This holiday season in Nanaimo, it’s not just about carolling, Santa and his elves, and presents under the Christmas tree.
With the abundance of Christmas-themed music and advertising in the community from the end of November until the end of December, it is impossible to escape this Christian holiday.
But while it is most visible in the community, many residents are observing other religious celebrations and cultural traditions around this time.
“I would say there are more than 60 distinct spiritual communities in Nanaimo,” said Douglas Headworth, chairman of Interfaith Nanaimo, a group established to build understanding and relationships between different faith groups, and Arch Druid of WorldTree Ministry.
“We look much more homogenous than we really are,” he said.
A sampling of this diversity can be experienced Thursday (Dec. 20) at Harmonies of Faith, an interfaith music event sponsored by the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society and held at the Port Theatre.
The evening includes performances from Snuneymuxw First Nation drummers, St. Andrews United Choir, Nanaimo Baha’i Faith, Nanaimo Hindu Cultural Society, Nanaimo Interfaith Committee, Nanaimo Islamic Centre, Nanaimo Druids, Wiccans and Pagans, and Island Soul Choir.
For Druids, Wiccans and pagans, celebrations at this time of year centre around winter solstice and the return of the sun, said Headworth.
Winter solstice – Dec. 21 – marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year, when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, after which the days begin to grow longer and the nights shorter.
For Druids, an ancient Celtic practice, the return of the light is celebrated by the hanging of mistletoe and lighting of the yule log, said Headworth.
Mistletoe was believed to bring wellness and spiritual purity and was a traditional medicine used by the Druids to cure a variety of spiritual and physical ailments. The yule log, typically lit on winter solstice, symbolizes the end of one year and the beginning of the next and was supposed to lift everyone’s spirits up.
“The feasting and the gifting that would follow the lighting of the yule log would ensure people had enough stores to last the rest of the winter,” said Headworth.
For Wiccans, winter solstice represents the seasons rotating and the return of the sun.
“In the old agrarian cycle of the Earth and the peoples, winter was really a hard time,” said Sally Kimber, priestess with the Temple of the Green Cauldron. “I put holly around the house. By bringing in the green, it’s hoping there will be that promise of renewed fertility with the Earth and things will cycle through again.”
At winter solstice, Wiccans honour the goddess for labouring to bring forth the sun god once more – the room is darkened and then relit to symbolize passing through the darkest time of the year, elders in the group are honoured and the ritual is followed by a potluck feast.
“With our feast, by sharing food and what we have, we create community,” said Kimber.
Nanaimo’s Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah from Dec. 8-16.
The eight-day celebration, also known as the Festival of Lights, has been honoured since 150 B.C. when the Jewish people rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At that time, states the Chabad of Vancouver Island website, Jerusalem was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to convert the people of Israel to Greek culture.
The story goes that a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on Earth, drove the Greeks from the land and reclaimed the temple.
When they went to light the temple’s menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum), they found only enough oil to last for one day, but miraculously, it burned for eight days.
“Hanukkah is when we remember that we have the strength within ourselves to light the world,” said Rabbi Meir Kaplan. “Every year we celebrate it as a time of light and hope.”
Hanukkah customs include the nightly menorah lighting ritual, eating foods fried in oil such as sufganiot (jelly doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes), playing with the dreidel (a spinning top inscribed with Hebrew letters) and gifts of money to children.
It is also a time for family to get together, added Kaplan.
A public celebration took place in Nanaimo on Dec. 10 with a menorah lighting in front of City Hall.
Another festival of lights was celebrated last month – the Nanaimo Hindu Cultural Society celebrated Diwali with a huge dinner and dance Nov. 24.
“This is like Christmas for Hindu people,” said Shail Minhas, society chairwoman. “It’s a widely-known festival now.”
The word Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Deepavali, which means an array of lights.
The celebration signifies the victory of good over evil, prosperity over poverty and knowledge over ignorance.
Diwali is celebrated with rows and rows of lights, said Minhas.
One of the more important festivals of the year for Hindus, Diwali is celebrated in the home with prayer and people clean their houses, buy new clothes and dishes and light the candles to make their homes welcoming for the goddess Lakshmi, said Minhas.
She said Diwali happened Nov. 13 this year – the festival falls anywhere from mid-October to mid-November on the Western calendar – and the community celebration was held about a week after that at Bowen Park.