Friday, December 13, 2013

December 13th- St. Lucia's Day (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Italy)

Falling approximately on the winter solstice, St. Lucia's day is the Scandinavian festival of light. The holiday honors St. Lucia, an early Christian martyr who brought warmth and light to the people in the cold, dark Winter. Celebrating her story brings joy to the whole community and sets off the Christmas season with cheerful traditions.

To honor the holiday, Scandanvian children participate in candle-lit processions led by one girl playing Lucia. The child playing Lucia is the only one who has the special honor of wearing a lighted wreath crown to symbolize Lucia's gift of light. In Sweden, there are beauty paegent-eqse competitions and elections to decide upon who the lucky girl will be. The other children in the processions follow behind Lucia and each group has a certain role. There are handmaiden girls who dress in long white gowns and hold a single candle, follwed by Star Boys who carry stars on sticks and wear long paper cones on their heads. Lastly are the Brownies who carry lanterns. The group of children walk along singing Christmas carols and the traditional Lucia Song, which usually goes something like this:

The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun, 
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

During the celebration, Scandanavians feast on delicious St. Lucia's Day treats including gingerbread biscuits and freshly baked saffron buns shaped like curled up cats with raisin eyes called lussekatter.

Below is a youtube video of Saint Lucia celebrations in Mora, Sweden from December 13, 2007.

Picture from 


Saturday, July 14, 2012

July 14th- Bastille Day (France)

Bastille Day, or, as it is referred to in French, "La Fête Nationale", is France's National Day. Celebrated annually on July 14th, "Le Quatorze Juillet", the day commemorates the pivotal storming of the Bastille, striking this same day in 1789. 

The Bastille was a prison fortress in Paris which usually held political prisoners whose crime was writing pieces that offended the royal government. These people were often held in the prison without any fair trial under the notion that their sentence was final and would never be appealed. The unlawfulness of the practices at the Bastille symbolized the absolutism in France headed by King Louis XVI. So, when the people of France stormed the Bastille, it was not only a mere victory over the prison guards, but also the beginning of the triumph over King Louis XVI's absolute monarchy and the start of the French Revolution. Shortly after, feudalism was abolished and The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was established. Exactly one year after the storming of the Bastille, the Fête de la Féd ération was held to celebrate the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in France. 

On July 14th, 1880, Bastille Day was celebrated as a national holiday for the first time. Although the largest celebrations for the holiday are in France, Bastille day is also observed in Martinique, New Caledonia, French Guiana, Reunion, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin French Polynesia, and anywhere large groups of French people reside. Traditions for celebrating the day include parties, musical performances, dances, and balls. In the morning, a military parade is held in Paris on the famous Champs-Elysées, proceeding from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. Many members of French service men and women participate in the parade, and all the countries of the Allies in the Versailles Peace Conference are represented. This parade is very popular in France with many guests in attendance and is also broadcasted on television. In the evening, fireworks are shot off near the Eiffel Tower. Throughout the entire day, the colors of the French flag are observed. The three equal stripes of "bleu, blanc, and rouge" symbolize the three ideals of the French Republic: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Between the modern celebration and the rich history of Bastille Day, the July 14th commemoration is without a dout a firm representation of patriotism and a day of pride for the French people. 

The French Flag

The Storming of the Bastille


Friday, April 20, 2012

April 21st- Kartini Day (Indonesia)

Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904) was a prominent women's rights activist whose accomplishments this Indonesian holiday honors. Kartini was a brilliant thinker born into a large, successful family in Java, an island owned by Holland in the Dutch Indies that is modern-day Indonesia. Although Kartini was one of the luckier, intelligent young girls who was allowed to go to school until the age of twelve, she yearned for further knowledge and to learn more about her country and its skewed system. She lived in a time of great repression of women in Java and resented the withholding of knowledge from women enforced by the government, who allowed them only a meager education, if any at all.

In the traditional Javanese practice, Kartini was secluded at home after completing her limited years of school. During the years she stayed home, Kartini learned to speak fluent Dutch and did some of her most forward thinking. Kartini read voraciously and began forming her own opinions on women's rights including the beliefs that women should be allowed more education and the right to pick their own husbands. Kartini wrote about her desires for women to have more freedom and influence in Indonesian society, politically and economically. She believed women should have the opportunity to change their civilization that was so heavily dominated by men. Kartini acquired European pen pals in Holland with whom she exchanged letters sharing her feminist views. Her letters were eventually turned into a book named in Dutch From Darkness into Light and translated into English under the title Letters of a Javanese Princess. Kartini's book of letters made her well-known, as did her other great legacy: the creation of the first primary school for native Indonesian girls, especially those of less fortunate socioeconomic standing. 

In 1964, President Sukarno declared Kartini's Birthday a national holiday, so April 21st became a celebration of Kartini and the way she kickstarted Indonesia's feminist movement. To honor the day, women put on traditional Indonesian clothing to symbolize their unity. Fashion shows are held in Kartini's honor, and lectures are given in schools. Parades are organized, and Women's Activism groups hold special events to mark the day. 

Although Kartini died tragically young only a few days after the birth of her first son, her impact upon Indonesian society was profound. She will always be credited as one of Indonesia's first women's rights activists, and her effort toward women's emancipation will be admired for generations to come. 

Picture from:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spring Equinox (March 20th) - Nowruz (Persia)

"O Majesty, on this feast of the Equinox, first day of the first month of the year, seeing that thou hast freely chosen God and the Faith of the Ancient ones; may Surush the Angel-messenger, grant thee wisdom and insight and sagacity in thy affairs. Live long in praise, be happy and fortunate upon thy golden throne, drink immortality from the Cup of Jamshid; and keep in solemn trust the customs of our ancestors, their noble aspirations, fair gestures and the exercise of justice and righteousness." 
---Omar Khayyam, Nowruznama 

Celebrated anywhere Persian people live, Nowruz is the Persian New Year and the most important holiday of Persian calendar. Nowruz is a 13-day celebration beginning with the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring. This holiday is full of many traditions that honor the richness of Persian heritage and importance of family and friends. To observe specific aspects of spiritual values, a ceremonial table is set with items that each have a symbolic meaning for love, health, affluence, beauty, patience, and rebirth. Celebrants visit their friends, family, and neighbors, starting with the youngest family members visiting the oldest. Large parties are often thrown for members of the community to celebrate the new year together, and picnics are held on the 13th day of observance. Other traditions include wearing new clothes, cleaning the house, paying off debts, and giving gifts.

The night before the last Wednesday of the year is called "Chaharshanbe Suri" or "The Festival of Fire". On this evening, celebrants appreciate the victory of light (good) over darkness (evil) by lighting fires in the street and jumping over them. Celebrants eat and give special nuts to friends and family as thanks for the life, happiness, and health of the year before.

Although Nowruz is a celebration of the New Year, it is also a celebration of Persia's resilience after obstacles, overcoming of tyranny, and appreciation of family and friends. The Persian New Year is a time for its celebrants not only to reflect upon the fortune of the old year and anticipation of the new year, but also to be thankful for their loved ones and the blessings life has brought. 

Photograph from:


Thursday, March 8, 2012

14 Adar - Purim (Judaism)

Purim is a joyous holiday in the Jewish religion that honors a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination. 

Found in the book of Esther, the history of Purim begins like a fairy tale: The King of Persia chooses a beautiful, young woman to be his queen. He is King Ahasuerus (Ah-hah-shu-er-itz), and the lovely young woman is Esther, who unbeknownst to the King, is Jewish. Esther and her cousin Mordecai, who instructs Esther not to reveal her religious identity to the King, are the heroes of the Purim. The villain of the tale is Haman, a haughty, pompous advisor to the King. Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, which prompts Haman to hatch a plot to kill all of the Jewish people in Persia. Haman recieves permission from the King to control the Jewish people's fate and uses a lottery to pick by chance the day his massacre will begin. The word "Purim" means "lots" and refers to this lottery for which the holiday is named. Mordecai convinces Esther that she must stand up to the King and speak to him on behalf of her people. Mordecai tells Esther that this is the task she was born to complete and that she must use all of her bravery to protect the Jewish people. In spite of her fear, Esther approaches the King without being summoned, a crime punishable by death. The King accepts Esther's invitation for two feasts with himself and Haman. At the second feast, Esther finally reveals her identity as a Jewish woman. She tells King Ahasuerus of Haman's plot and makes her request for the King to spare the Jewish people. King Ahasuerus is furious with Haman and orders him to be hanged for plotting this treacherous atrocity. The King makes Mordecai his advisor in place of Haman and allows Esther and Mordecai to write a decree that abolishes Haman's orders and gives Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. 

This was a day for great celebration, and the Jewish people went on to defeat their enemies throughout the Persian Empire. Mordecai and Esther created the holiday of Purim to commemorate Esther's courage and the Jewish people's overcoming of oppression in Persia. It was so serendipitous that Esther had been chosen as queen and given the opportunity to save her people from a terrible fate. Esther's bravery in the face of death is admired by many. Her loyalty to her people and her strong conviction frame her as one of the most heroic women in the Jewish religion. 

Purim is celebrated by reading the book of Esther, also called the Megillah, meaning scroll. Whenever Haman's name is read, the listeners boo, hiss, stomp their feet, and shake noisemakers called graggers in order to literally "blot out the name of Haman". Purim is a holiday to drink, feast, and be cheerful. Carnival-like festivals are held for children who dress up as the characters from the story of Purim. Many Ashkenazi Jews make Hamantaschen, a triangular shaped cookie with fruit or chocolate filling that represents Haman's three-pointed hat. Purim is also a holiday about being thankful for the blessings you have and giving to those who are less fortunate. It is customary to give food and gifts not only to your friends, but also to the poor. 

Picture of Hamentaschen 


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

January 18th 1940- The Birthday of Vera Gottfried Norman (Belgium, USA)

Today, January 18th, is the birthday of one of the world’s most special women. My grandmother Vera Gottfried Norman was a symbol of strength and courage in a world full of obstacles. Vera’s life was set against unlikely odds when she was born to Jewish parents just before the onset of the Holocaust. Vera’s father, Oscar, was the youngest of ten siblings who were all eventually killed in the atrocities of the Nazi regime. There were horrors beyond belief taking place outside every window and on every street corner. The Nazis shot and killed Vera’s brother Carleys before her own eyes when they were asked for their papers on a street corner yet had none to show. Vera’s entire immediate family was murdered, and Vera was the sole survivor. To protect her, Vera’s parents had given her to the Nuns with whom she lived in a convent in Antwerp, Belgium until the war was over. Vera remembered a man who she thought was her father occasionally coming to dance with her. He eventually stopped coming, and Vera felt discouraged to ask about him. Vera was a “hidden child”: the sisters raised her as though she was an orphan and a catholic, but even this effort could not fully keep her out of harm. She wandered the streets during the day to prevent being caught when the Nazis checked the convents. Vera remembered many of the catholic principles she had been taught while living in the convent and applied them to her later life.
When the war was finally over, the Red Cross found Vera and told her that she had family waiting for her in the United States. Before she was allowed to immigrate to the US, Vera spent many months in a health center recovering from a lung illness, and we are still unsure whether she ever fully recovered from this condition. After she was released from the health center, Vera took a long sea voyage across the Atlantic upon the S.S. Constitution. She remembered that a family was paid to take care of her, but they did not. She remembers that they were not kind to her and did not think she could understand their language. However, she was tri-lingual, and could in fact understand their conversations.
Upon Vera’s arrival to New York, she was greeted by complete strangers who claimed to be her paternal cousins. Vera lived in New York City for a few years before moving to the suburbs of Connecticut where she went to school, got married, and had three children. After 12 years of marriage, her relationship ended, and she moved away to another town with her children and the love of her life, Michael. Vera graduated from the University of Connecticut as Summa Cum Laude and as a Junior Year Phi Beta Kappa. She later went on to earn her Master’s degree.
Vera was a brilliant thinker with a passion for learning. She always pursued her love of philosophy and history. When I was unable to attend school, Oma brought school to me. Twice per week she came to my house to read and discuss history, poetry, and current events with me. My Oma wanted me to hold on to my love of learning and constantly encouraged me to continue to set goals and never give up hope, no matter how sick I was. She inspired me to keep pushing on in spite of my illness and insisted that I pursue higher education even though I have medical limitations. My Oma believed strongly that there are many ways to obtain your goals; you just have to find them. 
Vera’s struggles in life were many, especially when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the young age of 67. During the last years of her life, she surrounded herself by the love of her husband, children, grandchildren, and friends. Vera loved her family more than anything. She reminded us frequently that life was very fragile but meant to be enjoyed. Vera spoke of her choice to be happy even in the face of never knowing her parents, leaving her home at the convent in Belgium, and starting all over in a new country. We will always admire her thoughtful insights and honest advice. Vera’s wisdom lives on in all who knew her and her love shines through her children and her grandchildren. Happy Birthday, Oma. We love you and miss you so.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

January 11th and 15th- The Carmentalia (Ancient Rome)

Celebrated as two separate festivals, January 11th and January 15th in ancient Rome honor Carmenta, the goddess of birth. Carmenta was the leader of the four Carmenae, whose group also consisted of her sister-goddesses Antevorta, Postvorta, and Egeria.  Carmenta was a deity associated not only with pregnancy and childbirth, but also with fertility, prophecy, and technological advances. Although the cold weather and cropless season of Winter may seem like a strange time to celebrate the goddess of birth, January is exactly 9 months after April--the most popular month for marriage.

As for Carmenta's origin, some believed that she came to Rome from Greece where she had been serving as a prophetess of Aracadia. These people believe that her name was initially Nicostrate and that she had a son named Evander who killed his father leaving himself and his mother with no option but to flee to Italy. Once in Latium, Nicostrate became known for her prophecies and was revered as a deity. The Italians renamed her "Carmenta" for the Latin word "Carmen" meaning "charm". Carmenta is credited with the invention of the Latin alphabet and supposedly altered 15 Greek letters to form it while Evander is known as one of the heroes in Rome's foundation. 

To celebrate the holiday, Romans would bring offerings to Carmenta's sacred temple, located southeast of the Capitoline near a gate called the Porta Carmentalis. It was important to remember not to wear leather or any clothing made of animal skin into Carmenta's temple because it would be disrespectful to her emphasis on new life.  Women brought milk, honey, cereal, grain and herbs to Carmenta's temple and would pray to her for fertility and an easy pregnancy. The women would speak to wise old members of Carmenta's cult, who would tell them of their unborn children's future.