Día de los Muertos

The Day of the Dead is a celebration that takes place in Mexico, most of Latin America, and other Catholic nations. This holiday commemorates the dead. Relatives and friends who have passed from this life are remembered. Altars are built for this purpose. One of the more famous aspects of this holiday is the painting of sugar skulls on people’s faces.

San Antonio, Texas heavily celebrates this holiday due to the large number of Hispanics in the city. This year, I had my first experience with Día de los Muertos by attending SA’s festival, which took place downtown at La Villita.

Here are a few of the altars I saw. They included some items that the ones who had passed found special, such as their favorite book or food.

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There was a big altar in the main plaza as well.
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The artwork there was amazing and included papermache as well as hand-crafted jewelry or decorations that were for sale. My favorite was the artwork on the lamp posts.

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And of course there were many people with their faces painted like skeletons, which are called sugar skulls. I loved it! I asked a few people, and they told me it usually takes 1-2.5 hours to pain their faces. That’s dedication!
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There were also bands playing all weekend. I was able to listen to some mariachi music, as well as a local band called The Sugar Skulls. Both were excellent! And you can’t beat listening to music at the Arneson Theater at the River Walk. It’s kind of magical there.
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All in all, San Antonio puts on a fantastic festival, and I’m glad I got to experience my first Día de los Muertos.

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My 1st Hanukkah Celebration

Blake is one of my new colleagues this semester. He is now teaching history at my university. He and his wife Renae are about the same age as me, and we have become close friends in these last few months. Renae asked me if I wanted to join them for their Hanukkah celebration. I was confused at first because they, like me, are Christian. She told me that this will be their 3rd year celebrating this Jewish holiday, and they began their observation of Hanukkah due to curiosity and interest in this Jewish custom. And you know me; I’m all about learning different customs and cultural traditions!

Eight of us gathered to eat a Jewish meal, say a few Jewish blessings, and light the menorah. Renae started by reading us a children’s book about this celebration, so that we could have a better understanding of it.

Christians celebrating Hanukkah

The story of Hanukkah is about the struggle of the Jews against a Syrain king to continue to worship their God instead of the Greek gods. Judah Maccabee got a group together to fight, who were called the Maccabees. The Maccabees prevailed and restored the Jewish temple. When the temple was reclaimed, there was only enough oil to light the religious lamp for one night. However, the lamp stayed lit for eight days. This is why Jews celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah and why eight candles are lit on the menorah. Menorah simply means lamp in Hebrew. The ninth candle is used to light the others. Hanukkah is also referred to as The Festival of Lights and can also be spelled Chanukah.

If you are familiar with the Bible (Old and New Testaments) or the Torah (the Old Testament), you may be wondering where this can be found in those books. Well, it can’t. It is found in the books of First and Second Maccabees, which are Jewish apocryphal books. Jewish apocryphal books are Jewish traditional texts written in the time period between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Many of the Jewish festivals are based on happenings from these texts. Jesus himself, as a Jew, celebrated Hanukkah. That is something I have always wondered about…what the tradition was based on and where the story could be found. Ah ha!

During these eight days, Jews eat special foods made with oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts. We had chicken (no pork is a must!), salad, brussel sprouts, latkes, and several traditional desserts. Yum!

Latkes

Hanukkah food

Special games are also played during this week,so we couldn’t pass up a chance to play one of them- the dreidel game! It’s basically a 4-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The letters stand for the acronym “A Great Miracle Happened Here”. Each person takes turn spinning the top and each letter landed on has a corresponding action, like take half the pot, put one of your items in the pot, etc. You can use coins, chocolate, nuts, etc. as the “pot”.  My dreidel was not so lucky, and I lost all my Hershey Kisses quite quickly.

Celebrating Hanukkah Dreidels

I really had a nice time learning about Hanukkah, and I hope you did too through this post! Please share this with others who might want to learn a little bit more about this Jewish tradition.

I’ll leave you with a Hanukkah song that I remember singing in my middle school holiday pageant called  “Oh Hanukkah”. The scary thing is, I don’t think I’ve heard this since the 5th grade, and I still remember every word!

Chinese New Year

I am sponsoring a diversity club here on campus. It’s a new club we’re starting up this semester. To kick it off, we did a presentation today about the Chinese New Year, since today is, in fact, Chinese New Year. It went really well! I wrote it and a student from Taiwan delivered the speech. I think most Americans know nothing about the holiday. Here is the presentation; I hope you learn a thing or two.

Today is Chinese New Year. You didn’t even realize today was a holiday, did you?

Over 1.4 BILLION people around the world celebrate it. It is called Chinese New Year because one of the main places it’s celebrated is in China, but it’s also celebrated in Australia, the U.S, Taiwan, Korea, Canada, Malaysia, and anywhere else that has a large Chinese population.

Have you heard of the Chinese Zodiac? Perhaps you’ve been in a Chinese restaurant and seen a placemat that lists years and animals. This is similar to Western astrology, like being a Gemini or Virgo. There is also a Zodiac sign given to each year. This new year is the year of the horse, or,ma, in Chinese.

Here’s a short video about the legend of the animals in the zodiac.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5aY11MpvsI

There are many traditions that people keep as they celebrate the Chinese New Year, which is also called Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. The Festival lasts 15 days. Most people have about 1 full week off work and 1 full month off school. How nice!

During this time, everyone travels home to be with their families, just like at Christmas in the US. In mainland China, the population is over 1 billion people, so the trains and buses are so crowded!

Red is the lucky color of the New Year and everything is decorated with red and gold. We decorate with paper lanterns. In fact, the last day of the New Year celebration ends with something called the Lantern Festival. On the 15th day of the lunar calendar, you can go around town and see huge lanterns or light displays. These huge light displays can also be found at temples.

Fireworks are a huge part of the celebration. Did you know that fireworks were invented in China and have been around for over 1,000 years? It is said that we began using them to drive away evil spirits from our New Year. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, you will see and hear so many fireworks.

Hong bao, or red envelope, is used to give gifts of money. This is always done for Chinese New Year. Again, the color red is lucky and also wards off evil spirits. Mostly the hong bao are given to children. This is probably pretty similar to giving Christmas gifts.

 Of course a huge part of any holiday is the food. There are many traditional foods that we eat for Chinese New Year. One of the main ones is fish. The Chinese word for fish is yu. It sounds similar to the word for riches. So, on New Years we eat fish so that our wishes will come true in the year to come. Many sweets are also eaten because they symbolize a sweet and rich life. Can you see that the Chinese really love symbolism? The luck might come from the name, as I already stated or it might even be considered lucky based on what the food looks like.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Chinese New Year.

 

Photo I took in Xi'an, China for New Year 2011

Photo I took in Xi’an, China for New Year 2011