Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Let us center ourselves spiritually, widening our vision of Festival of Lights
(Compilation for a discourse at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville by N. R. Srinivasan, December 2014)

Light symbolizes knowledge and Darkness ignorance. Knowledge removes ignorance just like   light removes darkness. The Lord is the “Knowledge Principle” who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshiped as Lord Himself.  Vedas declare Fire and Sun, the sources of light energy, as Vyahriti of Brahman or emanations of Brahman. Brahman is the source of Light and Light of all Lights. Light and Sound are treated as Brahman. In other words light is Truth.  His light shines everything else! (Tasya bhaasaa sarvamidam vibhati). That is why light is worshiped and sound Om is meditated upon.   Knowledge is everlasting inner wealth by which all our outer achievements are accomplished. Hence Hindus light the lamp and bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth. Hindus therefore always start all auspicious occasions, rituals like wedding and cultural events like music and dance by   lighting a lamp and keeping it all through the occasion as a witness of our thoughts and actions.

A single lamp can light hundreds of lamps just as a man of knowledge can give his knowledge to hundreds of people without diminishing his own knowledge.  In fact it increases in clarity and conviction to giving, an act of charity.   The brilliance of lamp does not diminish despite its repeated use to light many more. The flame of lamp always shoots upwards. So also any knowledge acquired leads us to higher ideals.  Heaven’s light our guide says Holy Bible and look up to heaven to avoid hell looking down. In Hindu concept Paataala is hell and is down below and dark.  In Hindu festival and temple worship they invariably resort to oil wick lamps symbolically and not to electric bulbs or tube lights. The oil in the lamp symbolizes our negative tendencies and the wick the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge our negative tendencies get slowly exhausted and the ego too perishes ultimately. Similarly candle melts away our ego directing us upwards. Two great festivals of Hindus are devoted to Light and are called Light Festivals. These are Deepaavali which means row of lights, Thiru Kaartikai Deepaam, the Light of the sacred Tamil month of Kaartikai.  Thiru means sacred and this prefix is only used by Tamils and Kerala people for Kaartikai festival and not to Deepaavali.  Kerala people also call their Onam festival as Thiruvonam where the worship begins with lighting a brass lamp decorated with flowers first and foremost around which they dance around singing the glory of God and clapping their palms (Kummi).
Light in all religions is the symbol of joy and of life-giving power, as darkness is of death and destruction.  Fire as an impressive element in worship has been used in many religions. Fire-worship still has its place in at least two of the great religions of the world. The Parsis adore fire as the visible expression of their God Ashura Mazda, the eternal principle of light and righteousness. Hindus worship fire in sacrifices (yajanas) and pray to Fire God to carry their offerings to appropriate deities through the upward rising flames. Fire and sun are also exclusively worshiped as omniscient Brahman and Jyotirlinga.
In the ritual of the Jewish temple, fire and light play a conspicuous part.  The Jewish synagogues have their eternal lamp. Ancient Greeks and Romans too, had their sacred fire and their ceremonial lights.  In Christianity, from the very first, fire and light are conceived as symbols of the divine nature and the divine presence. Christ is the true Light   for them and Christians are children of Light at perpetual war with the powers of darkness and so they call all others as sinners who do not believe in Jesus, though not true for Geetaa says world needs different religions, cults and deities to meet the vastly different needs of mankind.  Hindus go further and say individuals need different traditions and so we have Vishnu Deepam, Siva Deepam, Deepaavali, Diwaali, Bhai Duj and Kaartikai. Hindu Americans are adding one more tradition called Interfaith Tradition and keep   their temple open all day long on Christmas Day and New Year declaring them as Special Religious Worship Day.
Let us examine the Celebration of Lights in many cultures and religions who   celebrate them as Festival of Lights like Deepaavali and Tiru Kartigai by Hindus.  Some of these are:
SWEDEN: According to folk tradition, December 13th follows the longest night of the year in Sweden.  This day is observed as St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden. During the winter there are only a few hours of sun-   light each day.  St. Lucia is honored this day with wreath of candles.

FRANCE: The Christian tradition of light in France during the Christmas season is demonstrated by the Advent Candles which are lit each of four consecutive Sundays before Christmas Day.  Additionally some families burn a yule log. This tradition goes back to pre-Christian celebrations during Winter Solstice.

HANUKKAH: Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated in countries all over the world. In 165 B.C. there was a great battle between the Maccabees and the Syrians. The Jews won the battle and when they went to their temple, they found that the Syrians had allowed their sacred light to go out. They only had oil for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted 8 days until a messenger could return with more. There are nine candles in the menorah. One of them is used to light the other candles and the other eight stands for the eight days that the oil kept burning.

NETHERLANDS: Saint Martin's Day is on November 11th and is celebrated in Holland. Children carry lanterns and go from house to house singing songs. People give them candy and other treats.  
Martin was a good and kind man. On a winter night he was returning home during a snowstorm. He was wearing a cloak. A homeless man appeared in the darkness. Martin felt sorry for the man and gave him half of his cloak. Now he is called St. Martin and is known for his kindness to strangers. That is why Saint Martin's Day is celebrated in Holland.

THAILAND: Loi Krathong (loy-kruh-thong) Festival in Thailand is celebrated in Thailand in November each year. "Loy" means "to float" and a "Krathong" is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves. The Krathong usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks, some flowers and coins. The festival starts at night when there is a full moon in the sky. People carry their Krathongs to the nearby rivers. After lighting candles and making a wish, they place the Krathongs on the water and let them drift away. People in Thailand offer thanks to the Goddess of water. It is believed that the Krathongs carry away bad luck. The wishes that people make for the New Year will start. It is the time to be joyful and happy as the sufferings are floated away.

INDIA: In India generally Diwali is often referred as Festival of Lights, a five days celebration. Deepaavali   means array of lights. It symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness. It is one of the most important celebrations in India.

Hindus Festival of lights Season starts with Diwali celebrated all over India and ends after two days of Kaartikai Deepam Festivals observed in South India mainly. In south Indian Tradition two mud oil wick lamps from Diwaali are kept burning through and are used to light the Kaartigai deepam lights. Some people combine this with Elephant Festival for three days observed in some traditions starting with Kaarthik Pournima and Kaartikai lights are put off after two days of Kaartikai festival bidding good bye to the elephants. It is a Hindu ritual of Visarjan similar to what they do for deities of Ganesha and Durga called immersion ceremony.

Hindus celebrate Siva as Jyotirlinga (ball of fire) in Annamalai Hills in South India on the 13th night of bright half of the Tamil month of Kaartigai celebrating the event of the strange divine light that appeared in the sky as a glowing column of lamp. All followers of Siva celebrate the event as festival of lights called Siva Kaartigai Deepam. Two days later on Poornima night all followers of Vishnu celebrate the night burning countless mud oil-wick lamps at homes with worship and merriment called Vishnu Deepam.  Sikhs observe this day lighting their holiest shrine Gurudwara in Amritsar in India.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born on 15 April 1469 in Rai-Bhoi-di Talwandi in the present Shekhupura District of Pakistan now Nanaka Sahib.  His birth is celebrated on Kartik Poornima Day the full moon day in the month of Kaartik. 
Mother Ganges is worshiped every evening in Varanasi and Hardwar with a palm-size leaf boat  containing flowers and a mud oil wick lamp which is a sight to see and relax listening to the melodious  divine music.

Makara Sankranti is the day on which people worship the Makara Vilakku on Sabari Malai (Hills) which day is the most sacred day for Hindus, the beginning of Uttarayana Punya Kala. Incidentally Aiyappan is the most compromising deity for the ever fighting groups of Vaishnavites and Saivites with their Vishishtaadvaita, Dvaita and Advaita philosophy as he is born to both Siva and Mohini in her Avatar as Vishnu. This shows the ingenuity of Hindus in creating more Gods to suit the time though I do not like their male chauvinism like the Gurus of Swami Narayan cult   who do not like to sit with woman and preach or discuss or pray.

EGYPT: Many Christians in Egypt belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Christmas is celebrated on January 6th and 7th. The churches have always been decorated with special lamps and candles. Copts also give candles to the poor. They represent the candles Joseph used to protect Mary with when Jesus was born. On the night of the January  6th, the Coptic Christians go to the church for mass and at midnight they eat dinner.   On the morning of the 7th gifts are exchanged and people visit each other.

There are four weeks of Advent during which a candle is lit each week. In Egypt, Advent lasts for forty-five days and people fast. They do not eat any meat, poultry or dairy products. Everyone buys new clothes to wear to the Christmas Eve church service. Before Christmas, Christian homes are decorated with lights, Christmas trees and small mangers. On Christmas morning people visit friends and neighbors. They bring a gift of shortbread which is called "Kaik."

PHILLIPINES: The Philippines is the only country in Asia that is predominately Christian. This festival of light is marked by the sight of "parols" or star lanterns. Nine days before Christmas a special mass is celebrated where the story of the birth of Jesus in re-enacted. Parols are displayed and fireworks heard over the next nine days. On Christmas Eve a procession is held and Mary and Joseph's search of shelter is reenacted. Members of the procession carry "parols" to light their way. Paroles of all sizes can be found decorating the homes of people in the Philippines.   Families often pass down their expertise in parol making from one generation to another. Strolling musicians play handmade banjos in the streets. This is an important feature in the celebration of Christmas in the Philippines.

CHINA: Christians in China celebrate Christmas by lighting their houses with paper lanterns. They also put up Christmas trees called "Trees of Light," with paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Chinese Children hang muslin stockings and await a visit from Santa Claus, whom they call "Dun Che Lao Ren" (dwyn-chuh-lau-oh-run) which means "Christmas Old Man. The main winter festival in China however is the Chinese New Year which takes place toward the end of January. This is when children receive new clothing, eat fancy meals, get new toys, and enjoy fireworks.

MEXICO:  During the nine days prior to Christmas, Mexican families march from house to house with candles looking for a room at the inn. They are reenacting Joseph and Mary's search for a room in Jerusalem. Families go to midnight church services on Christmas Eve.  On January 5th the children put out their shoes for a visit from the Three Wise Men who leave gifts.

BRAZIL: It is summer in Rio de Janeiro on December 31st (New Year’s Eve). Although this isn't strictly a New Year's Eve celebration, people go to the beach at midnight and ask Iemanja, the African goddess of waters, to give them good luck. Hundreds of candles are lit in the sand. People throw white flowers into the water as a gift to Iemanja. They also give her combs and perfume. The celebrations, with drumming and singing, begin at midnight and go on until dawn.

USA: Kwanzaa in USA begins on December 26th to honor African harvest traditions.     Kwanzaa is the   festival focused  on African American Community whose ancestors  were brought as slaves like what they do to honor Red Indians on Thanksgiving Day. It was created in 1966. Candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa are lit each night for a week. Family and friends come together to take pride in their unique culture and to celebrate their common heritage.

Besides celebration of Hanukkah and Christmas by various religious groups USA declares the period from the day after Thanksgiving  to  New Year day as Festival of Lights making it look like  a Secular  Tradition for exchange of greetings and presents though they put up Christmas tree with decorations and  lighting at all public places. Otherwise hard-working they take this period lightly and do not focus much on work. This is also their heaviest travel season.

It is worth recalling here some of the famous events and festivals which associate themselves with lights and are known as Festival or Event of Lights:

1) Berlin Festival of Lights   is an event that occurs annually in October. For one or two weeks, well-known sights like   Brandenburg Gate,  Fernsehn-turm (Television tower), Berlin Cathedral or  Berlin Victory Column   are scenes of illumination and Light art (son et lumieres)  The first event was held in 2004.

2)  Celebration of Light in Canada-- fireworks and light display in Vancouver, British Columbia.
3)  A former winter lights festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, celebrating it as Celebration of Lights
4)  A 2010 film called Festival of Lights.
5)  Annual Christmas celebration in Hawaii called Festival of Lights which name USA would love to adopt for the entire country for their Holiday Season though Christmas tree and Lighting is popular and vehemently defended as non-religious holiday lighting.
 6)  A French local tradition known as Fête des lumières or Festival of Lights.
7)  A summer event of lights and performances of New Plymouth called Festival of Lights.
8) A festival held each winter in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada called Festival of Northern lights.
9) A multi-city event celebrated in Louisiana and Texas in the United States called Holiday Trail of   Lights.
10) Annual festival on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois called Magnificent Mile Lights Festival.
11) Concert series in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada called Peterborough Summer festival of Lights.
12) An advocacy group called Festival of Light Australia.
13) A series rallies by conservative Christian groups in September 1971 in the United Kingdom called itself as Nationwide Festival of Light.

The 12 days of Christmas as indicated in the Christmas Song starts on Christmas day and ends on the 12th day of Epiphany on January sixth. Epiphany Day is the celebration of the three miracles that manifest the divinity of Christ. The name Epiphany comes from the Greek word Epiphania   meaning “show, make known or reveal”. The celebration originated in Eastern Church in AD 361 as a commemoration of the birth of Christ. Later, additional meanings were added, the visit of the three Magi, Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, and his first miracle in the wedding in Cana. These three events are central to the definition of Epiphany. Even though 25th is celebrated as Christmas in most cultures, January   6th is often the day for giving gifts. In some traditions gifts for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas is customary. Eastern Orthodox traditions use a different religious calendar and so they celebrate Christmas on January 7th and observe Epiphany on January on 19th. So Santa has few more days to complete his visit all children even in Christian tradition. For a country like USA of multi Christian Traditions Christmas Lighting should logically conclude on January 19th.
Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was circumcised after eight days of his birth. Traditionally January 1 is celebrated as the date of circumcision of Jesus though his date of birth is in doubt as to 25th of December. Pope Gregory XIII after whom the Gregorian calendar is named agreed to January 1 named after Roman God Janus because it suited Christianity as an auspicious day which was subsequently forced on the world as International New Year Day as Christian majority ruled the world then. Whatever it is, it seems, Jesus too waited to appear on earth for a date after Uttarayana like Bhishma who wanted to ascend to heaven after Uttarayana. His birth seems to have taken place after December 22, Winter Solstice Day, though the exact date is disputed.
The word Solstice means "sun stop." It refers to the two moments each year when the sun appears to be farthest from the equator. On the winter solstice in our hemisphere (around December 22), the sun seems to reach its most southerly point. It is our shortest day of the year. From there, it seems to head north until it reaches its most northerly point. That is our summer solstice (around June 21): the longest day of the year. When the Northern Hemisphere has its summer solstice, the Southern Hemisphere has its winter solstice, and vice versa.  The sun doesn't really move, but it looks like it does to us. That's because our Earth is tilted as it revolves around the sun once a year.

Hindus  think of  Makara Sankranti  same as Winter Solstice Day  though they are several days apart in the present day calculations and believe that the sun ends its southward journey (Dakshinaayana) at the Tropic of Capricorn, and starts moving northward  (uttaraayana) towards the Tropic of Cancer  in the month of Pausha  on Makara Sankranti  day in mid-January. Makara Sankranti has an astrological   significance, as the sun enters the Capricorn   (Makara) zodiac constellation on that day. This date remains almost constant with respect to the Gregorian calendar. However, precession of the Earth's axis (called ayanaamsa) causes Makara Sankranti to move over the ages. A thousand years ago, Makara Sankranti was on 31 December and is now on 14 January. According to calculations for 2050 Makara Sankranti will fall on 15 January. There is no observance of actual Winter Solstice in the Hindu religion. Further, the Sun makes its northward journey on the day after Winter Solstice  when day light increases. Therefore, in reality, Makara Sankranti signifies the celebration that takes place after some days after the day of winter solstice. Scientifically, if winter solstice occurs on 21 December, the Sun ends its southward journey on that day and therefore, the day will be the shortest of the year and the night will be the longest. Day light will begin to increase on 22 December and on this day the Sun will begin its northward journey which should mark Uttarayaana. We do not exactly celebrate this day, a day after winter solstice but the first day of the Tamil Month of Thai which comes after several days of winter solstice. This day being the most sacred day and astrologically believed to be the starting day of Utrtaraayan Punyakala will be the closest day to January 1 for observing it as Special Religious   Day for New Year celebrations for Hindu Americans instead of rushing on a day sacred to Christians. It also appears more or less on January 14 of the Gregorian calendar all the time.

Karunanidhi, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu would have been Solomon the Wise for   secular India if India had made Makara Sankranti the New Year for India making the Month of Thai as January for an All India Calendar. India celebrates many new years with religious bias   with many calendars unlike other countries of the world.  Karunanidhi when he was Chief Minister moved Tamil New Year Day from April 14 to January 14 to coincide with the first day of the Tamil month of Thai which is also Makara Sankranti day. This was resented by the religiously devoted. So when Jayalalita the political wizard and strong opponent of Karunanidhi   came to power she reverted back the short lived Tamil New Year day of January 14 to traditional Chitra Vishu on April 14. Makara Sankranti is the notional Winter Solstice day for Hindus who call it Uttarayana Punyakala Day, the holiest day for all Hindus irrespective of their sectarian outlook and fights. Hindus could have made this day as International New Year day as it is astronomy biased and not astrology, but they were not as forceful as Christians or Muslims in the world.

Sourmaanam is a year that commences from the time Sun enters the Zodiac sign Niraayana Mesha (Aries) and runs through until the Sun completes thirtieth degree of Meena (pisces) and is about to enter the sign of Mesha again. This is about 365.25 Days. It is because of this Tamil month of Thai, Pongal festival and Tamil New Year’s day fall more or less on the same date of Gregorian Calendar every year. Only thing seems to have forgotten is the centuries  leap year correction that is done in Gregorian calendar but perhaps never thought of in solar calendar. Indian Government has adopted Chaandramaana calendar and Salivaahana Saka.

Hindu Calendars,   according to an astrology expert, are out of harmony with natural seasons on earth because of difference of 0.0165656 days in the actual and the assumed length of a solar year which remained uncorrected for well over fourteen centuries.  The result is we are now celebrating our fasts and festivals after 23 days of their actual happening Sastras’ prescribed time. All our Panchangas (almanacs) required to accommodate this change. The present Niryaana system is not accurate. Our calendar is based on seasons, ayanaas, equinoxes, etc. Moreover the stars are not placed evenly in heavens and the view of them through ecliptic does not yield 2.25 stars per zodiac sign. Stars are of unequal span. Who is prepared to bell the cat and teach wisdom to Indian Government which is afraid to open the Pandora’s Box on many genuine issues?  In view of the above following Solar calendar with its proximity of  Gregorian calendar for American Hindus seems to be more appropriate to avoid confusion. Fortunately notional Makara Sankranti which is followed by all traditions  invariably falls on January 14, though does not confine to religious sanctity,  

The tradition of the Christmas tree can be traced back to 16th century Germany, when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes as a symbol of everlasting life. Legend says that Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, added lighted candles to his tree to replicate beautiful sight of stars twinkling amid evergreens outdoors.  Thankfully Edison’s   invention of electricity and the manufacture of electric lights replaced the hazardous candles with colored bulbs. Christian decorated fir trees do not hold magical powers or religious significance as it is not based on any Biblical reference. Plastic trees with artificial white winter   frosting are commercially marketed in the absence or affordability of natural fir trees.  Evergreen trees, not necessarily fir trees later christened as Christmas trees,   were a symbol of health and vitality during the cold, dark months of winter. In many countries it was believed that evergreen boughs would keep away evil spirits and illnesses. What started with white lights for decoration over years, should have changed over to colored lights!  Evergreen trees we decorate in our homes, colored lights in our squares, and pose beside for the perfect family photo in our holiday traditions has become an annual event adding glamour to the joyous Holiday Season. Many religious Christians believe colored lights alone reflect true Christmas spirit. Of late they see in the Mall Christmas trees which have either clear or white lights.  They wrongly conclude that it goes with the secular policy of the State which has substituted Festival of Lights Celebrations for Christmas Celebrations in public squares, buildings and schools. They believe this is a restrained secularization of Christmas.

Christmas tree in winter stands green in stark contrast to the surrounding bleak winter landscape a symbol of never ending life till it gets liberated.  Till 15th century Christianity believed in reincarnation the reference to which was all deleted by a house cleaning of the Holy Bible.  Also Christmas tree in its conical shape has its peak pointing to heaven like the Aswattha tree celebrated in Gita which has its roots turned toward heaven. To Christians candles and tree lights symbolize birth of the light of the world just as Kaartikai lights symbolize the appearance of Siva as a   never ending column of fire. Probably this concept of lighting has come from Hinduism to Christianity being the oldest religion. For Hindu Americans to whom it has become customary to put up lighting for the season and the Christmas tree it appears logical to put the lights for the Festival of Lights on Deepaavali day and continue till the day when light appears on Sabari Malai (sacred hill of Aiyappan) or the day (Makara Sankranti) on which Sun turns towards brighter side of North and days start lengthening after reaching the lowest point.

While Hindu Americans are justified in elaborate Holiday Lighting during Festival of Lights Season their relatives and friends from India who visit them during this festival season fail to understand why they have to erect Christmas trees, artificial or natural and decorate them   inside the houses, copying local traditions, which is after all a Christianity symbol? They feel we are too much Americanized and led to Christian local traditions. May be this is to satisfy their children who are keen on presents from friends and relatives and parents and spinsters for the season they try to speculate.  One way Hindu Americans can avoid the criticism yet go with the tradition of natural trees is not just decorating the tree but decorate with the tree with their own choice materials.

Hindu Americans cannot avoid Christmas Lighting and tree decoration as otherwise they will be displeasing their children waiting eagerly for Santa and Christmas gifts under the tree grown with American cultural surroundings. They often have many Christian friends too bringing gifts. That forces them to blend with the local major culture and also please their children married into Christianity which trend is gaining popularity and growing year after year.  Secular America argues Christmas tree is another name of fir tree and nothing to do with religion. In 2013, 1.2 billion real fir trees were cut for Christmas tree decorations in the world where Christianity leads all other religions in number of followers.  There is conversion and regular program for conversion into Christianity though not possible in secular USA. But American missionaries operate vigorously off shores. Now there is a tendency not to decorate the tree but decorate with the tree in the house.  Non Christmas trees have come into display by Christians. Anyhow many resort to fake trees with flakes which are not religious either symbolically moving away from the original thought of natural evergreen real tree. It can be beautiful to use undecorated trees or branches to celebrate the season now called Festival of Lights, whether or not we celebrate Christmas.  New LED lighting wrapped around trees will not heat up and harm the sensitive plant. Woody trees just really evoke feeling of coziness and wintry weather, so trees do not have to be associated with an actual holiday or religion. Some of us keep all the time rubber tree at home in the winter cold months and move them in spring through summer till early fall to porches or outside the house.  This is ideal for the Festival of Lights Season without religious bias.    

Festival of lights, green tree with lights wrapped around, decoration inside the house   are all  focused on the warmth of gathering with friends and family during the colder months. It is this motivation that drives Tamils to hold its Music Festival in the month of December which to Tamils is their coldest month. Even their famous Thyagaraja Music Festival is close to the so called end of Winter Months! So Christmas Eve can be well celebrated as Music Night. Decorating trees within the house is not something strange in Hindu Tradition. I still recall a tradition in my house to put up a live tree branch (called Pinnai) for three days   during Krishna Jayanti with real fruit decorations on a frame with lights commemorating the boyhood days of Lord Krishna who played game of dice with Gopis under this tree and enjoyed fruits which tradition I forgot after moving away from my parents. These memories of my boyhood days haunt me when I see the Christmas tree with its decorations.

A Wilson County teacher in USA was reprimanded for hanging holiday decorations that represented various religions. Evidently they were scared of a legal battle as infringement of religious freedom under the Constitution.   Lindauer should have been celebrated for his attempt at bringing different religious groups together. But what ought to have excited the appreciation by all produced a condemnation by the county authorities that ended in a punishment of black mark in personal records as violation of the noble laws of the   country.   

India would have highly commended such a pioneering effort for promoting religious harmony and would have even recommended the name for Nobel Prize. What was supposed to be a learning experience developed into dramatic ordeal, leaving Lindauer with an unjustified mark in his permanent record!
Now the tree is settled, the display in the light park in front   of the house could include the avatar of animals--fish, boar, turtle, lion, horse (incarnation symbols of Lord Vishnu) etc., including several mounts of the Lord, the elephants of Lakshmi and the cow of Krishna’s companion. It may include Sun’s orb, Swastika (holy symbols of Hinduism as well as Christianity), crescent moon, and our faith gods of inter-faith already worshiped by Hindu Americans, Saibaba, Buddha, Jina etc.  Muslims will appreciate our reverential disposition of Crescent moon and tolerate Saibaba, though may not like boar. Anyhow it is not edible pig but a wild boar which may not be noticeable by them with its distinct horn. Christians will not bother as they too display sheep, cow, ass, camel etc. and they may think Saibaba and others are Hindu Santas. What a nice thought for National integration and   community celebration.
After his recent visit to USA, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India should become wiser learning from the secular wisdom of USA. He should also promote the idea of Festival of Lights on the lines above to please all factions, religious sentiments and most importantly to heal the past wounds real or unreal. His Festival of Lights Theme Park similar to walk through “Bethlehem  Nativity displays in Christianity” can be more elaborate to include Guru Nanak, Swami Narayan, Kabir, Mother Theresa  and others to demonstrate we have more Good Samaritans. After all Indian flag has Buddhist wheel and Asoka Lion, symbols of  minority religion.  They may call this as “Nativity displays of Intelligence Creation of meek, mighty and pious of the Lord”.  This idea may work wonderful than merely declaring Christmas, Moharram, Buddha Purnima as central government national holidays. With this concept government can actively participate like the President of USA Lighting the Tree and participating in community dinners and even  Diwali lighting  by the President in white house guided by a Hindu Celebrated Priest  expressing his closeness and appreciation of the largest democracy in the world. 

Can we display a cow in this theme park? Often we are accused as worshipers of cow which is Westerner’s staple food. Ancient peoples throughout the world linked cows to prosperity and abundance. This was reflected in their spiritual practices, and in many parts of the world people worshiped a Cow Goddess or a goddess who protected cows. Hathor, the Egyptian Goddess, was known as the gentle cow of heaven. She was said to give a plentiful supply of milk to the baby Pharaoh thus making him into a divine being. She was depicted as the winged cow of creation, who gave birth to the universe.  When Moses went to get Ten Commandments people in anxiety and fear made a golden calf and prayed to it for the safe return of Moses. So it is not a bad idea to include cow which also brings back the memory of the manger where Jesus was born. We may make it a manger with the cow.
India is too diversified in religions. We can't make them one or declare India as Hindu country.  Here in USA too we have to live amidst diverse religions.  We have to focus on common themes that can make us live in peace, enjoy life with them and enhance human values by sharing and giving and not by criticizing and fighting. The evergreen tree and bright lights of the Festival of Lights Season can guide us as ever green tree Aswatha which  has its roots upwards and wants us to look via Sun and look up  to the Supreme!

Festival of lights, green tree with lights wrapped around, decoration inside the house and enchanting music   are all   focused on the warmth of gathering with friends and family during the colder months. It is this motivation that drives Tamils to hold their Music Festival in the month of December which to Tamils is their ideal winter month. Even their famous Thyagaraja Music Festival is close to the so called end of Winter Months! So Christmas Eve can be well celebrated as Music Night.   

What inspired Tamils to start this Music Festival in December? For this we have to know a little bit of history of Chennai. The township of St. Thomas Mount known in Tamil as Parangimalai in Chennai, Tamil Nadu is a small hillock known for its Christian hill shrine.   Syrian Christians of India who are in majority in Kerala trace the origin of their church to St. Thomas, Apostle of Jesus Christ. He is believed to have attained martyrdom in Chennai.  A shrine dedicated to "Our Lady of Expectation" (Mother Mary) was built in 1523 on top of the mount. The altar of this shrine was built on the spot where St. Thomas' death has occurred by Anglican Church followers. At the northern foot of the mount, is a gateway of four impressive arches surmounted by a cross bearing the inscribed date 1547. A flight of 160 steps leads up to the summit of the mount. There are 14 Stations of the Cross erected on the way to the summit. Madras has two other religious townships within the city known as Thiruvallikkeni (Triplicane) and Mylapore, celebrated Vaishnava and Siva pilgrim centers. Chennai is not only a religious city but also Music City like Nashville in USA.

Three factors obviously contribute to the December music season: (1) Margazhi being the month of Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai, (2) Margazhi being the month of early morning street Bhajans and special poojas in temples, and (3) coincidence with the December holiday season.

Music was an early feature of the Christmas Season and its celebrations.   The 13th century saw the rise of the Carol written in the vernacular, under the influence of Francis of Assisi. In the Middle Ages the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England. Christmas carols in English first appeared in 1426 music compositions and was sung by groups of singers like Hindu Bhajan Groups or Kathak Dancers who went from house to house. Music in itself soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and Christmas music includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.  

People in Chennai enjoy   long vacation   during Christmas Season, a British contribution and it is their best season known for its celebrated climate and tourist season. Music minded Hindus were perhaps    were inspired by their Christian counterparts living in large numbers in Chennai who enjoyed their season with religious music and worship during Christmas Season. There are some famous Christian Carnatic musicians also who do not mind singing Hindu devotional songs. For them music comes first.  In Chennai Christians and Hindus live amicably and do not mind their propaganda missionary singing songs on the streets to the accompaniment of musical instruments.  Hindus often flock the famous church Velanganni Amman Koil (beloved mother’s church) near Ashtalakshmi Temple on the seashore. They enjoy the music and ignore the contents. Otherwise it is the month of Margazhi more known for its fasts and ritual than music enjoyment.  However it is known for its Bhajans and street singing.  Madras Music Season was first created in the 1920s by a group of music mlovers who later went on to establish the Madras Music Academy. Concerts were held at various venues at different places every year, before the Madras Music Academy settled on its present venue at T.T.K. Road.  Now there are many Sabhas active during Christmas Season in Chennai. Although the season was initially held during March/April (the Tamil month of   Panguni) the timing of the season was later changed to December (the Tamil month of Margazhi) due to more favorable weather conditions and the likelihood of attracting more tourists during this period.

Depajyotih namostu te / Uttishthata / Jagrata / Charaiveti  / Charaiveti  //
[I pay my obeisance to the Flame of the lamp. Arise, Awake and Move forward!]
Let us spiritually center and broaden our vision of Festival of Lights, looking up to the Universal Flame (Jaagajjoti).


Christmas Before Christ

(Abridged from United Church Message)
The Surprising Truth! 
 I learned that Christmas actually predated Christianity by about 2,000 years. Many ancient nations created their own midwinter festivals and celebrations—which later morphed into Christmas—to honor the sun and other gods around the time of the winter solstice. I also learned that the origins of Christmas contradict true Christianity.
Christmas contradicts the biblical facts
It’s commonly assumed that Christmas is celebrated because it’s the birthday of Jesus Christ. But biblical scholars overwhelmingly admit that Jesus was born nowhere near Dec. 25. There are sound reasons for this conclusion. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register during a Roman census when Jesus was born, and also that shepherds still had their flocks out in the open fields at that time (Luke 2:1-8).
Jesus neither observed Christmas nor taught others to observe it. It did not originate with Him.
But the Holy Land in December is cold, rainy and sometimes snowy. No sound-minded shepherd would have been so foolhardy as to leave his flock in the fields at night at that time of year. And no intelligent ruler would compel people to travel many miles to register for a census when the likelihood of bad weather would have made such an effort self-defeating.
Why should we believe that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 when the Bible itself plainly contradicts this notion?
The birth of Christmas
So if Christmas didn’t originate with Christ’s birth being on Dec. 25, when and how did it originate?
Christmas began long before the birth of Jesus Christ. Alexander Hislop’s book The Two Babylons explores many historical sources showing that the holiday precedes Christ by at least 2,000 years, as earlier mentioned (1957, pp. 97-98).
A nativity celebration for pagan gods was observed near the winter solstice in both Syria and Egypt. Later, some 400 years before Christ, the Mithraic religion, centering on the Persian sun god Mithras, provided the foundation for the Christmas celebration. Mithraism became very popular in the Roman Empire, and many elements of its worship survive today in Roman Catholicism.
For example, the noted British anthropologist, historian and scholar Sir James Frazer, knighted for his contributions to our understanding of ancient religions, wrote in his book The Golden Bough:
“There can be no doubt that the Mithraic religion proved a formidable rival to Christianity, combining as it did a solemn ritual with aspirations after moral purity and a hope of immortality. Indeed the issue of the conflict between the two faiths appears for a time to have hung in the balance. An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival.
“In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity [birthday] of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year. The ritual of the nativity, as it appears to have been celebrated in Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, ‘The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing [stronger]!’
“The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers. No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental [i.e., Middle Eastern] goddess whom the Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess; in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte [Easter]” (The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 358, emphasis added throughout) .
If people insist on defending Christmas, at least they should know how it originated.
Tertullian on Christmas
The early Catholic theologian and writer Tertullian (A.D. 155-230) was a convert from paganism. He wrote numerous works defending Christianity as he understood it, combatting contrary teachers and giving exhortation to fellow believers. In one he described how the Christian converts of his day were already ignoring the biblical Sabbath day and festivals and flocking to the pagan Roman winter festivals, such as the Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn:
“By us who are strangers to Sabbaths, and new moons, and festivals, once acceptable to God, the Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia and Matronalia, are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro, new year’s day presents are made with din, and sports and banquets are celebrated with uproar” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, chap. 14, quoted by Hislop, p. 93).
Tertullian rebuked Christians for joining in such pagan celebrations, noting that no self-respecting pagan would join in “Christian” celebrations: “Oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians” (ibid).
He further stated of the pagans: “For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord’s Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!” (quoted by David Bercot, editor, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs , 1998, p. 342). This is an incredible admission.
A zealous Tertullian could see the difference between heathen and Christian festivals. Can we?
A deeper look at Christmas origins
Man, Myth & Magic is a useful encyclopedia on mythology and religion. This multi-volume work uncovers the origins of major Western religious holidays, exploring the history of each. It offers further details on the origins of Christmas:
“Christmas has its origin in two ancient pagan festivals, the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia… It was close enough to the winter solstice to acquire many of the associations of the Norse ceremony: the Yule-log, the evergreen decorations in houses and churches, even the Christmas feast itself. These elements were combined with the Saturnalia of the Romans to provide the basis for the early Christian festival.
“During the Saturnalia, gifts were made by the wealthy to the poor in honor of the golden age of liberty when Saturn ruled the known world, and slaves were allowed to change places and clothing with their masters. They even elected their own mock king who, for the period of the festival, ruled as a despot. The Saturnalia involved the wildest debauchery, and was a festival worthy of [the god] Pan himself.
“Naturally it came under heavy censure from the early Church and despite the fact that Jesus Christ and the saints gradually replaced the pagan deities it was long considered completely out of character with the Christian ideal. However, the festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favour to be abolished, and the [Catholic] Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if Christmas could not be suppressed it should be preserved in honor of the Christian God” ( Man, Myth & Magic , Richard Cavendish, ed., 1995, Vol. 3, p. 418).
Christmas gains acceptance
The strange story of Christmas continued after the ancient celebrations were adopted by the Catholic Church. The church does not deny it.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong at Rome. This theory finds support in some of the Church Fathers contrasting the birth of Christ and the winter solstice. Though the substitution of Christmas for the pagan festival cannot be proved with certainty, it remains the most plausible explanation for the dating of Christmas” (1967, Vol. 3, p. 656).
Man, Myth & Magic explains when Christmas gained official recognition and when the name was substituted for the ancient heathen midwinter festival. “Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed. It was only in the 4th century that 25 December was officially decreed to be the birthday of Christ, and it was another 500 years [the ninth century] before the term Midwinter Feast was abandoned in favor of the word Christmas (Cavendish, p. 480).
James Hastings, Bible scholar, writer and editor of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, confirms that the church absorbed and tolerated heathen customs: “Most of the Christmas customs now prevailing in Europe, or recorded from former times, are not genuine Christian customs, but heathen customs which have been absorbed or tolerated by the Church” (1910, Vol. 3, p. 608).
Elements of the observance of Christmas were criticized and even forbidden in later centuries. “The undisguised pagan element in Christmas had often provoked criticism from extreme Protestants but the festival was not really affected by their beliefs until the Puritans came to power in the 17th century.
“[At that time] Christmas was attacked as ‘the old heathens’ feasting day to Saturn their God’ and carols were forbidden. Finally, 25 December was proclaimed a fast day [a time of abstaining from food and festivity to focus on religious devotion] in 1644. The new rule was enforced by the army, which spent much of its time pulling down the greenery that festive ‘pagans’ had attached to their doors.
“In Scotland the prohibition was enforced with great rigor. This anti-Christmas attitude spread to Puritan territories in America. The Church established special services for Christmas in Boston during the 1690s, but many civil authorities strongly opposed this move. And it was not until some 150 years later that Christmas first became a legal holiday in the United States, in Alabama in 1836” ( Man, Myth & Magic , Cavendish, pp. 480-481).
Why Dec. 25 as the date for Christmas?
Sir James Frazer wrote at length on the roots of modern Christian holidays. And here’s what he had to say about why Christmas began as it did:
“What considerations led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute the festival of Christmas? It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity.
“In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors [theologians] of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth of January …
“The heathen origin of Christmas is plainly hinted at, if not tacitly admitted, by Augustine [the fifth-century Catholic theologian] when he exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of him who made the sun. In like manner [Pope] Leo the Great rebuked the pestilent belief that Christmas was solemnized because of the birth of the new sun, as it was called, and not because of the nativity of Christ.
“Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness” (pp. 358-359).
This was despite God’s direct warning against adopting pagan worship customs to honor Him (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
Does Christ approve of Christmas?
Having considered mainstream church teaching and practice on this subject, we also need to ask: What did Christ Himself teach about Christmas?
The fact is, Jesus neither observed Christmas nor taught others to observe it. It did not originate with Him. But He did speak out strongly against the traditions of men: “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
Indeed, Jesus taught that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), and it explicitly warned against adopting pagan worship customs to honor the true God (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
[Remember Bhagavan in Gita Said: “Tasmaat saastram mpramaanam te”—scriptures are your authority]
Furthermore, God inspired Daniel to prophesy several centuries before Christ that religious men would attempt to change “times and law,” including God’s festival seasons (see Daniel 7:25; compare Leviticus 23 with Matthew 5:17-19).
[Progressive decline of Dharma predicted in Bhagavatam]
After Jesus Christ returns to earth, during His reign over the nations He will see to it that all of God’s annual festivals are observed by all peoples. The book of Zechariah reveals that it will take a few years before at least a few nations learn to accept Christ’s teachings. The autumn Feast of Tabernacles is a case in point.
Zechariah 14 addresses the second coming of Christ, concluding with one particularly revealing insight into what will come next: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King [Jesus Christ], the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16).
Then the account continues by describing appropriate corrective punishments for those nations that do not comply (Zechariah 14:17-19).

In2017 this Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated  from October 4 to 11.
The festival of Sukkot    is a festival that takes place just after the fall harvest in Jerusalem.  It was a yearly reminder of how God provided for the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness - a time when God dwelled in their midst, fed them daily with bread from Heaven, caused their clothes to not wear out, and provided them with righteous judges.  This temporary time in the wilderness was a picture of the millennial kingdom to come.
 In ancient times, the Israelite people would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times each year in order to observe the festivals.  Along with their wives and families, they would bring their offerings from the best of their crops and herds, along with the tithes of their increase.  These were joyous times, since they reflected the blessings God had bestowed on a people who walked in His ways.
 The prophet Zachariah said that not only God's people, but all mankind would be required to come up to Jerusalem each fall and observe the festival of Tabernacles (Zechariah 14:16-19). The penalty for not doing so would be that there would be no rain, i.e - famine.  Being that Sukkot is such a joyous occasion, why would a people not want to enjoy the festival?  'Makes you wonder!

 [This discourse is compiled by suitably extracting materials from the article  Festivals of Lights around the world by Judie Haynes, Wikipedia, In Indian Cultures Why do We…   by   Swami Vimalanada, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India and North American Panchangam which are gratefully acknowledged and my discourses on Makara Sankranti, Hindu Reflections on Christmas-tree and Lighting, January1—Hindu American Worship in Temples and Festival of Lights—Ancient in Traditions and Universal in   Appeal]

[This discourse material is a compilation from the reference above    as well as other sources for a prepared lecture for delivering at Vedanta Class of Sri Ganesha Temple which is gratefully acknowledged. I do not claim anything as original though I have included my explanations and comments elaborately suitably editing. Anybody is free to download partly or fully thidiscourse, modify and redistribute this as well as other  discourses from the blog Hindu Reflections <nrsrini.blogspot.com> for spreading the wisdom of Vedas and scriptures further.  These  lectures are  posted on the blog for the benefit of those who are not able to attend my lectures personally due to personal reasons or due to not living in Nashville or able to go through the various sources as I have done.]