The Rockefeller Christmas Tree. Photo: iloveny.com
It’s hard to talk about celebrating multiculturalism without sounding like a Saturday Night Live skit, but I’m going to put forth the plea that we embrace what we share in our faith traditions because, upon examination, it’s clear that our different faith traditions have more in common than not and, at this time of year especially, much of that symbolized by light. And New Yorkers love lights!
To state the obvious, light and Christmas go together, however religious or commercial the celebration, starting with the North Star, advent wreaths, and the lights on every Christmas tree -- not to mention decorations on the lawn.
While every Christian Church, Catholic or Protestant, across the Empire State has its own special traditions on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and in the days leading up, there are many light-filled public celebrations New Yorkers can choose to enjoy: A Frosty Fest at Ulster Park in the Hudson Valley, A Gilded Age Christmas in Staatsburg, Capital Holiday Lights in the Park in Albany, Christmas at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island, Lights on the Lake at Onondaga Lake Park, Twilight Tour of Decorated Vanderbilt Mansion in Centerport on Long Island, Festival of Trees in Auburn at the tip of Owasco Lake of the Finger Lakes, and Rockefeller Center in New York City to join the crowds viewing its giant lighted tree, the windows and light show at Saks Fifth Avenue and ice skating at the Rink at Rockefeller Center (reservations highly recommended).
You can find most of these attractions and more on the I Love NY website. In addition, if you are in NYC, make time to visit the Met Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decorated with lights and figurines from Naples, Italy, where the tradition of putting up a nativity season around Christmas began.
The North Pole. Photo: The North Pole's instagram
Finally, for all those who believe, head to the Adirondacks for, yes, our state’s very own North Pole (who knew it was so close?!), located at Whiteface Mountain in Adirondack Park. Just 12 miles from Lake Placid, visitors can enjoy Santa’s Workshop, the nation’s oldest theme park and HQ for all things Claus, vintage and twee.
Christmas gets a lot of attention during the winter holiday season, but other faith traditions celebrate with light around this time of year, too.
No matter how you spell it (Chanukah?) Hanukkah provides eight days of celebration all about light. Literally called the Festival of Lights, this Jewish holiday, according to most observers, commemorates a miracle that happened during the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in about 160 BC after it was reclaimed from the defilement of Greek and Syrian powers: a one-day vial of oil lasted enough to illuminate the Temple for eight full days.
While the holiday officially ended December 9th in 2018 (the dates vary each year on the Gregorian calendar because they are set according to a lunar calendar), the fun is still on if you missed out. There are these 21 amazing Jewish Delis in New York City (including our favorites Russ & Daughters and Barney Greengrass) to graze on all of the smoked salmon, latkes,and bagels you can eat. Or, you can partake in the sacred(?!) tradition of ordering your favorite Chinese food and then hitting a fabulous movie while the gentiles hit Mass on Christmas.
The Natural History Museum's Kwanzaa Event. Photo: amnh.org
This celebration of African American heritage traditionally takes place December 26th - January 1st. The holiday is rooted in seven principles, a.k.a. Nguzo Saba, all of which are designed to promote unity, culture, and community. Each principles are celebrated by the lighting of candles over 7 days. My favorite Kwanzaa event takes place on December 29th this year at the American Museum of Natural History. The one-night party featuring dance, spoken work, live music, and crafts is fun for everyone, and a great way to introduce kids to the tradition. The Apollo Theater Regeneration Event also offers a wonderful celebration of Kwanzaa this December 29. Likewise, among other Kwanzaa celebrations around the state, the Hamilton Hill Arts Center in Schenectady offers a full schedule of Kwanzaa activities.
Lohri is a Punjabi folk festival, celebrated primarily by Sikhs and Hindus. It also marks the end to the Winter Solstice, and welcomes in longer days. According to Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna manifests himself in a burst of light to Arjuna, a great prince about to launch a war. The event typically falls on January 13th. While the festival is celebrated with great gusto in Asia, most celebrations in the New York area happen at home. Traditionally, a large communal bonfire is lit, children go door-to-door to sing folk songs in exchange for sweets and savories, there are live performances of song and dance, and there’s a great feast.
The Buddhist holiday on December 8, commemorating the day over 2,500 years ago when the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, experienced enlightenment. This is not traditionally a big day of partying; instead, a day of contemplation and meditation for Buddhists. Many choose to study the Dharma, chant sutras or perform kind acts as they renew their dedication to the principles of Buddism, including enlightenment, compassion, and kindness to other living beings.
Leading off the end-of-year celebrations of light is Diwali, the festival of light and one of the most important celebrations for Hindus around the world. This 2018, it began on November 6th or 7th, depending on the location, and continued for five days during which lights and clay lamps illuminate homes, temples, and public places. The victory of good over evil, and light over dark, are themes of the festival.
While Islam does not have a festival of light, the Qur’an contains verses that include a powerful metaphor of the divine as Light: 'God is the Light of the heavens and earth. His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fuelled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it - light upon light - God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such comparisons for people; God has full knowledge of everything - shining out in houses of worship. God has ordained that they be raised high and that His name be remembered in them, with men in them celebrating His glory morning and evening.' Qur'an 24: 35-6, translation by M.A.S. Abdul Haleem
The Winter Solstice Celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo: stjohndivine.org
For the nonobservant, or simply to celebrate the coming of light and the end to the Winter Solstice, gospel singer Theresa Thomason and the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre are here for you. They will welcome the return of the sun at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, December 20-22nd. It’s nondenominational, yet spiritual at the same time, as it takes place in one of the country’s most monumental religious centers.
FOR EVERYONE TOGETHER
Home for the Holidays in Binghamton allows us to come together and celebrate a full array of traditions. The Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton is holding its 64th Annual Home for the Holidays Celebration, through January 6th. The three-floor center is packed with activities, live music, performances and celebrations, and hundreds of trees. Visitors can discover the significance of the season across the world, and learn more about the beliefs and traditions of Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Ramadan (which takes place May - June), Kwanzaa and Bodhi Day.
No matter what race or creed you are, can we all agree that this (fill in with your celebration of choice) season, we’ll focus on the light we share? Let’s aim to remain “enlightened” for all the months of 2019.