Category Archives: Christian holidays

Guest Letter from Alana: An Orthodox Christmas, from the Holy Land to Sin City

So you may have noted that I mentioned that we had a “couple” of Christmas letters coming, and then only posted one. That’s because good things come to those who wait! 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit late, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to post this letter from my friend Alana.

I don’t remember exactly how I met Alana; probably through an online Muslim-Jewish dialogue group… which is funny, because she’s Christian! 😉 But there tends to be a lot of overlap between Muslim-Jewish dialogue and Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, so Palestinian Christians like her tend to get lumped in with the Muslims, I guess. We both got such a kick out of discovering that I live a mere five-minute drive from Beit Sahour, the Palestinian village where her father, paternal grandfather, and maternal grandparents were born!

Alana is currently studying international affairs, has written for various publications, and as you’ve probably gathered, is involved in peace and dialogue efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. I was especially excited when she offered to write something about Christmas because she has family in Bethlehem, where the Christmas story takes place! She grew up elsewhere, however, and she’ll tell you about that in a minute. 😉

But before I give her the floor, I just want to say that I am so grateful to her and her family for letting me share this little slice of their lives on my blog. Especially in light of recent events, I think it is really important for members of both our peoples to listen to each other’s stories. Alana doesn’t get into her family’s story here from a political perspective, but it was very important to me to discuss it with her and hear her parents’ feelings about it.

Anyway! Here’s Alana, and a painfully pared down selection of the bajillion lovely pictures she sent me 😉 :

Dear Josep,

Hi! My name is Alana and I’m a twenty-year-old university student. I would like to tell you about my religious identity and how it relates to my national identity and contradicts my local identity. I would say that I was quite religious most of my life. I think I lost a bit of my spirituality along the way as I became older, but as I explore my identity, I realize I want to have a better relationship with God.

Here is an anecdote to assist me in explaining who I am:

“Baba, I wish I was born in Beit Sahour! Or Bethlehem!” A little naïve girl version of myself lamented this while I was reflecting on relatives in town who happened to be born there.

“Why?” my dad asked, implying that American citizenship by birth is way more valuable.

“Jesus was born there!”

Even my dad who swears by his spirituality disagrees with the notion of his daughter taking her first breaths in the Holy Land. It’s ideal, but my father left for a reason. He wanted a change.

Alana's dad with her (right) and her sister
Alana’s dad with her (left) and her sister

Where did my father, paternal grandmother, and uncles uproot to? Well, I’ll give you a hint, it’s referred to as “Sin City” where what happens there, inevitably stays there.

Yes, I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.

Alana's very first Christmas in Las Vegas
Alana’s very first Christmas

Almost my entire family is from a small village called Beit Sahour in the West Bank. It’s half an hour away from Bethlehem, the town that my paternal grandmother’s family is from. It also happens to be the famed Biblical village where once upon a time, Jesus Christ was born. No big deal. I just happen to find roots in the same area where Jesus Christ was born.

*nuns proceed to fangirl*

The reason that this might be a tad interesting is that my family is also Orthodox Christian. We are Christians who come from the Holy Land, and for at least over a hundred years or so, the place where Jesus Christ came into existence.

I think this is a huge part of why I, as a devout child, regretted not having the chance to be born near where my Savior was born. It seemed like an honor at the time, and celebrating His birth is definitely one of my favorite traditions every year.

My family is Orthodox Christian. My family in the U.S. are members of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. It’s the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the United States. Antioch is a city in modern Turkey. It was a part of what was formerly known as Syria (different from the modern nation-state of Syria).

So how does one celebrate Christmas in Sin City? Well, for my family it’s not too different from the Christmas you’ve heard. Ok, I guess the praying in Arabic at church is kind of a huge difference. Oh and I cannot forget the Christmas songs in Arabic! My mother has an entire album of songs that she plays in the car on the way to church on Sundays in December or in the house. They were always soothing to listen to, and to be honest, I like them better than Christmas songs in English sometimes.

One thing I want to point out before I explain how my family celebrates Christmas is that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. We have a different calendar than Catholics/Protestants. Here, in the United States though, we, along with those at our church and other Orthodox Christians, celebrate Christmas on December 25th. I think this was mostly done for assimilation purposes, but I’m not sure. (My family back home celebrate it on January 7th.) With that said, I do like that we in the west at least celebrate Christmas at the same time as western Christians.

It’s also important to note that Jesus Christ is said to have been born in the spring, at an uncertain date of course. During the rule of the Roman Empire, Christians were only allowed to celebrate the birth of Christ if it aligned with the pagan holiday of the Winter Solstice. Thus, this the reason why Christians now celebrate Christmas in the winter. The reason for the season technically also has a pagan layer with it, along with traditions like putting up a tree.

Now for an explanation of how my family celebrates the holiday!

My childhood was much more lively around Christmas time, for a plethora of reasons, both internal and external. One of the most profound ways that my family and I began the month of December was participating and sometimes hosting a Christmas party with our close friends. Every year, a different family (there are four of us) would take turns hosting our annual party.

Alana and her sister at the party, age 12 or so
Alana (right) and her sister at the party, age 12 or so.

The adults played games and drank, while the children played and ate cookies and the like. The patriarch of the family that hosted the party that specific year would dress up as Santa Claus and distribute gifts to the children.

alana christmas 12

These gifts were purchased by their respective parents prior to the occasion. It was a tradition that we always upheld. Our annual Christmas parties were always such an enjoyable time and I miss them dearly. The memories will last a lifetime.

Leading up to the Christmas Day, the Sunday before Christmas at my church is quite special, and not just theologically. When I was younger, the children, teens, and young adults would perform a play reenacting the birth of Jesus Christ annually. It became a tradition for our parish. The youth would participate and the adults would watch. Taking place in our church, the person playing Mary would be sitting on the steps in front of the altar, carrying a baby doll to represent baby Jesus. Whoever plays Joseph sits by her while the “three wise men” bring their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Shepherds that were called upon by an angel to visit Jesus filter in after the wise men. Lastly, angels, mostly young children, descend onto the scene. They walk in between the pews singing various hymns. To finish off the play, they sit down in front of Mary and Joseph. The play ends with Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, and angels gazing at their Savior. As a child, I was always cast as an angel. I longed for the day I would have a better role. That day would not come for at least several years though, especially since the tradition of the play was broken for a while.

alana christmas 13
Clearly the cutest angel in the church

Around the time I joined my church’s choir, when I was only ten years old, my priest decided we need a change when it came to our yearly play. He was getting tired of the old routine and wanted to liven up the Sunday prior to the day we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. So, he decided that the youth of the church should sing Christmas songs for the parish. Our choir conductor agreed to gathering some of the children and teenaged members of the church to participate. We always managed to convince enough people to sing their hearts out for the special performance after our pre-Christmas service. My sister, godsister, and I always took it quite seriously though, since we all love to sing and we happened to be members of the parish choir in the first place. So, we always rocked the show, especially since the three of us started a tradition of choreographing a song-dance routine that we would perform after all of the general songs were sung. Everyone looked forward to us performing, it was the highlight of my day.

Alana, her sister, and godsister at church
Alana (center), her sister (left), and godsister at church

Another tradition that I found special was the integration of Arabic Christmas songs into the program, even though it was just one. At the start of the program, the children and teenagers would walk into the church ringing bells in their hands. While they did this, they would chant “Laylit eid” or the Arabic version of Jingle Bells! They definitely did this after singing it in English, or course. I love that song so much and to this day, it is still one of my favorite Christmas songs. After our Christmas choir program, a member of the parish, usually male would dress up as Santa Claus, knock on the church doors, and proclaim the phrase “Ho, ho, ho.” The doors would then be opened for this Santa Clause who would carry a red bag filled with small and usually identical gifts for the children. It was a nice way to end the program every year.

This tradition went on and thrived until one year when my priest decided to bring the old play back. We were all surprised, but we went with the flow. That year was 2013 and I was eighteen years old. Finally, I was at an age where I could play a part besides an “angel.” Guess what? I was not only promoted, but I was given the most important role of all. I played the Virgin Mary. Oh my, I was so ecstatic. Finally, what a huge upgrade it was for me to play such an important part, and I definitely made sure to do the beloved Virgin Mary justice. That had to be the most important performance of the play that I ever participated in, and it went very well indeed.

Alana as the Virgin Mary
Alana as the Virgin Mary!

I have so many memories from those Sundays, including up until this past year. But the most important event prior to Christmas day is definitely Christmas Eve mass. This is when we really dress up and take pictures for Christmas. Everyone attends this service, especially those “Easter and Christmas” Christians (those who only come to church for Easter and Christmas services). Anyway, it’s a big deal, but alas, we do not get into the truly fun part until Christmas morning.

Christmas morning. For those on the outside who only see what it’s like through the lens of the media, i.e. TV’s and movies, it may seem a bit overdone. They practically memorize the stereotypical setting and custom and sigh thinking, “Why is this important?” I understand, but for me, it ceased to seeming like a repetitive thing and I hope the Christmas morning spark is something I will always experience. As a child, my mom, sister, and I would bake cookies that we would put out for Santa. We would also put out a glass of milk for that jolly fellow. After we would come home from church, my sister and I would soon fall asleep, giddy for the next morning. Soon enough, the sun came up. My sister and I would pop up from our beds and scurry to the living room. There they were, those magnificent gifts we were waiting for, under our beautiful twinkling Christmas tree. Believe me, that wasn’t it, once my dad started working the graveyard shift at his job, we had to wait, until around noon time. The wait was the best part though, but of course we wanted to finally see what we received from Santa Claus and our parents. Opening presents is a ritual. First, the stockings. My mother(Santa) would fill our stockings with chocolates, candy, tiny knickknacks, you name it! I personally loved the tiny gifts inside. Growing up, my sister and I were granted some pretty spectacular gifts.

Alana and her sister. So cute!!!
Alana and her sister with their gifts. So cute!!!

Honestly, this is great and all, but that’s not what this is about. The fact that my parents spent their time and money to make our sisters happy, even in a material sense, showed us how much they truly loved us. Growing up in the Holy Land and the Middle East respectively, my parents did not have much. They both grew up mostly dirt poor. My mother always explained to me that she had few toys, and I cannot tell you how many precious Barbie dolls I had in my vast toy collection. The toys, clothes, shoes, electronics, etc. My parents bought it all and they sacrificed so much for indescribable Christmas mornings, and overall, our livelihood. They gave us so much; I do not think I will ever be able to truly repay them back. It would be a pity to take all of it for granted, but you do not ponder the extent of your parent’s love, i.e. the hard work it takes when you are a mere child. You just receive it with no questions asked. Writing this blog post makes me realize how lucky I am, that I have not only been able to experience a microcosm of Christmases in Bethlehem, but I have experienced Christmases that my parents could have only dreamt of indulging in as children themselves. They did not have what my sister and I have. They had almost nothing, but for some reason, seeing the smiles on our faces when we rip open that wrapping paper is all that they need to be happy. I may have begun to gift give to my parents and sister in the past few years as a young adult myself, but my parents always shrug off the gifts. The only gifts they have, the only presents they need, are the beaming faces that my sister and I produce on that lovely holiday of ours. Since they love us so much, that is the only Christmas wish they have ever had for the past twenty years and I am beyond thankful for that.

alana christmas 5
Alana’s mom
Alana's family at Christmas this year
The whole beautiful family at Christmas this year

Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in a town of “sin” may seem strange or impossible, but as my story outlines, it’s not only possible, it’s extraordinary. I may not be able to visit the Church of the Nativity every year around Christmas time, or visit the huge Christmas tree that is put up in Manger Square. I may not even be able to see most of my family, but celebrating Christmas in my hometown of Las Vegas has always proven to be wonderful, and I would not have it any other way in my eyes. I’ve only celebrated Christmas or “Eid milad” in Las Vegas, Nevada, and to be blunt, I think I would prefer to take part in Christmas festivities in the city of sin for the rest of my life. It’s familiar and it’s home. It’s unique and creative and that’s what I love about it. I would not change that for the world.

Merry (late) Christmas!

With love,
Alana B.

Would you like to share with us about your family’s holiday traditions? Or about your family’s culture or religion in general? Write us a guest letter of your own!

Guest Letter from Jonathan: A Puerto Rican American Christmas

I am pleased to present our first guest letter on Christmas, by my friend Jonathan. Jonathan is a devout Catholic, but has taken a bizarre interest in the Jewish roots of his faith, to a point that even you, Josep, would start shaking your head in disbelief. Living in NYC, he has been thoroughly exposed to Jewish culture, and knows more Talmudic texts, Hebrew, and Yiddish than any Hispanic Catholic should. (He’s the one I was joking with about the Pope. I often jokingly accuse him of being a Judaizer, threatening to report him to the Inquisition. He takes it very well.)

We have had many memorably amusing discussions concerning our religions. Such as that time when I complained on Facebook about finding granola bars in my purse on Passover, since oats are one of the five grains, meaning it was seriously hardcore chametz…

Screenshot (32)

Now, before we proceed to his letter I must warn you that his terminology might be a little hard to follow if you’re not familiar with Catholic concepts. I tried to get him to tone it down, but what can I do, once you get him talking about Jesus he can’t help himself!

Okay, now that I’ve finished embarrassing him, here’s Jonathan. A joyful Three Kings’ Day to those who celebrate!


Dear Josep,

I pray that you are well by the grace of God when you so happen upon this letter.

My name is Jonathan. I am not quite sure how I came to have the pleasure of Daniella’s acquaintance. I can only assume that it was through her husband Eitan’s FB page, and our mutual interest in the religious climate of Inquisition era Spain.

I am a Latin Rite Catholic of Puerto Rican descent born and raised in “the diaspora” in New York City.

The Christmas season, or more appropriately the season of Nativity has come upon us once again. As you are more than likely aware of, this is the time of year when Christians the world over commemorate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Contrary to popular belief the Christmas season itself begins on 25 December and ends on 2 February with the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord/The Purification of Mary which commemorates the Jewish rite of pidyon ha-ben (The Redemption of the First Born), of which our Lord was obligated to having been born under the Law of Moses. However for our purposes I will be focusing on Christmas as observed in my household.

Traditionally speaking, Christmas in my family would officially be ushered in with “La Misa de Gallo” (Translated literally it means “The Mass of the Cock/Rooster”), but in the English speaking world it is more commonly known as Midnight Mass. This mass commemorates the shepherds who kept vigil til dawn upon our Saviour’s birth. The reference to the cock in the Spanish name is thus an allusion to the cock’s crow at dawn when the Shepherd’s vigil ended. Most places however do not observe the Midnight vigil in this manner, but opt for a liturgy which ends at midnight, or begins at midnight. As I’ve gotten older I have opted to instead observe Christmas day mass on the morning of 25 December as I prefer the more hushed and solemn tone for personal reflection on the day’s mystery.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that what is of true importance is the historical and metaphysical reality we’re presented with during Nativity. Namely in that the very God became as one of us by partaking of our humanity (whilst preserving His divinity hypostatically), and radically elevated what it means to be human. Whether from East, or West, from eternity was the nation of Israel chosen as the center of the World to draw man to His center. To call man to a new way of being by means of participation in Christ’s Sonship. The Nativity is not merely an event that occurred 2,000 years ago, but one which takes place daily in our lives (that’s true of the Resurrection as well).

I don’t necessarily think the latter is a deviation from my upbringing, but if anything it paved the way for my preference for those respites into solitude and silence during the holidays.

Christmas day is relatively quiet in my home, with gift giving taking a back seat to the festive foods particular to the season, as well as the time spent with family. While I was born and raised in the US mainland, my family managed to preserve a number of cultural traditions particular to my Puerto Rican heritage. However, as with all communities in the diaspora, there is a give and take between the practices of the homeland and the new nation of residence, with a synthesis of sorts resulting between them. Amongst the more “American” derived practices was the decorating of a pine/fir tree (in my case synthetic) with all manner of lights and ornaments for Christmas. While I was raised with the practice from my youth (my mom having crafted an entire set of really beautiful ornaments at one point), this was not held in the same esteem as it may have been amongst some of my fellow compatriots and co-religionists. The tree would go up the day after Thanksgiving without any of the fondness or formalities associated with tree trimming, or its appropriateness or lack thereof within the season of Advent (the penitential period observed by Western Christians prior to Christmas which calls to mind not only Christ Jesus’ first coming, but also His Second Coming). Nevertheless, it was never really a central part of my upbringing, but something that we did because we lived in the States.

Jonathan's Christmas tree this year
Jonathan’s Christmas tree this year

One peculiarity associated with our Christmas decorating was collecting pine needles which would be left in small bundles at the foot of the tree. These bundles of needles were intended for the reindeer who pulled Santa Claus’ sleigh (Not that Santa Claus figured much into how I observed Christmas growing up. The figures of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas were only vaguely associated with one another, even if the occasional “Behave or Santa Claus won’t bring you anything for Christmas” was uttered.). This practice might seem peculiar given that most families leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus, but in reality it was a synthesis of my family’s traditional observance of “Dia de Reyes,” known in English as “Epiphany”/“Three Kings’ Day.” (This feast is observed on 6 January and commemorates the visit of three wisemen/kings from the East who observed the Messiah’s Star from their respective homelands to adore the new born King of Israel.)

Traditionally on the eve of the feast, children would build small feeding troughs in shoe boxes filled with hay/grass (representing the manger that the Christ Child was laid in) and leave it beneath their bed in which the Three Kings would leave small gifts for the children of the house. The hay/grass within the “manger” was meant to provide sustenance to the camels (or horses) who had journey from the East with the Three Kings. A small bowl filled with water would likewise be left out that the camels might quench their thirst. Likewise in place of milk and cookies for Santa, a shot of rum would be left out for the Three Kings that they might share in the joy and merriment of the newborn King, Emmanuel, for He is truly God amongst us. However, in my case some of the traditions associated with Epiphany came to be transferred and adapted within the context of Christmas Eve. Growing up there was nevertheless an effort to preserve “Dia de Reyes” in my household by means of withholding the exchange of some gifts until Epiphany. As I got older and my desire for receiving gifts waned, so too did some of these practices, though in essence they got me much closer to contemplation of the metaphysical reality presented by the season of Nativity, the incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus.

In Puerto Rican households during Christmas you will invariably a feast composed of various festive foods. However no Christmas table is complete without the following staples: roast pork shoulder (pernil), yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules), and pasteles. Likewise, no Christmas is complete without coquito. However, if any Puerto Rican had to choose which of these ubiquitous staples reminds them most of Christmas, without a doubt they would say pasteles and coquito.

Coquito is a coconut cream based egg nog like beverage enjoyed throughout the holiday season. Traditionally it is made with overproof rum (pitorro). Every which family has their own closely guarded recipes passed down from generation to generation. Coquito like sofrito (A paste made of various herbs and spices used as a base for most traditional stews, sauces, soups, and rice dishes in Puerto Rican cuisine) is just one of those recipes you do not share with people outside of the family. In some way each generation is bound to the other through the dishes we share at the table. This is a common theme throughout most of our family gatherings, but in particular at Christmas time.

As mentioned previously, no Puerto Rican table is complete at Christmas without pasteles. Pasteles are like their more well-known counterparts tamales, but are comprised of an entirely different masa (“dough”), comprised of starchy tubers or made from unripe green bananas. This masa is placed upon a banana/plantain leaf which has been cut and slightly wilted, and greased with a bit of annato infused oil/lard, and is later filled with a stewed pork meat filling that includes capers, olives, and in some families raisins and almonds. The banana leaf enclosing the masa and meat filling are then folded into rectangular cakes and wrapped in parchment paper, tied in paired bundles with butcher’s twine, to then be frozen,. When the time comes to consume them they are taken out of the freezer and placed in salted boiling water for about an hour when they fully cooked and are then ready to serve. It might be laborious, but it is indeed a labor of love that I will always remember fondly, because of how it brings together generations of women in my family who have passed down the “sacred art.”

Amidst all the wonderful smells of foods being prepared in the kitchen for Christmas, none of them compares to the sight of generations of family matriarchs seated at the table in the kitchen preparing pasteles. Some of them grating the tubers and other vegetables for the masa, while others cut the leaves and parchment paper, and another the cords to bind the pasteles. Once all were seated at the table, you could hear all manner of catching up between them all. Conversations about current events, general catching up about friends and family, and the occasional argument between my mom and aunts, all under the supervision of my grandmother. On occasion when one of us kids would stumble into the kitchen to talk with our moms, we’d request customized pasteles which our moms would set aside for us when it came time to eat. (I have a particular fondness for green banana based masa over cassava (yuca) based masa, and like to vary between the standard pork filling, and the pork fillings with raisins and almonds.) If we were really brave, we would try our hand at helping with the wrapping and preparation, only to later be kicked out of the kitchen for taking too long to make just one, or some other mishap. To this day I am amazed at the speed at which my mom is able to make them, without there being a loss in quality. We either helped too little, or did not help enough; we could never win! However, in many ways it was probably a way for my aunts, mother, and grandmother to reminisce about the past with one another.  Any of us kids who really took the time to listen as they prepared the pasteles would learn a lot about our moms and grandmother when our moms were just children.

Of course while our moms were in the kitchen, that meant that the men were in the living room having a few beers, or sipping on a bit of coquito chatting amongst themselves, and occasionally rough housing one of us kids. My cousins and I usually stuck to my room to play with our Christmas gifts and just catch up in general. Nothing out of the ordinary for us, just the usual, kids being kids. The occasional argument might break out over having to share with my cousins, but again, who hasn’t been in that very position when your cousins are on your home turf? But I digress. As my cousins and I got older, and our common interests diverged, we each came to a more mature relationship amongst ourselves.

As cited previously, what binds us together during the holiday is when we come together to eat. It wasn’t so much a formal affair wherein we all sat around a table to share a meal, but rather it was a more festive affair with extra chairs set about in the living room, some people on the sofa, other on the love seat etc., each being served by one of our moms, or as we got older, serving ourselves the foods that were in the kitchen. Each of us sitting around, with music in the background, just enjoying each other’s company.

When I was younger, I remember on more than one occasion during family gatherings being made to dance with my mom, that I might learn the dances of my homeland. One of my cousins and I would turn it into a competition of sorts between us, dancing with our moms who taught us the steps of the dance.

As the music waned, and people brought their dishes to the kitchen sink, stories of Christmases past emerged along with family stories and jokes. This was usually my favorite time with my family. It was the one time of the year when without prodding everything you ever wanted to know about your family just happened to fall right into your lap without prodding on your part. The deceased members of family though not present in body came to be present in spirit, especially those family members that I had never had the fortune to meet. Somehow in those remembrances of repasts we were all together again. Of course in God’s mind the past, present, and future do not exist, so in some way it was like experiencing a foretaste of eternity unbeknownst to us. However that shouldn’t surprise me, considering that Emmanuel, the Kingdom of God born and present amongst us, has by His incarnation (which by our baptism we become partakers of in dying with Him and being born anew with Him) unites heaven and earth. Those who have passed from this life and are alive in Him thus remain ever present in our midst through the Communion of Saints. The Saints being those who sanctified the world by virtue of their bearing and birthing Him within it. This in turn orients my gaze towards eternity.

The mystery of the Incarnation is ever present and pervades all things, but at Nativity (or more appropriately the Adventide vigil) we meditate on the incarnate Emmanuel, during His first and His eventual second coming. The Paschal Babe who has come, has died, has risen, and will come again to judge the living and the dead at the culmination of the ages.

This brings me to my final point of reflection on the mystery of the Nativity, namely what have I done to make the Kingdom of God present in this world?

I think my family has done their part in forming me within the various folk forms and traditions that facilitate that task. I am by no means perfect and have much room for improvement, but nonetheless I believe that amidst the chaos of the world I too can keep vigil towards that Silent Night of the eternal Yerushalayim.

May the peace of the Christ be with you and yours this day and all days.

Happy Christmas!


A Little Elaboration on Nadal de Catalunya

I have a couple guest letters coming on Christmas, but while we wait for said guests to get their acts together 😛 I must partake in my annual tradition of teasing Josep about his own culture’s extremely strange Christmas traditions. 😀

Those of you who were following the blog from its infancy probably saw the post I made last Christmas about how Josep introduced me to the tradition of caga-tió. Here is that video he sent me again, for those of you who missed it. It makes me giggle uncontrollably every time I see it.

Well, my unsuspecting friends, there is more.

By Roeland P. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Roeland P. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How do I even begin to explain this.

No, the picture above is not of a crude figurine for a ten-year-old boy. It is the, um, unique Catalan addition to traditional nativity scenes. Believe it or not, the, ah, act portrayed here symbolizes good fortune and fertility. Hence the caga-tió, too. This figurine is called the Caganer, which means exactly what you think it means.

Moving right along, as some of you may know, Christmastide in Spain is a month-long bonanza, starting from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) and ending with Three King’s Day (January 6th). Christmas decorations and preparations begin on December 8th, including the preparation of the caga-tió–which has the, um, treats beaten out of it on Christmas Eve (December 24th). The biggest festive meal is also on Christmas Eve, though the feasting continues through Christmas Day (December 25th).

In Catalonia, St. Stephan’s Day (the Feast of Sant Esteve–December 26th) is also celebrated with a festive meal, apparently because all those Catalan mothers wanted something to do with all their leftovers from the feasts of the previous two days. (No, really. The traditional food is canneloni, made of pasta stuffed with the meat left over from the previous meals.)

December 28th is the feast of Los Santos Inocentes, and the Internets inform me that this is the Spanish equivalent to April Fools’ Day, where people play pranks and practical jokes on each other. The day is in commemoration of children who were killed by King Herod around the time of Jesus’s birth. (I don’t know about this story, but I wouldn’t put anything past King Herod, who happens to have been buried very close to where I live. He was a paranoid crazy dude.)

Next, of course, comes New Years’ Day, and you probably know all about that.

Then there’s Three Kings’ Day. This day celebrates the three wise men who, according to the Christian Bible, brought gifts to baby Jesus after he was born: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. They have traditionally been remembered as being kings, though the Christian Bible does not say so specifically.

On January 5th, there is a procession that begins at the Barcelona port, as the “three kings” arrive and then parade through the city. Instead of stockings for Santa Claus, children leave out their shoes for the Three Kings; and instead of cookies and milk, they leave out water for the kings’ camels. (Ever the practical people! Why does no one seem to worry about Santa Claus’s reindeer?!) Similarly to the Santa Claus tradition, children write letters to the kings about whether they have been good or bad.

Looks familiar, right? "Reyes Magos en centro comercial" by Fernando Estel - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Looks familiar, right? I suspect they got those beards from the same supplier as Santa Claus… “Reyes Magos en centro comercial” by Fernando EstelOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

On the morning of January 6th, they are given their gifts, and Three Kings’ Day is celebrated with a final festive meal.

Now I have to say, as a blasphemous Jesus-killer1 😛 , the concept of the children getting gifts from the three kings makes a lot more sense than Santa Claus. But no one asked me, and it’s probably good that they didn’t!

If you find my attempts to explain Catalan traditions amusing, you might like to see my post about St. Jordi’s Day too. 😛

Bon Nadal, to all, big and small, and I better stop with all this Christian nonsense and start cooking for Shabbat before I start to crank out more corny bilingual Christmas poetry! 😛

1. …Since I never know who’s reading… this is a joke. The Jews did not kill Jesus. See “The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Chanukah…

Before I proceed to today’s post I would like to bring your attention to my guest appearance on yesterday’s episode of Jewish Geography, a new podcast created by my dear husband. 😉 He knew I had a draft of Sunday’s post sitting around, but that I was hesitant to post it because I knew it would be controversial and widely shared and… you know I have an aversion to opening cans of worms 😛 (I was right, too. 😉 ) But he was making a podcast about Jewish sexuality and encouraged me to finish and post it so I could read an excerpt for him. So I did!

Check it out, enjoy his deep, soothing voice, subscribe (it’s on iTunes), leave him a 5-star rating and a gushing review, hire him for your next tour to Israel, etc. 😛

And now… back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Dear Josep,

“Holiday season” in the USA is in December,  and the houses, streets and storefronts start to put up their Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving (if not before). I remember what it felt like to be a little Jewish girl amongst all the tinsel, holly, lights, trees, carols, and Nativity scenes. In a word: uncomfortable.

One of the great things about moving to Israel was that come December, there was little to no evidence of the existence of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful holiday with a lot of lovely traditions… but it’s not mine, and there was something liberating about not having it blaring at me from every radio, street corner, and display window. The acknowledgement we get in a generic “happy holidays” greeting or a symbolic menorah here or there is a nice gesture, but honestly, for me, it just emphasizes our minority status.

Galus, as we say in Yiddish. (Yiddishized Hebrew for “Diaspora.”)

The fact is that Chanukah is not that important a holiday as Jewish holidays go. It is well known among non-Jews just because of its timing. Our real “holiday season” is September-October with all the Tishrei madness (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shmini Atzeret). Still, there’s something very charming about a winter holiday, and Chanukah is a very sweet one as holidays go. I’ll be elaborating on Chanukah itself in a later post; today I want to write about the Israeli answers to all the holly, trees, candy canes… and these things.

Yes. Don't think I've forgotten about these. "Caga Tió" by Valerie Hinojosa [CC BY SA 2.0]
Yes. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about these.1Caga Tió” by Valerie Hinojosa [CC BY SA 2.0]

1) Sufganiyot

Remember these?


These are the fancy-shmancy filled doughnuts, a.k.a. sufganiyot, of the Roladin bakery chain. Roladin is renowned for its “gourmet” sufganiyot. As I told you when we were at the Roladin on Mamilla last year, I personally think they’re overrated and overpriced. But you tried one, so you can be the judge of that.

In any case, the traditional filling is strawberry jam, but chocolate and caramel are also common.

These are the classic kind.
Classic jelly sufganiyot

These things start to appear in bakeries and supermarkets shortly after Succot (on par with the obscenely early Christmas decorations in the USA). The miracle in the Chanukah story involved oil, and we have traditionally used this as an excuse to consume food containing liberal amounts of the stuff. Sufganiyot are deep-fried, so they make the cut. The traditional Ashkenazi food is latkes, fried potato pancakes, with applesauce and/or sour cream, but those are best served crispy and fresh from the pan and most people prefer to make them at home.

2) Chanukah Accoutrement

The second thing to appear in the stores is, of course, the equipment required for Chanukah.

photo 1 (1)
The entrance aisle at the Rami Levy supermarket of the [now infamous…] Gush Etzion Junction. (Infamous because of the frequent attacks there. The last incident was an attempted stabbing yesterday morning. Needless to say, it was swarming with soldiers and everybody was on high alert, but it was just as busy as usual.)
Chanukiyot (also called menorahs–click here to learn about the distinction between the two…), Chanukah-themed candies and treats, candles of all kinds… and oil. Oil for frying (sufganiyot and latkes), oil for lighting…

oil everywhere

3) Things That Spin

Remember when we were in that store where you bought your mezuza case, and you spotted these things (I think they may actually have been literally identical to the ones in this picture), and asked me what they were? And I was so out of practice, and so much less articulate in speech than I am in writing, that I was just like, “It’s… a thing… and you spin it… and you put in… and it…”

"Colorful dreidels2" by Adiel lo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Colorful dreidels2” by Adiel loOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

These are called “dreidels” in Yiddish or “sevivonim” in Hebrew, and they have become associated with Chanukah in a rather roundabout fashion. What we are told as kids is that Jews would study Torah in hiding, in defiance of the Romans (under whom it was illegal), and they had a kid stand watch, and when the kid would warn them that the Roman officials were coming, they would take out these little spinning tops, pretending to have been playing with them all along. Cute story; probably not true. (Though I absolutely 100% believe the studying Torah in hiding in defiance of the Romans part. See item #4 of “The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror”…) They also tell us that the Hebrew letters on each side of the dreidel stand for Nes Gadol Haya Sham–“a great miracle happened there”–or, in Israel, Nes Gadol Haya Po–“a great miracle happened here.” Also cute… also not true. (I’m probably ruining all my Jewish readers’ childhoods here… sorry!)

The inconvenient truth is that the dreidel probably does not have a Jewish source at all. In this article, Rabbi David Golonkin explains that there was a game involving spinning tops that was popular in England around Christmastime, that was referenced in the 16th century under the name “totum,” which means “all” in Latin. The top had four sides with four letters: T (“take all”), H (“half”), P (“put in”), and N (“nothing”). The four letters on the dreidel are the Yiddish equivalent: Nun (“nichts”=”nothing”), gimmel (“ganz”=”all”), heh (“halb”=”half”), and shin (“stell ein”=”put in”). It has exactly the same rules as the totum game. You start out with a certain number of coins or candies or something, and each player spins the top in turn, and then must follow its instructions. If you spin a nun, nothing happens. If you spin a gimmel, you take everything in the pile in the middle. If you spin a heh, you get half of what’s in the pile. If you spin a shin, you have to put some of your objects in the middle.

So why is there a peh instead of a shin on the Israeli dreidels? Probably a Zionist invention based on the traditional explanation of the significance of the letters. The early Zionists were really into Chanukah because it emphasizes the image of the strong Jew protecting himself that they wanted to promote. They probably brought their dreidels with them and said, “Hey, nes gadol haya sham? I don’t think so! Nes gadol haya po!

It’s not entirely impossible that there was a game like this back in the days of the Greeks and/or Romans and that the Jews did, in fact, pretend to be gambling with it as a cover story to hide what they were actually gathered to do. But it’s more likely that it was a later development, and I see no reason to suspend disbelief on this…

Anyway, in an attempt to expand the commercial potential of Chanukah (not unlike the Catalan booksellers’ exploitation of St. Jordi’s Day 😛 ), stores are not satisfied just selling dreidels–they sell all manner of tops and spinning toys “in the spirit of Chanukah.”

I bet I could make some profound metaphor about spinning and being dizzy and what it means to be Jewish or something, but… I’ll spare you. 😛

4) Chocolate Coins

If you’re gonna play dreidel, you need something to bet with, right?

Chocolate gelt!
Chocolate gelt!

That’s “gelt,” not “guilt.” There was a tradition on Chanukah to give children a little money (“gelt” in Yiddish) as a gift. (Gifts were not a Chanukah thing until our kids started getting jealous of the Christian kids with their Santa Clauses and their Christmas trees and their caga-tiós. 😛 ) So chocolate coins became a popular Chanukah treat.

5) Lights

Now I know this is not unique to Chanukah among winter holidays, but in our defense, Chanukah has always been known as the “Festival of Lights,” given that candles and flames are an essential part of the Chanukah story. So yes, you will find the street lamps decorated with lights, usually in blue and white.

6) Chanukah Parody Music Videos

Obviously this is a very recent phenomenon, and I believe it was started by the Maccabeats. They were an a cappella group from Yeshiva University (now they are still an a cappella group, but they’ve graduated) who made a silly video for their Chanukah parody song, “Candlelight,” and released it in time for Chanukah in 2010. The video went viral, and ever since, they as well as other Jewish musicians and a cappella groups seem to have made a tradition of releasing music videos for songs with Chanukah-oriented lyrics–some parodies, some original–around this time of year. The trend has also extended to other holidays, especially Passover, but Chanukah usually sees the most action on this front.

Last year, there were two parodies of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (this is the better of the two) and one of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (“All About That Neis“). This year’s offerings include a Maccabeats parody of Walk the Moon’s super catchy “Shut Up and Dance with Me” called “Latke Recipe” (which I thought was pretty cute), “A One Direction Hannukah” parody mash-up by a collaboration of Jewish performers (I’m not a big fan of One Direction, but I loved what they did with “Story of My Life”), and Six13’s parody of Silentó’s “Watch Me” (a song I personally can’t stand, but never mind).

7) Preschool Chanukah Parties

If I were Catholic, this is where I would cross myself. 😛

This is one of those things about Israeli culture I have never learned to appreciate. It’s not that other Jews around the world don’t have Chanukah parties. It’s just that the way it’s done here is so… strangely ritualistic. Every preschool hosts two important parties during the year: the Chanukah party, and the graduation party. The content of the party varies from school to school, but there are two elements that are common to all of them: they involve some kind of performance on the part of the children; and they involve food–starring the ubiquitous sufganiya. There are certain activities I have seen at almost every preschool, such as the “giant cardboard dreidel descending from the ceiling and opening up to reveal treats for all the kids” thing. (It’s like a piñata without the violence, I guess?)

The parties tend to be noisy and crowded and overstimulating in a serious way. Most Israeli parents absolutely love them and look forward to watching their little darlings wear paper hats and twirl around with streamers and flashlights and whatnot.

I. hate. them.

I mean dude, you know my kids are awesome and highly entertaining, but I would much rather watch them build a block tower or roll around on their gym balls in my living room than watch them stand there looking bewildered as the teacher herds them into some formation. And dear God, the noise. Not “highly sensitive person” territory in the slightest. Still, I suck it up and go, because apparently, to stay home would be no less than to deprive my children of a normal Israeli childhood.

Well, at least there’s food at the end. 😛

In defense of R2’s preschool, his party was on Monday and they kept it really low-key and relaxed, with only one vaguely performance-y dance thing. And also, they get The Good Sufganiyot from our local bakery. 😀 (A “good sufganiya” is not overly greasy and contains actual strawberry jam, as opposed to that artificially flavored crimson gelatinous excuse for a doughnut filling they use in the generic, cheap ones they usually hand out at such events.) R1’s party is on Thursday and I am less optimistic on the low-key-ness front, but he’s in the older class in the same preschool as R2, so The Good Sufganiyot will be available as compensation. 😉

Also, one thing I love about their preschool is the way they tell the children the story of Chanukah, focusing primarily on the Holy Temple and the Maccabees’ aspiration to redeem and rededicate it, as opposed to their fight against the Greeks. It’s a subtle distinction, but I appreciate it.

…Yes, it is no coincidence that four out of the seven items I listed here involve food. Chanukah is another one of those Jewish holidays that follows the classic formula: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

So nu, Josep, are we finally going to merit a picture of your chanukiyah lit up this year?! 😉 First candle at nightfall on Sunday!



1. If you don’t know what this is, see this post.

Blog readers: What are your favorite Chanukah music videos?! Share them in the comments!

St. Jordi’s Day, as Explained by an American-Israeli Jew

…Yes, it is Israeli Independence Day. (Whee!)

Blue food coloring, anyone?
Blue food coloring, anyone?

But it just so happens that this year (2015), it coincides with a holiday that is celebrated in a distinct way in Catalonia. Since I already described Yom Ha’Atzma’ut to you, I’m going to give Josep a good laugh, and attempt to explain about La Diada de Sant Jordi, a.k.a., St. Jordi’s Day.

So. What is St. Jordi’s Day? Well… it’s kind of the Catalan Valentine’s Day. Only with dragons. And Shakespeare.

…Stay with me here.

Let’s take it from the top: “Jordi” is the Catalan version of the name George. Ahhh, the Catholics say. Right. April 23rd is St. George’s Day. St. George is apparently a pretty popular saint, because aside from being the patron saint of England, he was also the patron saint of Aragon (and Catalonia. They were sort of the same thing at the time. Except not. Iberian history is terribly confusing). Peter I of Aragon declared him thus when he won an important battle under St. George’s patronage. I guess no one told him the Brits had dibs on ol’ George five hundred years prior. Well actually a lot of people/cities/countries apparently missed that memo, from Beirut to the Boy Scouts. Like I said. Popular.

Speaking of lack of creativity, because St. Jordi is so popular in Catalonia, approximately 99.7% of Catalan males are named Jordi. (…Okay, that assertion is patently false. Point is, it’s a very popular name, kind of equivalent to John in the USA or, I dunno, David in Israel.)

So why does the dude have so many fans? Not very clear. As a historical figure there isn’t very much known about him. The legend that is popular in Catalonia goes something like this: so there’s this dragon, right, and there’s this village, and for some reason they aren’t getting along. (Something about poisoning the air? Or getting in the way of a well? There are a few different versions…) So the villagers need to sacrifice sheep to appease said dragon, or maybe the dragon was stealing their livestock, or they have to distract him away from the well. Anyhow, when they run out of sheep they start using young maidens. (A fairly natural progression, apparently. Personally I might have tried chocolate cake first, but no one asked me.) So one day the maiden chosen is the princess, and she sets off to meet her fate, but in the nick of time–cue victorious music–along comes St. Jordi on his white horse and slays the dragon with his sword! Or was it a lance?

Yeah, that looks like a lance.

In any event, the dragon’s blood flows to the earth and from it, a single red rose blossoms. St. Jordi picks the rose and gives it to the princess. The princess and the town are thus converted to Christianity and everyone lives happily ever after!


Anyway, somehow the entire point of the story being about the princess and the town converting got glossed over, and the giving of the rose was sort of reinterpreted as a romantic gesture (though, one might note, St. Jordi didn’t actually marry her or anything). Thus, St. Jordi’s Day turned into “the day of lovers”, wherein men give roses–usually decorated with a sprig of wheat and/or the yellow and red stripes of the senyera, the Catalan flag–to their ladies.

By Jordi Payà Canals (CC BY SA 2.0). See, I told you they were all named Jordi.

(If you think that’s a stretch, you should read up on St. Valentine.)

But wait, there’s more!

April 23rd also happens to be the deathdate of two very important and famous writers: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The first to make the connection between April 23rd and books were apparently Catalan vendors in the 1920’s, in honor of Cervantes, and because hey, all the ladies are getting roses because of St. Jordi and the dead dragon, don’t we gentlemen deserve a gift too? I like what you did there, Catalans. UNESCO apparently thought this was a pretty awesome idea too and decided to make April 23rd World Book Day in the 1990’s.

And that is how St. Jordi’s Day became Catalonia’s “love” holiday, which is celebrated by the exchange of roses and books among lovers and friends. And also by hanging Catalan flags everywhere and selling and eating food decorated with its red and yellow stripes. Because, any excuse.

See, here you've got your roses, your books, and your senyera--the Catalan flag. By Fransesc_2000 (CC BY SA 2.0)
See, here you’ve got your roses, your books, and your senyera.
By Fransesc_2000 (CC BY 2.0). Okay, fine, some of them are named Fransesc. Or Josep. Or whatever. 😛

(…Look, as far as sweet cultural traditions go, it sure beats caga-tió. 😛 )

(…Pun not intended. Ugh.)

Yom Atzma’ut Sameach, Feliç Diada de Sant Jordi, and Happy World Book Day!

…Just don’t start barbecuing books, or exchanging Israeli flags with your lover, or mixing up your blue-and-white/red-and-yellow icing on your cookies, or… yeah.

Yeah, um, no, guys. That would be the Venezuelan flag.
Yeah, um, no, guys. That would be the Venezuelan flag.

(If you read through this whole entry asking yourself, what the heck is this Catalan language, flag, and culture you’re talking about?! Here ya go.)

Guest Letter from Jerri: Easter, and Rabbits

I sent out a (rather belated) call for one of my Christian friends to write to us about Easter, and Jerri was kind enough to share her experiences of the holiday. Enjoy!

Dear Josep,

Easter has passed, but Daniella invited me to write a post on Easter and my experience of it, and so I’m delivering despite its belatedness. A few things about me:

My name is Jerri, and I’m American. More specifically I’m first generation Chinese-American. I’m also Christian (the only one other than my grandmother in my family), protestant to be exact, and of no particular denomination. I’m a girl (in the case you think I’m a boy based on my name, which has happened before). I’m also a friend of Daniella, and I “met” her years ago in an online writing community when we were both teenagers.

To start off, I was born in the year of the Rabbit, according to the Chinese Zodiac, which assigns a specific animal to each year in a twelve year cycle. What does this have to do with Easter? Absolutely nothing. Well…sort of.

When we finally moved to the suburbs, to a “city” so small it was technically a village, I had my first taste of this holiday called “Easter.” It began in the toy section of a store with the emergence of pastel colored lagomorphs neatly lined up on the shelves. My parents bought me one, because what could be better than a pink bunny for a girl born in the year of the rabbit? There was also the neighborhood Easter egg hunt at the park where sugar crazed children ran around in search of colorful plastic eggs that contained candy inside. I was always too slow to get the best ones with the better candy.

This was how I became acquainted with Easter. It was a commercialized holiday about rabbits, and candy. And for a girl whose identity was partly (jokingly) attached to that of a rabbit, I was thrilled. It never had a set date, but it always landed on Sunday. Nevertheless, who wouldn’t love a holiday about rabbits and candy?

There’s a lot that’s been said about the pagan origins of the Easter Bunny, a mythical cuddly figure who doles out decorated eggs, a leftover relic from a fertility goddess that refused to hop away and became culturally embedded among German Lutherans. It’s gotten to the point where even though Easter Egg hunts are a common activity during Easter, some churches choose not to hold them.

But Easter wasn’t about rabbits and candy, just like Christmas wasn’t about Santa Clause and gifts. I wouldn’t learn that later until I became Christian.

For Christians, as I’m sure you know since you’re one, Easter is the celebration Jesus’ resurrection, which along with Jesus dying for humanity’s sins, is central to the Christian faith. But Easter is also the culmination of a dark series of events beginning with Jesus’s betrayal by one of his disciples, and ending with him dying as he hangs there crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Easter cannot exist on its own without understanding the elements of abandonment, disappointment, betrayal, and our own brokenness in that story. This is why many Christians also commemorate Good Friday leading up to Easter, which focuses on the crucifixion of Jesus.

The resurrection is seen as God’s redemption, God’s victory over sin. It is the restoration of God’s relationship with people, or rather, the opportunity of it. The common passages read out loud during an Easter Sunday service tells the story of the women who had previously been following Jesus going to the tomb and discovering that it is empty. The women then go to tell the disciples (the guys who followed him until he got arrested and then abandoned him and denied that they ever followed him) about the news, but they don’t believe them. They do later, but only after Jesus appear to them.

It’s interesting to note that women were the first to be informed considering the fact that a woman’s testimony wasn’t worth as much as a man’s back then. In my early twenties, I would come to find comfort in that, but that’s another story.

Easter is a celebration of hope, and when the narrative supposedly ends with death, God ultimately has the last laugh. There’s a call and response done during Easter called the Paschal Greeting, in which someone goes:

“He is risen!”
and the others respond back
“He is risen indeed!”

That said, I still like my bunnies and candy.


Have something to share about your own religion or culture? Send a guest letter to Josep!

And Now for Something a Little Different…

On Christmas of 2006, Josep sent me the following video to educate me on Christmas traditions in Catalonia, with the following comment: “At least it’s funny!”

All I could say was, “And you thought JEWS were weird. o.O ”

To all my Christian readers, a very merry Christmas, and to the Catalans: may el Caga-tió, erm, excrete in your favor.

(I challenge you to tell us about an even stranger holiday tradition in the comments.)