SIGNS AND SYMBOLS
THE CHRISTMAS SEASON
Christmas is celebrated all over the world with great fervor marking the birth of Jesus Christ. The traditions differ in different parts of the world, but there are some common symbols which are closely associated with this festival.
Although we are familiar with most of these symbols, few of us actually know the significance and symbolism behind them. There are various activities that are carried out during the Christmas celebrations like preparing mouth-watering sweets, sending greetings to near and dear ones (handmade greeting add a personal touch though), spreading the good news caroling, packing and presenting gifts to kids, decorating the house and Christmas tree, reuniting and feasting with family/relatives to celebrate the birth of Christ, and much more.
Christmas Tree – The meaning of the Christmas tree can be interpreted in many ways. The most popular beliefs are that the needles of the tree point towards heaven symbolizing man’s connection with the Lord, and since it is an evergreen tree it signifies abundant life throughout the year.
Christmas Bells – Christmas bells are believed to announce the arrival of baby Jesus and mark the beginning of the holiday season. The tinkling sound of bells guide the lost sheep back to the fold, just like the Lord would guide us to walk in His ways.
Christmas Star – The Christmas star, also known as the Star of Bethlehem revealed the birth of Jesus to the three wise men and also guided them to Bethlehem. It is also used as a popular Christmas decoration.
Angels – In Greek, the word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’. According to the popular belief, the angels had an important role to play in Christmas, as they brought the news of the birth of Christ child to the shepherds.
Christmas Candles – The candle is used as a popular Christmas decoration which is said to bring light and warmth in the cold winters. Some also believe that it is customary to light a candle to represent the star of Bethlehem.
Christmas Wreaths – Just like the Christmas wreath does not have an end, it symbolizes the eternal love of the Lord. Christmas wreaths are an indispensable part of Christmas decorations. You could always purchase one from the market, but there is a different feel to the ones that you make at home. If you have the time, use your creative skills and come up with some unique wreath ideas.
Santa Claus – St. Nicholas, popularly known as Santa Claus, is a legendary figure who brings gifts for children at Christmas Eve. It is believed that he lives in the North Pole where he makes the gifts assisted by a group of elves.
Reindeer and Sleigh – “Rudolf the Red nose reindeer” – Isn’t that the first thing that comes to your mind when we think of Santa and his reindeer? Reindeer are Santa’s chosen animals to pull his royal sleigh on which he makes his journey from the North Pole and brings lots of gifts for little children. The story has it that, there are totally nine reindeer pulling the sleigh, Rudolph being their leader guiding them through foggy nights.
Snowman – The snowman is a figure carved out of snow used as a popular decoration and has become an icon of Christmas in recent times. Building a snowman could be a fun-filled activity for you and your family. So, those who live in cold countries with abundant snowfall must try building one this winter.
Poinsettia – Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations having deep red colored, star shaped leaves. Due to its shape, it is commonly associated with the star of Bethlehem. It was brought to the United States by Dr. John Poinsett, United States Ambassador to Mexico. Legend has it that a few poor children from Mexico wanted to give Jesus a gift. As they could not find any other gift, they picked up some weeds and presented it to Him. Miraculously, the bright red poinsettias bloomed out of these weeds and thus the poinsettias became an integral part of the Christmas tradition
Mistletoe – The Mistletoe is a parasitic plant believed to have life giving properties and considered as an aphrodisiac. It is also believed to provide protection against poison and evil spirits. There are also some interesting traditions about kissing under the Mistletoe. During Christmas time, a young lady standing under the Mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed. If a couple in love kisses under the Mistletoe, it is considered as a promise to marry and a long life filled with happiness.
Holly – The holly is believed to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ during crucifixion. It is a religious symbol and is used as an offering to God. It is normally used along with the wreaths and mistletoe as a decoration during Christmas.
Manger – The Manger is popular Christian Christmas symbol depicting the birth scene of the Lord. Hay, grass, figurines of baby Jesus, Mother Mary, Joseph, angels, animals, and the Three Wise Men are used to recreate the scene of Christ’s birth.
Christmas Colors – Red and green are the two main Christmas colors. The blood shed by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion is symbolized by the color red while green symbolizes the eternal life of Christ.
Snowflakes – Snowflakes are Christmas ornaments widely used in decorations and are symbolic of the cold winter season. You can add a personal touch to your Christmas decorations by making some snowflakes at home. They add a unique charm and glamor to the overall decorations.
Christmas Carols– Christmas carols are basically Christmas songs based on the Christmas theme. Carol singing is an old custom wherein people sing carols during the period before Christmas. It is a tradition loved by all and the best way to spread the Christmas spirit.
Christmas Stockings – Christmas stockings are empty socks hung by children in hope that Santa will fill it with gifts and goodies. There is a popular legend associated with this custom of hanging stockings. Supposedly one Christmas Eve Santa came across a poor family and wanted to help them out. He wanted to remain anonymous and so he dropped in a few gold coins from the chimney. The coins fell into the stockings that were hanging there to dry.
Christmas Cards and Gifts – Christmas cards and gifts are the best way to wish your loved ones. The first Christmas gifts were given by the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus, thus giving rise to the custom of exchanging gifts.
Christmas Candy Cane – They are cane shaped sticks which are traditionally striped in red and white colors. It is believed to symbolize the shepherd’s hook used to bring the lambs back to their fold. In modern times, people believe that is represents an inverted “J” of Jesus Christ.
Christmas Cookies – Christmas is incomplete without the Christmas cookies as they add sweetness to the overall celebrations. The mouth-watering cookies are carved into various shapes related to Christmas. They are also popular Christmas gifts
Wassail – Originating from the old English words “waes hael” which means “be-well” the wassail is a traditional drink toasted as symbol of best wishes and good health
Icicles – Baby Jesus had taken shelter under a pine tree. When the tree realized that it was giving shelter to the Lord, it let out tears of happiness which froze to form icicles. They are now used as a popular tree decoration during Christmas.
Christmas Seals – In 1904 a Danish postman called Einar Holboell introduced the custom of Christmas seals. More popular as Christmas stamps or Cinderella stamps, they are stickers or labels placed on the mail during the festive season, in order to raise funds for charity. Indeed a noble cause!
CUSTOMS FOUND AT EASTER TIME
There are so many wonderful traditions and customs found around the world, especially at Easter time. Here are but a few of them.
Since its origins, Easter has been a time of celebration and feasting and many Traditional Easter Games and Customs developed, such as egg rolling, egg tapping, Pace egging and egg decorating. Today Easter is commercially important, seeing wide sales of greeting cards and confectionery such as chocolate Easter eggs, marshmallow bunnies, Peeps, and jelly beans, as well as other Easter Foods. Even many non-Christians celebrate these aspects of the holiday while eschewing the religious aspects.
Easter is the most sacred observance in the Greek Orthodox faith. Preparations and customs remain some of the most traditional in modern Greek life. Preparations for Easter come to a climax toward the end of Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter. While there are many local customs associated with Easter, there are several observed by all.
Palm Sunday observes the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem that was marked by the crowds, who were in Jerusalem for Passover, waving palm branches and proclaiming him as the messianic king. The branches of the palm trees symbolize Christ’s victory over the devil and death. On Holy Monday the Church tells us the parable of the barren fig tree. The first days of Holy Week remind us of Christ’s last instructions with his disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns which are consisted of Great Compline, Matins, Hours and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers. The need for true repentance is the concern of Holy Tuesday evening’s service. The Gospel tells Christ’s prophecy of His second coming and the Last Judgment. On Holy Wednesday afternoon the Orthodox Church administers the sacrament of Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of the participants.
Easter preparations begin on Holy Thursday when the traditional Easter bread, tsoureki, is baked, and eggs are dyed red to make red Easter eggs (red is the color of life as well as a representation of the blood of Christ). From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of the renewal of life, and the message of the red eggs is victory over death. In times gone by, superstitions grew into customs that included placing the first-dyed red egg at the home’s iconostasis (place where icons are displayed) to ward off evil, and marking the heads and backs of small lambs with the red dye to protect them. Holy Thursday evening, church services include a symbolic representation of the crucifixion, and the period of mourning begins. In many villages – and in cities as well – women will sit in church throughout the night, in traditional mourning.
The holiest day of Holy Week is Good/Holy Friday. It is a day of mourning, not of work (including cooking). It is also the only day during the year when the Divine Liturgy is not read. Flags are hung at half-mast and church bells ring all day in a slow mournful tone. Many devout do not cook on Holy Friday, but if they do, traditional foods are simple, perhaps boiled in water (no oil) and seasoned with vinegar – like beans – or thin soups like tahinosoupa, a soup made with tahini.
Traditionally, women and children take flowers to the church to decorate the Epitaphio (the symbolic bier of Christ). The Service of Lamentation mourns the death of Christ and the bier, decorated lavishly with flowers and bearing the image of Christ, is carried on the shoulders of the faithful in a procession through the community to the cemetery, and back. Members of the congregation follow, carrying candles.
On Holy Saturday, the Eternal Flame is brought to Greece by military jet, and is distributed to waiting Priests who carry it to their local churches. The event is always televised and if there’s a threat of bad weather or a delay, the entire country agonizes until the flame arrives safely.
On the morning of Holy Saturday, preparations begin for the next day’s Easter feast. Dishes that can be prepared in advance are made, and the traditional mayiritsa soup is prepared, which will be eaten after the midnight service, to break the fast.
The midnight Service of the Resurrection is an occasion attended by everyone who is able, including children, each holding a white candle.
Special candles made for Easter are called “labatha” (lah-BAH-thah) and are often given as gifts to children from their parents or God-parents. These candles can be lavishly decorated with favorite children’s heroes or storybook characters, and may be as much as three feet tall, but the candle itself is usually white. These candles are only used for one Easter midnight service.
Crowds are so big that churches fill to overflowing as anticipation mounts. Shortly before midnight, all lights are extinguished and churches are lit only by the Eternal Flame on the altar. When the clock passes midnight, the Priest calls out “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen), and passes the flame, the light of the Resurrection, to those nearest him. The flame is then passed from person to person, and it isn’t long before the church and courtyard are filled with flickering candlelight. The night air is filled with the singing of the Byzantine Chant “Christos Anesti,” and the “fili tis Agapis” (kiss of Agape) and wishes are exchanged. As is the custom, as soon as “Christos Anesti” is called out, church bells ring joyously non-stop, ships in ports all over Greece sound their horns, floodlights are lit on large buildings, and great and small displays of fireworks and noisemakers are set off.
Once the Priest has called out “Christos Anesti,” friends and neighbors exchange the same, saying “Christos Anesti” and, in response, “Alithos Anesti” (truly, He is risen) or “Alithinos o Kyrios” (true is the Lord). Christos Anesti say: khree-STOHSS ah-NES-tee Alithos Anesti say: ah-lee-THOHSS ah-NES-tee Alithinos o Kyrios say: ah-lee-thee-NOHSS o KEE-ree-yohss It is the custom to carry the Eternal Flame home and use it to make the sign of the cross on the door frame in smoke. The smoke cross is left there throughout the year, symbolizing that the light of the Resurrection has blessed the home. The candles are used to light icon candelabra, and are put on the table for the midnight meal. The sight of hundreds of candle flames moving from churches to homes on that night is beautiful, indeed.
Once home, everyone gathers around the table for a traditional meal to break the fast, which includes the mayiritsa soup, tsoureki (sweet bread), and the red eggs. But before the eggs are eaten, there’s a traditional challenge: “tsougrisma.” Holding your egg, you tap the end against the end of your opponent’s egg, trying to crack it. It’s a game enjoyed by children and adults alike. Eggs are often made in very large quantities since the game continues on the next day with more friends and family.
At dawn (or earlier) on Easter Sunday, the spits are set to work, and grills are fired up. The customary main attraction of the day is whole roasted lamb or goat (kid) to represent the Lamb of God, however many prefer oven and stovetop lamb or kid dishes. Ovens are filled with traditional accompaniments and all the trimmings. Great Greek wines, ouzo, and other drinks flow freely, and preparations for the meal turn into festive celebrations even before the eating begins. These high-spirited gatherings often last long into the night.
As well as the common painted easter egg bump, in Cyprus it is customary for people to light great fires in schools or church yards. The fires are made up of scrap wood, gathered usually by over-enthusiastic young boys which scour their neighborhoods for them, in order to make their fire as great as it can be (and bigger than the neighboring one). More than often this competition leads to fights happening over scraps of wood and the police or fire department being called to put out the fires that have gone out of control. It is customary for a small doll representing Judas Iscariot to be burnt.
HEALING THROUGH FAITH
IS healing through faith for real, or is it a bunch of hocus-pocus? Or even quackery? Does scripture give us insight into healing? If so what?
At the beginning of the 20th century, the new Pentecostal movement drew participants from the Holiness movement and other movements in America that already believed in divine healing. By the 1930s, several faith healers drew large crowds and established worldwide followings.
The first Pentecostals in the modern sense appeared in Topeka, Kansas, in a Bible school conducted by Charles Fox Parham, a holiness teacher and former Methodist pastor. Pentecostalism achieved worldwide attention in 1906 through the Azusa Street Revival in Las Angeles.
During the Azusa Street meetings, according to witnesses who wrote about them, blind, crippled or other sick people would be healed. Some of the participants would eventually minister extensively in this area. For example, John G. Lake was present during the years of the Azusa Street revival. Lake had earned huge sums of money in the insurance business at the turn of the century but gave away his possessions with the exception of food for his children while he and his wife fasted on a trip to Africa to do missionary work. Certain people he had never met before gave him money and keys to a place to stay which were required to enter South Africa at the dock. His writings tell of numerous healing miracles he and others performed as over 500 churches were planted in South Africa. Lake returned to the U.S. and set up healing rooms in Spokane, Washington.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Aimee Semple McPherson was a controversial faith healer of growing popularity during the Great Depression… Subsequently, William Branham has been credited as being the founder of the post-World War II healing revivals. By the late 1940s, Oral Roberts was well known, and he continued with faith healing until the 1980s, Roberts discounted faith healing in the late 1950s, stating, “I never was a faith healer and I was never raised that way. My parents believed very strongly in medical science and we have a doctor who takes care of our children when they get sick. I cannot heal anyone – God does that.” A friend of Roberts was Kathryn Kuhlman, another popular faith healer, who gained fame in the 1950s and had a television program on CBS. Oral Roberts’s successful use of television as a medium to gain a wider audience led others to follow suit.
Christian Science claims that healing is possible through an understanding of the underlying, spiritual perfection of God’s creation. The world as humanly perceived is believed to be a distortion of spiritual reality. Christian Scientists believe that healing through prayer is possible insofar as it succeeds in correcting the distortion. Christian Scientists believe that prayer does not change the spiritual creation but gives a clearer view of it, and the result appears in the human scene as healing: the human picture adjusts to coincide more nearly with the divine reality. Prayer works through love, the recognition of God’s creation as spiritual, intact, and inherently lovable. Christian Scientists believe that in the New Testament, Jesus is implying the existence of an underlying spiritual harmony that can be demonstrated through faith in its existence. They look to Luke 8:22-25 where Jesus calmed a storm through prayer and implied that his disciples could have done so also if they had sufficient faith; and to Luke 8:49-50 where Jesus stated that a young girl who had apparently died could be well again if faith was shown.
Christian Scientists believe that prayer works through love – in a sense of unselfed, unlimited and unconditional awareness of the inherent worth of another – and that this is the way Jesus Christ healed. Their aim is “to reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing” which, they believe, was lost after the early centuries of Christianity. They cite such Bible texts as Mark 16:17-28; Matthew 10:8 in support of their contention that Christian faith demands demonstration in healing. This is a faith in the omnipotence of God, which according to the Christian Science interpretation of the Bible such as Luke 17:5-6, logically rules out any other power. The Christian Science view, citing Matthew 21:22; Matthew 7:7-11, is that Jesus taught that we should claim good as being present, here and now, and that this will result in healing. Christian Scientists point to Jesus’ teaching in John 14:12 that his followers would do “greater works” than he did, and that a person who lived in conformity with his teachings would not be subject even to death.
An important point in Christian Science is that effectual prayer and the moral regeneration of one’s life go hand-in-hand: that “signs and wonders are wrought in the metaphysical healing of physical disease; but these signs are only to demonstrate its divine origin, to attest the reality of the higher mission of the Christ-power to take away the sins of the world.” Christian Science teaches that disease is mental, a mortal fear, a mistaken belief or conviction of the necessity and power of ill-health – an ignorance of God’s power and goodness. The chapter on “Prayer” in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures gives a full account of healing through prayer, while the testimonies at the end of the book are written by people who believe they have been healed through spiritual understanding gained from reading the book. Christian Scientists claim no monopoly on the application of God’s healing power through prayer, and welcome it, wherever it occurs.
With claims of being the true and restored Church of Jesus Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has had a long history of faith healings. Many members of the LDS Church have told their stories of healing within the LDS publication, the Ensign. The church believes healings come most often as a result of priesthood blessings given by the laying on of hands; however, prayer often accompanied with fasting is also thought to cause healings. Healing is always attributed to be God’s power. Latter-day Saints believe that the Priesthood of God held by prophets (such as Moses) and worthy disciples of the Savior, was restored via heavenly messengers to the first prophet of this dispensation, Joseph Smith.
According to LDS doctrine, even though members may have the restored priesthood authority to heal in the name of Jesus Christ, all efforts should be made to seek the appropriate medical help. Brigham Young stated this effectively, while also noting that the ultimate outcome is still dependent on the will of God.
If we are sick, and ask the Lord to heal us, and to do all for us that is necessary to be done, according to my understanding of the Gospel of salvation, I might as well ask the Lord to cause my wheat and corn to grow, without my plowing the ground and casting in the seed. It appears consistent to me to apply every remedy that comes within the range of my knowledge, and to ask my Father in Heaven, in the name of Jesus Christ, to sanctify that application to the healing of my body.
But suppose we were traveling in the mountains, and one or two were taken sick, without anything in the world in the shape of healing medicine within our reach, what should we do? According to my faith, ask the Lord Almighty to … heal the sick. This is our privilege, when so situated that we cannot get anything to help ourselves. Then the Lord and his servants can do all. But it is my duty to do, when I have it in my power. We lay hands on the sick and wish them to be healed, and pray the Lord to heal them, but we cannot always say that he will.
Many LDS members believe that healing is one of the signs of the true church of Christ, as Christ told his disciples to heal the sick as one of their duties; however, they also believe that healing is not just restricted to the true church. It is believed that faith in Jesus Christ is the most important thing in a faith healing; however, it is also believed that even the devil has some ability to heal and work other miracles.
Muslims may use prayer and ceremony to address pain and sickness.
There are also some cases of fraud (faking the condition) or ineffective healing (believing the condition has been healed immediately after the “healing” and later finding out it has not).
Reliance on faith healing to the exclusion of other forms of treatment can have a public health impact when it reduces or eliminates access to modern medical techniques. This is evident in both higher mortality rates for children and in reduced life expectancy for adults. Critics have also made note of serious injury that has resulted from falsely labelled “healings”, where patients erroneously consider themselves cured and cease or withdraw from treatment. For example, at least six people have died after faith healing by their church and being told they had been healed of HIV and could stop taking their medications. It is the stated position of the AMA that “prayer as therapy should not delay access to traditional medical care.”