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Thursday, December 24, 2020

My Christmas Story | By Rev. Richard Fernandez

I want to share with you a very short overview of the Christmas story. It has moved from the fascinating days of pagan influence, early church opposition to its celebration and growth, and then, gradually over the years, acceptance in our own time. It is a rich history with a lot of bends and curves along the road.

No one really knows the date of Jesus’s birth. Christmas was first celebrated in late November, which marked the end of the harvest season. In 336 A.D., Constantine established December 25 as the official date to celebrate Jesus birth. Although we credit Constantine for setting the date for Christmas to be celebrated, the deeper roots of the day lie in pre - Christian festivities - actually pagan ceremonies of the winter solstice. 

We cannot pass the early celebration of Christmas without mentioning Bishop Myra of Asia Minor. We know him as Saint Nicholas or, now, Santa Claus. He was born in the Greek city of Patar. In his early ministry he became known as a kind bishop as he ministered to seamen and, especially, to young children. In parts of Europe, on December 5, the eve of his feast day, children leave their shoes by the fireplace filled with hay and carrots for Saint Nicholas’s horse. During the Reformation the worship of Saints became forbidden, so in most of Europe, Saint Nicholas became Father Nicholas. In Holland, he was given a far more interesting name, Sinterklass. When Sinterklass came to the United States, he became the American Santa Claus. 


In his European “life” Santa was of medium build and height. However, in 1890, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Santa a pot belly…and children loved it. In 1920 the Coca-Cola Company decided Santa needed a makeover. They left him with his pot belly but put a big black belt around him and gave him sun tanned cheeks. This, of course, was to remind all of us that Coca-Cola tastes just as good in the summer heat as it does on winter frosty days.

It must be pointed out that before Santa Claus got a makeover from Coca-Cola, Christmas itself took a while to gain acceptance in the United States. The early Puritans brought with them a resistance to celebrating what they considered a pagan holiday. They also objected to the drunkenness and general revelry that took place on Christmas. “Hardly the way to observe Christ’s birth” they thought. In Boston, you could be fined 5 shillings for celebrating the day, and through the 1700’s, December 25 was considered a working day across the nation.

Attitudes began to change and soften in the early 1800’s and were helped by the publication in 1823 of Clement Clark Moore’s “Night Before Christmas.” Christmas carols and cards became more popular and available thanks to more sophisticated printing press capacity.

Let me end this all too brief overview of this important day with a short story. In Philadelphia, in 1868, a 33 year old Episcopal priest at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square wrote a very simple poem for a grade school Christmas celebration at the church. He asked the church organist to see if he could put it to music. Early on the Sunday morning it was to be performed, the organist, Lewis Redner, finished his composing for a piece he thought would be used just one time. The Priest at Holy Trinity, Philips Brooks, had a similar expectation for the new children’s song they had just created…O Little Town of Bethlehem. 

Today, I leave you with these words:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;

Yet in your dark street shines forth, the everlasting light,

The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Adapting to Mourning During and Beyond the Pandemic | By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

The pandemic through which the world is moving mournfully and medically has left no area of life untouched. Moments of the life-cycle for which family and friends would normally gather have migrated to primarily distance-and-digital experiences. Even where the unfolding of Covid contamination has allowed for intervals when small gatherings could take place, many moments of significance now unfold remotely over various online platforms. 

Some of the events that occur in isolation will allow for future regroupings – private Zoom weddings may be followed by a first or second anniversary in-person celebrations; students of the 2020 high school classes can look forward to college graduations convened in person. 

But for the moments of loss occurring during Covid, the inability to gather when the emotional and family consequences are most intense compromises and inevitably attenuates the rites and rituals of spiritual traditions. Put differently, at what is perhaps the most intense liminal experience of the life-cycle, the comfort of in-person presence that provides consolation is unavailable. While a memorial gathering at a later time can be meaningful, and such gatherings can and will evolve as Covid is tamed, the immediacy of the emotions of loss will have receded.

                                                 Image: Jewish News

Spiritual communities and those who belong to them have had to accept and adapt to different ways of providing support and fulfilling rituals, whether viewed as obligatory or as optional. And yet, we are learning from Zoom funerals, wakes, comfort observances and other religious rites, that online platforms that currently serve as a substitute for traditional services may, when Covid is over, remain as a supplement to those same services. I will use the Jewish rituals with which I am most familiar as an example.

The shiva gathering (the seven-day period of mourning observed at home after a funeral, when mourners receive condolence calls and religious services migrate from the synagogue to the home) has customarily been in-person; colloquially, comforters “make a shiva call” to be with mourners in their home. 
During Covid, shiva visits have been made by joining designated Zoom open calls, and morning or evening services have been conducted remotely. The end of the pandemic will see a return to in-person shiva observances, but I anticipate many congregants and clergy members will also want to retain the Zoom option for those who live too far away to attend a funeral or make an in-person shiva visit. While before Covid people could always send a condolence note or perhaps make a phone call, we have learned from Covid the importance of joining mourners and comforters in “real time”, even if remote. A “both-and” format is likely to be a viable way of forging connections. 
Put differently, while the pandemic restrictions have temporarily removed us from the comforting in-person familiarity of spiritual traditions, these same restrictions have made us more aware of the importance of access to those traditions – and how the technology towards which we defaulted out of necessity has made us aware of how we may learn to adapt that technology out of choice.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Bringing Identity to the Table | By Dani Hobbs

I come from a multi-faith and multiracial family. My mom is white and was raised Jewish, and my dad is Black and was raised Baptist. My siblings and I grew up going to church every Sunday, but also celebrating Jewish holidays and considering our Jewish roots an important part of our heritage and culture. 


Admittedly, I’ve often struggled trying to make the multiple aspects of my identity feel whole. The world often talks about me in halves, and I’ve had to deal with the feeling that I’m not enough [fill in aspect of identity here]. Throughout my life though, the one place where the seemingly disparate parts of my identity come together is at the table. 



It’s through meals that I feel like I am able to fully celebrate the cultures that make me who I am, and it’s through meals that our family was able to blend them together. We eat soul food at our Passover Seders, and some years the smell of our Christmas cookies mixes with the smell of lingering latkes. I’ve seen religious boundaries crossed with the passing of matzo and charoset, and cultural boundaries crossed with heaping plates at the family cookout. When we share meals with others, we’re not just sharing food, but pieces of ourselves as well.  


Growing up, I didn’t always know what spaces I fit into, but I also grew up in a family that always made sure there was space for everyone at the table. That’s why food and sharing meals are both really special for me, and that’s also why I’m so excited about the South Philadelphia Community Cookbook. Through the cookbook, the contributors aren’t just sharing their recipes with the world, but a piece of themselves as well. The result, I think, is a unique display of what makes South Philly so beautiful and vibrant. I hope that, like it did for me, it will inspire you to think about the significance food and sharing meals have in your life. 


Today's blog post comes from Dani Hobbs, our Community Programs Student Coordinator. To sign up for the Cookbook Launch Party on December 14th, or to order your own copies of the cookbook, check out our website.