The winter solstice unites many peoples from throughout the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year occurs Dec. 21, but many early calendars calculated the day much earlier in December.
Judaism uses a lunar calendar. As a result, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar. Hanukkah may occur at any time from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.
The feast celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. after it was desecrated by followers of the Greek despot Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century A.D., tells how the victorious Judas Maccabaeus ordered eight days of festivities after rededicating the Temple.
The festival is celebrated by the lighting of a unique candelabrum with nine-branches called a menorah. One branch is lighted with the raised central or shamash, “helper” candle on each night of the holiday.
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Since 1990, a unique ecumenical celebration has taken place near the ancient front doors to Mission San Luis Obispo.
During the eight days of Hanukkah, which this year occur Saturday through Dec. 15, a large Hanukkah menorah will be lit by members of local synagogues at 6 p.m. Everyone is welcome.
The modern 5-foot-tall menorah was designed by Father Jim Nisbet, pastor of the Old Mission from 1980 until 1994.
Father Jim had been discussing the irony of court rulings that prevented displaying religious symbols on public property with his good friend, Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth David. They decided it would be appropriate to display a menorah in SLO’s most visible place, at the Mission overlooking Chorro Street.
This year the first night of Hanukkah also marks the beginning of another celebration of light in the darkness of winter at the Old Mission.
A nearly 500-year-old tradition will be celebrated: “La Virgen Morena” (“the olive-skinned Virgin”) is said to have appeared before Juan Diego, a poor Indian, near Mexico City in December 1531.
The story goes that she gave him out-of-season roses which he gathered in his cactus fiber tilma or serape. As he presented them to the bishop, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the cloth.
It was only 10 years after Cortez conquered the Aztecs. The decimated Indian population was undergoing conversion from their Native American beliefs and beginning a new form of peonage or serfdom under Spanish rule.
Mexican Catholics believe Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (“Our Lady of Guadalupe”) was a manifestation of the Virgin Mary in the Americas. She became “Patroness of all the Americas” and Mexico’s most beloved religious and cultural image. Devotions to the Virgin certainly contributed to the Christian evangelization of Mexico.
On Saturday, there will be a dramatic presentation of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to Juan Diego. This exciting bilingual event starts at 7 p.m. with the folkloric Cal Poly group Imagen y Espiritu on the plaza steps in front of Mission San Luis Obispo, near the lit Hanukkah menorah.
The Guadalupe celebration continues Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. with a rosary in the mission, followed by a light supper prepared by the Peruvian community, Peruvian and Aztec dances, culminating with a Mass at 11 p.m. and mariachi serenades to the Virgin at midnight.
The feast culminates on Dec. 12 with Mass. See www.missionsanluis obispo.org for details.
Appropriately, there will be an abundance of roses.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.