Spring Quilt of Interfaith Connections (2017)

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

 

 

(Last year, many people found this guide to spring celebrations helpful. So, I have updated the post with dates for 2017).

In eight years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: Purim, St Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenerationInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity. Speaking in Chicago last year, I met a woman from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Hindu partner, and a man from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Muslim partner. Increasingly, I see the world of interfaith families, not as a Jewish/Christian binary, but as vibrant squares of many colors bound together into a greater design, and traced with embroidery that winds across the pieces.

My book Being Both is devoted to the idea that interfaith children, in particular, benefit from exploring that whole quilt through interfaith education. But actually, all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from interfaith education. Meanwhile, with political demagogues busy stirring up ugly religious intolerance, now is the time for every American (and every world citizen), whether or not we have extended interfaith families, to do a better job of educating ourselves about the religions around us.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of religious holidays, providing many opportunities to celebrate with interfaith family, and interfaith friends. If you don’t have family and friends who will invite you over, check out my Beacon Press colleague Linda K. Wertheimer‘s suggestions on how to get out and visit local houses of worship. And if you don’t live near any temples or mosques, there is always the free online courses from Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project.

Below, I have written up a quick list of just some of the spring religious holidays (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of them have to the spring equinox, and possibly, to each other. And notice how many of these spring festivals are now celebrated by people of multiple religions. My belief is that we are all religious syncretists, tied to the religions that came before us, and the religions that surround us. And so as part of #GenerationInterfaith, I celebrate these connections:

Feb 28, Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras. In many cultures, including in Europe, the Caribbean, Brazil, and New Orleans, this Christian celebration incorporates the masquerades and role reversals of Carnival, drawing on various historical pagan roots.

Feb 29, Ash Wednesday/Start of Lent. Christian observance of fasting and prayer, marking the start of the period leading up to Easter.

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish culture. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 12, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 12, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 13, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 13, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Holi and Hola Mohalla.

March 20, Ostara. Modern Pagan and Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre, Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 21, Norooz. Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, it is celebrated by many people of all religions throughout the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

April 9, Palm Sunday. Christian commemoration of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, celebrated with church services and processions with palm fronds. Among Indian Christians, the Hindu practice of strewing flowers such as marigolds has been adapted for Palm Sunday.

April 10, Mahavir Jayanti. Jain commemoration of the birth of Mahavira, celebrated with temple visits for meditation and prayer, decoration with flags and flowers, and charitable acts.

April 10, Passover (first evening). Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with a festive Seder meal of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. Incorporates (presumably pagan) spring equinox (fertility) symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 13, Maundy Thursday – Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may be a historical connection between The Last Supper and Passover.

April 14, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 16, Easter. Christian commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may have a historical connection to Eostre, and the spring equinox.


New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

 

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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Mardi Gras and Carnival: Joyful Interfaith Syncretism

We have arrived at my favorite moment in what I think of as the syncretic calendar:  the cycle of celebrations around the world acknowledging that religions collide, intertwine, hybridize, just as human beings in interfaith families do. This moment is called Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, and Carnival in Haiti and many parts of the Catholic world. Pre-Lenten revelry has roots in Christian Europe, nourished by pre-Christian pagan traditions, and then by indigenous and African religions in the Americas. I find particular resonance in the inclusive nature of Carnival, a time for playing with and vaulting over traditional boundaries of gender, race, and religion.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil contributed to my own fluid religious identity. I was born into an interfaith Jewish/Christian family with roots in New Orleans, predisposed to noticing religious interplay. As a young adult, I spent three formative years in Senegal, a progressive Muslim country built on African religious traditions and Catholic colonial history. Then, as a young mother, I spent three crucial years in Brazil,  a progressive Catholic country built on African and Amerindian traditions.

Brazil’s population is just as wildly diverse as ours: indigenous cultures, Africans, Japanese farmers, Germans and Italians and Arabs, Jews who arrived with the first European explorers. The entire country (except for disapproving evangelical Protestant sects) feels the right to celebrate together during Carnaval.

The time of revelry comes to a peak this week with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In Brazil, each day of this week entails a vast, complex, and region-specific universe of rituals, songs, dances, stories and costumes melding Catholicism, Yoruba rites from West Africa, and indigenous traditions. In my beloved city of Recife, there is a night of drumming, frevo dancing with umbrellas, spangled Afro-Brazilian Maracatu dancers clenching flowers in their teeth, masked revelers recalling the origins of Carnival in Europe.

Living in the cold (dare I say frigid?) north, we are deprived of Carnival, and I feel weltzschmertz, a world-sadness, when, instead, I am trapped in a March landscape of ice and dormant grey trees. On Fat Tuesday, our children go to school as if it were any other day (in Brazil they would have the week off). Perhaps on Ash Wednesday they notice ashes on the forehead of a Catholic friend or two, or perhaps not. Our culture seems only vaguely aware that Lent is upon us. I miss the warmth and daring of Carnival. I miss the feeling of a whole country celebrating together for a week, reveling in the joyful syncretism of Mardi Gras.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Haiti: Interfaith Syncretism, Symbiosis

Today, in the “On Religion” column in the New York Times,  Samuel G. Freedman finally points out that Haitian Vodou is a legitimate, important and much-misunderstood religion. And yet, Freedman’s copy editors persist in using the spelling “voodoo,” not only refusing to recognize it with the capitalization they give to any other world religion (Buddhism, Hinduism), but maintaining the Americanized spelling associated with Hollywood horror movies, rather than one of the more phonetically-accurate spellings (Vodou, or Vodun)  more true to the French-inflected pronunciation in Haitian Creole.

But returning, as I always do, to the subject of celebrating two religions: Freedman explains that “between 50 and 95 percent of Haitians practice at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.” He does not clarify that this wide range reflects a  shift in recent decades. Haiti was once nearly 100 percent Catholic, with the majority also practicing Vodou. But Protestant churches have made inroads in Haiti (and throughout the Catholic world), and Protestant clergy are less willing to tolerate the involvement of their adherents with Vodou. When I lived in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s, I saw the same shift occurring: “believers” (fundamentalist Protestants) did not participate in the Catholic and African celebration of  Carnaval (and did not drink, dance, or wear pants if they were women). This fact had a felicitous personal consequence for me when we lived in northeastern Brazil: our Protestant babysitter was available and willing to work for us while my husband and I went out and “played” throughout Carnaval.

American news reports on Haiti have almost always focused on misery, and Americans may not realize that in Haiti, Catholics celebrate  Carnival in the days before Lent,  just as Catholics in Brazil, New Orleans and Europe do. In Europe, Carnival evolved when the Catholic church absorbed Ancient Roman festivals, and those European pre-Christian elements followed colonists to the Americas, mixing with African and indigenous American rituals to create New World Carnivals.

In my recent essay on celebrating both Catholicism and Vodou, I referred to the intertwining of the African and Catholic pantheon of saints and spirits as “syncretism.” Freedman avoids using this word, perhaps because the Catholic church discourages syncretism, with its implication of  two religions in dynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, the Catholic church has envisioned and encouraged a dance between Catholicism and local cultures, a process referred to as “inculturation,” in order to deliver Catholic teachings in diverse settings. Inculturation signals respect for cultural differences but also for the boundaries between them. Syncretism threatens those boundaries.

Freedman evades the dangerous implications of the word “syncretism” by referring instead to a “Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities.” The word “conflates” implies that the superimposition, the equation of saints and African spirits is mistaken, or negative. Symbiosis, again, implies that two entities remain separate. But I suspect that for many Haitians, Catholicism and Vodou coexist in a marriage so intimate that they are “as one.” Freedman interviewed Vodou priest and religion professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who compared Haitians to those Japanese who perform both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and “see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.”

Meanwhile, those of us practicing both Christian and Jewish rituals await recognition of our much-misunderstood pathway. Judaism and Christianity have different cultures and rituals, worth highlighting, specifying, preserving. But at the same time, I do not fear allowing the two religions to coexist in my community, my family, my brain and body: personally, after a lifetime of contemplating this conundrum, I see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.