services occur at mosques every Friday at noon.
Symbol: Star and the crescent
Major Sects: Sunni and Shia
Sacred Texts: The Qur'an and the Hadith
Life-Cycle Celebrations: Naming ceremonies, marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca — which are called Hajj.
Traditional Views of Afterlife: Righteous believers — those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur'an and believe in one true Allah — are said to go to Paradise, a garden-like place of pleasure. Hell is depicted as a fiery place where those who do not conform to the teachings of the Qur'an will be banished forever.
Clothing: The Qur'an encourages all Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but some Muslims have interpreted parts of the Qu'ran in a way that requires women to wear hijab (pronounced hee-JOB), clothing that covers the head and/or body. Most American Muslim women wear only head coverings as their hijab, while more devout Muslim women may be seen in face veils and abayas — long cloaks worn over their clothing. Only in very strict countries (such as Afghanistan) do women wear hijab in the form of full burkas, which cover their entire bodies, head to toe, including their eyes.
Major Narrative: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was orphaned at age 6 and placed with family members — first his grandmother and then his uncle. He was a merchant and a shepherd and was known around Mecca as a man of high character. As an adult, Muhammad regularly took a few weeks off to meditate by himself in a nearby cave. During one visit, made when he was 40, Muhammad said he heard a voice speak to him. It was, he later learned, the angel Gabriel (yes, the same Gabriel from Christianity) acting as a sort of liaison to Allah and delivering messages intended just for him. Allah, Muhammad said, told him that there was only one true Allah, and that Muhammad should call himself a prophet and deliver messages about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. Muhammad did as he was told, and was said to receive messages from God throughout the next two decades. Those messages eventually were compiled into the Qua'ran.
Interesting Fact: Depicting the prophet Muhammad is expressly forbidden in Islam, which is why Arabic calligraphy is such a popular art form in Islamic countries.
Important Holidays: Ramadan (a month of fasting celebrating Allah’s first contacted Muhammad), Eid ul-Fitr (a feast celebrating the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah), and Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday.)
Recommended Reading: My First Ramadan by Karen Katz (ages 3-5); The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (5 and up); Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (6 and up); Celebrating Ramadan by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (7 and up); , Muhammad by Demi (8 and up)
Recommended Viewing: Muhammad: The Last Prophet, an animated film about Muhammad’s life, is intended for small children. For slightly older children, there’s Koran by Heart, a touching HBO documentary that follows three 10-year-old Muslim children.
Recommended Eating: "Haram" refers to foods not permitted under Islamic law (alcohol and pork being the main prohibitions) "Halal" refers to foods that are permitted — including any meat which has been slaughtered according to Sharia law (for example, the animal must be treated well, must not suffer during death, and must face Mecca at the time of slaughter). Other good stuff: hummus, Baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, kebabs, chicken shawarma...
After writing this post, I realized that I do know a Muslim child. In a way, we all do. Malala Yousafzai, who is fighting for the rights of all children to receive an education in Afghanistan, could well be considered the new face of Islam. Non-Muslims may not agree with her religious beliefs, but her actions as a human being transcend all of that. What we hold in common is far more powerful than what what sets us apart. Let's make sure we let our children know that.
Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day Religion Represented: Christianity
Date: Feb. 14
Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.
What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: St. Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said St. Valentine is rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday.
Stars of the Show: St. Valentine
Back Story: No one really knows. In fact, it's probably that Valentine referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.
Associated Literary Passages: There are none.
So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy. Jesus is considered the first and best saint.
The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. Click here to find out more about Catholicism.
Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.
Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.
That and, of course, Valentine's cards.
Here's the Diwali installment of Relax, It's Just God's beloved* Holiday Cheat Sheet, a series offering parents the quick and dirty run-down on major religious holidays, so that they might come across as intelligent beings to their kids. I'm sure you guys remember all this stuff from last year, but rest assured, Diwali is just as cool and fun as it has always been. Why? (C'mon, you don't remember this?) Let me count the ways:
2. Bollywood music
4. Cool back story
* too strong?
AKA: “Festival of Lights”
Religion Represented: Hinduism
Date: Corresponds with the new moon that falls between the 7th and 8th months of the Hindu lunisolar calendar. In 2013, the date is Nov. 3
Celebrates: The Hindu New Year
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Diwali is a 10.
Star of the Show: Lord Rama
The Back Story: Diwali celebrates the conquest of good over evil. There are lots of legends of how it began, but one of the most common is that Lord Rama — said to be an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu — was exiled from his father’s kingdom for 14 years. While in exile, Rama’s wife was kidnapped, precipitating an epic journey to rescue her and defeat her demon captors. Following Rama’s victory, he returned to the kingdom to be crowned king and, eventually, emperor. His rule was a time of joy, peace and prosperity, and his people marked the happy homecoming by lighting rows of clay lamps, setting off fireworks and celebrating with family.
Associated Literary Passages: This story of Lord Rama is part of the Ramayana, one of the longest poems ever written and a "national epic of India."
The Food: There is not a set menu for Diwali, but dinner tends to be elaborate and vegetarian: curry, samosa, paneer, sabzi, rice and naan, among other yummies. And sweets are a necessity, so plenty of desserts.
The Fun: Diwali celebrants often give their houses a deep cleaning, decorate their front doors and leave their wallets out during parties to encourage Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to enter the home and bring them — what else? — wealth. They also light firecrackers, dance to Bollywood music and play poker late into the night. Oh and also? You are required — REQUIRED — to wear new clothes. Sign me up.
Conveying Meaning to Kids: Consider throwing a Diwali Party! Tell the Wikipedia-version of the Rama story, program your Pandora to Classic Bollywood, and let your child decorate the front door. Light as many candles as you can find (remember it’s a festival of lights!), serve Indian food and sweets (recipes here), and break out the playing cards for a few games of Go-Fish or, depending on the age/gambling penchant of the child, a little Five-Card Stud.
Originally appeared Oct. 26, 2011
There are certain religions that seem to wear their differences on their sleeves. Stand a Hasidic Jew next to a Sunni Muslim, for example, and I know immediately which is which. The headgear, the clothing. One is praying to God, the other invoking the name Allah. It’s kind of a no-brainer.
But if you remove the clothing and the terminology, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are so darn similar. Allah is just the Arabic word for God, after all. Both the Qur'an and Torah have their roots in the Old Testament of the Bible. And, in all three religions, Abraham was pretty much the shit.
You remember Abraham. He’s the guy who was willing to sacrifice his son to prove his love, loyalty and obedience to God. Pretty heady stuff. Anyway, it’s Abraham's sacrifice that inspired the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha – which occurred yesterday but was completely overshadowed by the damn debt ceiling brouhaha A day late and a dollar short, as they say. Anyway: Happy Eid! Here's your rundown:
Holiday: Eid al-Adha
Pronounced: Eed el-AH-dah. (Say it out loud, and you’ll find it sounds like “eat-a-lotta.” Given that this holiday is based on food — killing it, eating it and sharing it — this couldn’t be more apropos.)
AKA: "Festival of Sacrifice"
Religion Represented: Islam
Date: Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the lunar Islamic calendar. In 2013, the date was Oct. 14-15.
Celebrates: The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Eid al-Adha is a 9 or 10. It comes at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia — which is incredibly important to Muslims.
Star of the Show: Abraham
Back Story: Although the entire story of Abraham is worth noting in its entirety, Abraham is perhaps most famous for being willing to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to Allah. As the story goes, just as Abraham was about to do the deed, Allah revealed that there was no need — that Abraham’s willingness to make the sacrifice was enough. A ram was sacrificed instead. And Abraham said: “Phew.” (Or, you know, probably did.)
The Food: To mimic the slaughter of the ram, many Muslims slaughter an animal — such as a sheep, cow, camel, or goat. Once cleaned and cut, one third of the animal is kept, one third is shared with friends and family, and one third given to the poor and less fortunate. It’s this last part —sharing your wealth with others by giving your meat away — that serves as the heart of this holiday.
The Fun: Here in the United States, Muslims pray, exchange gifts and hold feasts. Meat is distributed throughout the community. Many Muslims go where the needs are — soup kitchens, hospitals, homeless shelters — as well as to graveyards to pay their respects to the dead.
Why Eid al-Adha is Often Misunderstood: The word “sacrifice” causes images of bloody, nasty torture rituals. But that isn’t the case. Eid’s sacrifices are akin to the slaughter of turkeys at Thanksgiving — with one exception: In the Middle East, people traditionally kill the animals themselves, while we have slaughterhouses do it.
Conveying Meaning to Kids: Giving food away is a concept all children can get on board with. You can then explain that Muslims give food away in order to honor Abraham. Maybe listen to some Egyptian music on Pandora while making cookies and then give the cookies away to neighbors. Or donate toys and clothes to local shelters. Be sure to check these delicious-looking Eid recipes out, as well. They'll make your mouth water.
For more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents, click here.
This post originally appeared Nov. 7, 2011.
I read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times this morning about local protests against the sacrificial slaughter of chickens being conducted this week in Jewish enclaves throughout Los Angeles — and, indeed, throughout the world. The ritual, as kaparot, kapparot or kaparos, is supposed to help "cleanse" people of their sins. It's an orthodox Jewish thing. More progressive Jews are calling the ritual archaic and meaningless, and point to the treatment of the chickens before their deaths as further reason to stop the killings. Faith leaders have joined with animal-rights activists in the protest.
So, here's the deal: The sacrifices all tie into the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur. This period is meant to be a period of "atonement" — asking God to forgive your sins. The chicken is supposed to "accept" all the sins of those present and then be killed (knife to the throat) in one, big, bloody symbolic gesture.
Anyhoo.... in anticipation of Yom Kippur, which lasts exactly 25 hours beginning tomorrow evening, here is the latest addition to your friendly neighborhood Holiday Cheat Sheet.
Holiday: Yom Kippur (pronounced Yom Ki-POOR)
AKA: The Day of Atonement
Religion Represented: Judaism
Date: The 10th day of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar. In 2013, Yom Kippur lasts from from Sept. 13 at sunset to Sept. 14 at nightfall.
Not To Be Confused With: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Yom Kippur is a heavy 10.
What It Is: Yom Kippur is the last and most important of Judaism's 10 High Holy Days, which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As you might recall, the New Year is a time to reflect on one's life and resolve to be a better person in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, God is said to take a look at the deeds of the Jewish people and to seal each person's fate in the "Book of Life." More than anything, Yom Kippur is a day of seeking forgiveness and giving to charity. (And, um, slaughtering chickens.)
The Sabbath of All Sabbaths: Saturday (“the sabbath”) is to Jews what Sunday is to Christians; it is the "day of rest" when synagogues hold their weekly worship services. Yom Kippur is considered the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths” because, not only is it a day of complete rest (no work, no driving, etc.) but it's a day of fasting and other restrictions: no washing or bathing, no perfumes or deodorants, no wearing leather shoes, and no sex. Services run all day on Yom Kippur — from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — with a break around 3 p.m. People wear white, and services generally end with a long blow from the shofar.
Coolest Thing about Yom Kippur: During their ever-so-long day of synagogue services (decidedly NOT the coolest thing about Yom Kippur, given the no-deodorant rule), participants take part in a “group confession.” They confess to being aggressive, slanderous, acting callously, and a number of other things — usually involving behaving badly toward others in speech or deed. The cool thing is that the sins are confessed in the plural — “we” have done this, “we” have done that — emphasizing “communal responsibility for sins.” Now, I don’t believe in “sins,” AT ALL, and I know that, in this sense, they are only talking about the Jewish people. But I think if more human beings could adopt even a little of this attitude, “we” could kick up the world’s compassion level a notch or two. Minus the chickens, of course.
Appropriate Greeting: "Have an easy fast." ("Happy Yom Kippur" is not considered appropriate, as Yom Kippur is not a "happy" holiday.)