Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year 2011!

Best wishes to you and yours for a wonderful 2011!

May your year, and many after,

be filled with love, joy, friendship, peace, and prosperity!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Time for an Arabic Language and Cultural Institute in Saudi Arabia?

The article copied below from Arabic News tapped into a theme that I have long found intriguing, and more recently regarding expats in Saudi Arabia who have extremely limited Arabic. The general theme is that of expatriates living longterm in any society without learning the dominant language of the country. A significant aspect of that is bi-national children who have not been taught both languages of their dual heritage. Another variant is those who summer in a country every year for decades and have next to no language skills in the dominant language.

One response to this, especially by those who find it less intriguing than I do, is that English is the lingua franca internationally, the language of professionalism in many disciplines, and the language that is dominant in their workplace, compound, neighbourhood, social group, community or family. Another response is that the language, whatever it might be, is too difficult, that an individual has poor linguistic abilities, or is too old, or that learning is challenging due to accessibility of instruction, including availability, cost, time commitments, and suitability.

Although I appreciate that there are very real challenges to language acquisition, the gains seem to outweigh the challenges, whether in terms of personal enrichment, professional enhancement, better integration in a society, improved understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of others, or better family relationships and friendships for those in bicultural marriages. I think a number of expats who are residing in Saudi Arabia longer term, and who haven't acquired enough Arabic to follow social conversations and the news easily, may feel more alienated and be more apprehensive about certain aspects of Saudi culture than if they did.

Social isolation comes in many forms, and being linguistically cut off from the broader social milieu, from cultural activities, or from certain interpersonal activities is a major one. In my experience, expatriates may arrive in a place with the intention of staying a short time, and postpone language learning or deem there is insufficient time and reason to put one's energy into it. Sometimes the place is heavily English speaking and there is no urgent need or opportunity to learn the dominant language.

However, that may change over time, especially with decolonization or post-colonial changes to the social fabric and societal demands, including overt favouring of the country's national language in employment, education, and social interaction. Over time one also may feel a greater need to connect beyond one's limited circle, in order to have a fuller life, pursue advanced education, expand or initiate a career. Also, over time, inlaws may be less accepting of a family member's seeming refusal to learn the language.

A given language's difficulty level and dialectal variations, and an individual's linguistic abilities, or age are confounds, in my opinion. Speaking, reading, and writing the standardized version of the language is a great starting point for learning dialectal variations. Alternatively, it may be more imperative to learn the local dialect at first, and deepen one's knowledge from there. Either way, and independent of individual talent, one can always learn to speak better than one does--especially if starting from zero.

The Arab News article addresses specific Arabic learning challenges in Saudi Arabia, including the lack of language and cultural institutes that are easily accessible to all, and independent of religious teaching. Other factors include employing unskilled labour or skilled labour and international professionals with out requiring prior knowledge of Arabic or providing classes on site during the term of the contract; and, the ability to get by in English only. The issue of how Saudis view long term expats who seem to have made no effort to acquire a reasonable level of Arabic fluency is another particularly interesting aspect of this article.

In Saudi Arabia, 'no Arabic, mafi mushkila'

Published: Dec 26, 2010 23:26 Updated: Dec 26, 2010 23:26

JEDDAH: A simmering issue that has been in the backburner is slowly seeing the light with many locals wondering why most non-Arab expatriates either do not know Arabic, or speak only a smattering of Arabic words picked up at random, which — although sound gibberish to the purist — does enable them to at least communicate.

There are reasons for the apathy to learning Arabic, despite many having spent years working in the Kingdom. Reasons cited by the non-Arab expatriate community include claims of finding the language difficult and an absence of Arabic schools or institutions. Many, on the other hand, are simply not keen to learn the language.

As a result, many non-Arabic speaking expatriates rely on English as their chosen language of communication, something that Saudis find strange, especially when these expatriates have been living in the Kingdom for over 10 years.

The major obstacle, according to the non-Arabic speaking expatriate community, is a lack of institutions that provide short courses in Arabic that would suit working people. Although some Saudi universities do teach Arabic to non-Arabic students, most of this teaching is done at specialist universities that cater to full-time religious students.

There are also some private institutions that teach Arabic. However, non-Arabic speaking expatriates are either unaware of them, or they do not enroll because of exorbitant fees. One person who did make an attempt to join found that the program was poorly thought out and would not have benefited him.

Arab News contacted 905 phone directory to inquire about Arabic language institutes. The phone operator told Arab News that there was nothing in the system and he could only be of assistance if we could provide a name of an institution to search in his database.

The paper also contacted various English language institutes to find out if they also teach Arabic. All of them said that they only teach English and are not planning to run Arabic classes in the future.

In addition, a computer and language institute, when contacted, also confirmed that they only provide Arabic language classes for company employees.

A Saudi, who did not wish to be named, said that sponsors and companies take no effort whatsoever in teaching their non-Arabic speaking workers Arabic or enrolling them on courses to learn the language. “It would help if people knew the language as interaction between colleagues would be better,” he said.

He added that one way this issue could be addressed is to state, while recruiting from abroad, that knowledge of basic Arabic language is a must in the contract. “This could then be developed when the expatriate comes over here, and not leaving them to learn on their own.”

Often, many non-Arabic speakers make an effort to learn the language on their own or with a bit of help from their Arab friends or colleagues but they end up speaking broken Arabic. This is especially found among expatriates who work labor jobs.

Ali Ashkori, an Indonesian who has been living in the Kingdom for three years and works as a driver, said he worked hard to learn Arabic by himself. He said he found great difficulty communicating with others, especially when he goes to grocery stores. His problem is in speaking the language but, according to him, he partly understands what people say in Arabic.

Rodolpho, a Filipino salesman in his 30s who works at a mall in Jeddah, said, “I communicate with people in English as English is a popular language in the Kingdom. Arabic is very difficult for me. I did not learn it because my job does not require that I do so and there is no institution that I can join to learn the language. I only know basic Arabic words that I hear frequently during work.”

Erfan, an Indian salesman in a Jeddah shop, has been working in the Kingdom for five years and does not know the language. He said that besides the absence of an Arabic teaching institute, he finds Arabic difficult because it is spoken in various dialects. “I only know basic words related to my work. It is sad that when I see two people speaking in Arabic I can only understand a word or two but I don’t have any idea what they are talking about. I wish I could learn but I cannot find anyone to teach me or to talk to me in Arabic.”

For Erfan, part of the lack of interest to learn the language is the large community of Indians who live in the Kingdom.

Muhammad Ali, a Turkish private company employee, realized the importance of the language when police stopped him. He said that he was trying to communicate to the officer but the conversation was totally futile, as neither of them could understand the other.

“I was given the violation without knowing why. I had no interest to complain because I cannot speak Arabic and I cannot communicate with them.” Ali hopes to see Arabic language institutions opening for people like him.


On reading the article, I began thinking of the Alliance Française, Instituto Italiano di Cultura, British Council, Instituto Cervantes, Goethe-Institut, etc, all of which are government funded institutes that teach language and culture, and hold cultural events related to their country's heritage in countries around the world. They are generally good ambassadors for their country, its language and cultural achievements, and maintain high standards with quality teaching at reasonable prices. They also provide a touchstone for expatriates from their own countries, and participate in cultural festivals in the country in which they are based, fostering increased interaction, knowledge, and exchange.

In a way, Saudi Arabia could benefit from encouraging such institutes within the country for expatriates living there, especially on long term contracts. While religion is an inextricable part of Saudi life, there are language and cultural classes that could be held independently of religious teaching; and, the basics of how Islam is integrated into Saudi culture, celebrations, and institutions could be taught in a secular manner, that is, without proselytizing.

An alternative would be a stable and multi-centred private language and cultural institute catering to the needs of expats, including short courses, job or career specific language lessons, and topics reflecting Saudi culture, like sports, hobbies, artisanry, regions, history, flora and fauna, cuisine, calligraphy, non-representational art, architecture, etc.

In either case, one imperative seems to me to have courses helping children of mixed Saudi/non-Saudi marriages newly arrived in the country, and older children of Saudis returning from abroad fast-track their language skills, cultural knowledge, and academic levels in Arabic. I believe that is true even if they will be attending private English language schools. It would be a boon in terms of feeling more integrated, and more rapidly, enabling them to manage their school Arabic classes, giving them better options within the country, and greater enrichment even if they return overseas for university education or career opportunities.

Classes, as opposed to online or home learning methods, also serve as a motivator, a social network, and a quality control, with levels allowing one to be realistic about one's skill level, and areas for improvement. Many institutes organize visits to local sights, or activities to enhance the classroom learning experience, and help students feel more at ease in the society. There is no doubt that with better language skills one feels more empowered to be out and about in the world.

If you are Saudi, do you think long term expats should learn Arabic?
Does it make a difference to you that some have/haven't?
If you are an expat in Saudi, what has been your experience of the language questions raised in the article and in my comments?
If you are a Saudi, what has been your experience of the reverse--learning English while in Saudi or abroad, or learning another foreign language?
If you are a Saudi who lived abroad as a child, what was your experience of learning Arabic and integration on return to Saudi?
If you are in a mixed marriage, how important has it been to learn the language and culture of your spouse?
What has been the impact of doing so/ not doing so, on your marriage, family relationships, social integration, children?
What efforts have you made/ planned for so that your children are bilingual and bi-cultural?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fashion Ideas for Muslimahs and for Non-Muslimahs (Expat Women) Wearing Hijab; Hijabi Fashion Week; Vote (29-31/12/2010) on Muslim Fashion Blogs!

Recently, I was pleased to discover a number of fashion blogs devoted to hijab, in both the narrow sense of a headscarf, and the broader sense of modest Islamic attire, which also had great ideas for outfits without the headscarf option. Some of the combinations are ones I would wear and have worn, especially during the winter months here, or when I am in a long skirt mode.

I had come across a favourite, Hegab Rehab, thanks to fashion posts on Ellen's blog Steadily Emerging With Grace; Ellen has since become involved in the renewed Al Firdous Designs here and on Facebook here.

I then discovered more Muslim fashion blogs through the Brass Crescent Awards nominations, particularly: Hot Chocolate and Mint (Honorable Mention, Best East or Southeast Asian Blog); Hijab and the City (in simple French) which won the Best European Blog Award, as a style guide and "a blog for girls who happen to be Muslim and not a Muslim blog for girls."

I have discovered more fashion blogs now because of the SistersWhoBlog Best Blog Awards 2010 (voting open December 29-31 in a number of categories).

Obligatory Dress

Eppity Primary School Uniform--notice the individual interpretations of grey, pants vs skirt, and regulation footwear; 
facial expressions and body posture are unique!

I have only been required to wear hijab when I was in Iran for a conference, and have worn it a very few times more optionally in Morocco where the circumstances warranted it. My attitude, as someone who doesn't wear hijab for religious reasons, but occasionally for socio-cultural ones, is to embrace the hijab as a fashion challenge and opportunity, much like dressing for winter in Canada.

I'd be happy not to wear winter clothes, particularly the outer garments: coat/jacket, hat/hood, scarf, gloves/mittens. However, I prefer to wear them rather than to freeze. In that spirit I choose the outer garments carefully for aesthetic pleasure, required warmth for the weather/ climate (temperatures and precipitation range within the winter season, and winters are worse in some parts of Canada than others), appropriateness for activity (professional attire, sportswear, casual wear), and mode of transportation (walking often, public transit, car). I also choose multiple accessories, in a variety of cheery and pleasing colours, because they are a welcome spot of colour and variety in a long, dull winter. Others have remarked to me that they are happy to see the bright red, or canary yellow, or electric blue, since so many stick to tones as dull as they feel and as the weather can be.

I have the same attitude towards rainwear. If the weather dictates that I must wear it, I choose styles and colours that suit and brighten the experience.

Ditto professional wear, especially in summer where I would rather be in appropriate summer attire that would pass on the humanities side of the campus, but be verboten on the medical side, and especially in the hospital. On psychotherapy clinic days, my main concern is where the hem falls when I sit, and how well it stays where it is supposed to--without becoming a major distraction for myself, or for the patients (men or women).

I have a Jewish colleague who dresses more conservatively--colour, looseness, length of sleeve and hem--in the clinic where she is most likely to see conservative Jewish women. A prominent Sudanese-American gynecologist dresses more conservatively on the clinic days reserved for East African immigrant women. On surgery days she is in universal surgical scrubs, hat, and booties; and may throw a lab coat on for specific venturing forth into other parts of the hospital.

Very serious medical students, Ahad and Asmaa (Souma, Soumz). Asmaa took most of the photos that were included with her permission on my post on medical lab coats being a problematic replacement for the abaya. The photos were originally taken for the Smile Campaign (which includes a wonderful video) she organized with her medical class, and were put on her blog, Chapter One, in the post Donate A Smile For KAUH-Snapshots. I was struck by the beautiful hijabs and the ways of wearing them by the women medical students. See either of our posts and the video for more examples.

The seasons are one form of obligatory, and sometimes restrictive dress; professionalism is another; and social harmony is a third. The latter is true anywhere, based on general cultural norms, and specific situations, eg party dress--corporate spouse clothes? corporate employee clothes? coach's spouse clothes? evening wear? garden party wear? sporting activity theme wear? themed costume party wear?, student casual wear?, etc.

Yet, the idea of dressing for social harmony is most striking perhaps in conservative cultures, and more of a cultural shock for expats arriving from (much) more liberal cultures, or nationals returning from a long stay abroad in a more liberal culture. Most often the challenge is greater for women, because of the greater cultural distance, and because women generally have a greater fashion range than men, even in a liberal culture.

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the issues around dress in Saudi Arabia, which is more restrictive for women than men, as the abaya is required in public of all, the hijab for almost all, and in some areas the niqab is at least socially imposed. While some find ways not to wear the abaya, using a lab coat for that purpose is problematic, except in the hospital or clinic setting for medical professionals (physicians, medical students, nurses, physiotherapists, lab technicians), as I have elaborated elsewhere.

Others may not wear the abaya but have sufficient chutzpah/ wasta to avoid major problems, whereas most women would be taking a bigger risk of unpleasantness by not wearing it. Solving the unpleasantness usually involves spouse, employer,  and, for expats married to Saudis, inlaws. Saudi Arabia is at least very clear about dress norms (and other rules like no driving; no public religious services) so that expats should be prepared for the social, if not legal, expectation that they will wear the abaya, and in some settings the hijab.

The requirement for hijab in a given place and situation may be primarily from the broader social milieu or from within the social class, family, or the marriage. These different loci are overlapping and interdependent, but one may still tease out the origin of the particular injunction. In some ways it is easier if it is coming from the broader social milieu or class structure, and at least one's family and spouse are on side. This makes legitimate anger and/or anger displaced from other less safe topics onto the dress codes a more acceptable emotion.

Westerners are often taken aback by how much say extended family will have--or deem that they do--in what Westerners consider private matters. Spouses returning to their own culture must contend with their own re-adaptations, including re-balancing their own relationships with now omnipresent family, and those of their spouse, who may be more or less familiar with the cultural norms, and more or less willing and able to adapt.

Mixed couples may face either more leniency or more restrictions about conforming. While both spouses will face repercussions for non-conformity, the one from the country may face more. Usually husbands are reminded to correct their wive's (mis-)behaviours. This can leave them in a double bind, and introduce new problems into a marriage which is already struggling with the changed socio-cultural and familial expectations. This becomes further complicated as both may lack supports in their new setting that they would have elsewhere (including more liberal friends and family living abroad); and, the Western spouse usually has fewer supports, at least initially.

In my own personal experience, and awareness of that of others in a variety of expat settings, I believe that adopting the most positive attitude and strategies toward obligatory cover is a choice that is ultimately less stressful on all--the woman concerned, the spouse, the family. While I can easily make the hub fall over in shock and disbelief just by saying some variant on "Whatever you say, dear" (it happens so rarely :D), I do take his word for it on the rare occasion when he suggests I wear more conservative dress in Morocco--because we will be in a more conservative area, or a more delicate one (eg in front of a major cemetery, or entering government buildings asking for paperwork), or because he knows that there will be people in some place with nothing better to do than start something over a hemline. If they start something, he is the one who will need to deal with it, more so than I, so it's the least I can do to respect his judgment on this.

Before our group went to Iran, the senior academic who had invited us as speakers sent for guidelines on dress codes from the Canadian Department of External Affairs. For women those guidelines included covering all but face, hands, and feet, loose clothing, and preferably an overdress in black, brown, dark purple, dark wine red, dark green, dark blue, or dark grey. Of those choices I thought an inexpensive navy jellabah would be the most happy and practical for me. I was going to be in Morocco just before, so when I got there I sent my SIL out to buy me one (I am "walking inflation"), as well as a plain blue headscarf to go with it and with my other Moroccan dress wear.

She came back saying she couldn't find a navy jellabah, but found one in royal blue which she knew I liked, and a scarf to go with it. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and to risk the royal blue.

Ah, but the headscarf. No one knew how to tie it in an interesting manner, since none of them wear one, except for the older women who just tie it under their chin, kerchief style. We visited the one younger family member who had recently adopted the hijab (much to everyone's shock and awe, including her husband's), but even she was a newbie and suggested a simple pinning under the chin. I sincerely wished I hadn't thrown out my Western "how to wear scarves fashionably" book, as some styles, which are Western classics, do cover hair, head, and neck.

I did bring that royal blue jellabah, a white one I had, a royal blue Moroccan evening dress with gold embroidery, and another evening dress in white, rose, and mauve. As it turned out, the blue jellabah and the blue headscarf were just the thing for professional wear, and the royal blue evening dress with the blue scarf was a hit at the banquet. It seems I looked Muslim though not Iranian, and my delayed response to Islamic greetings (I didn't realize I was the one being addressed) had people switching to English fast.

As a year in, year out, phenomenon for expats or those who dislike conservative dress in their own countries and cultures, some type of positive accommodation is more healthy than constant anger, even if it is conscientious objection with a willingness to take the consequences for oneself and for the others one cares about. Just as in other settings, conforming enough to have a better voice for change is another alternative. Making positive choices within the fashion demands--ones that look and feel good--is a staple of adapting to any fashion, social necessity, or obligatory dress code.

One might take fashion inspiration from women's magazines, well-dressed family members, friends, and passersby, and get some clues from Muslim fashion blogs. Below are some ideas about where to find such blogs. Shops on line are easy to find if there are not appropriate stores locally. Enjoy!

Hijab Fashion Week

Em of the fashion blog Modesty Theory originated Hijab Fashion Week (HFW) as a group blog event, with all participating and registered blogs posting on the same Muslim fashion theme on the same day. On each day, Em did a central post on her own blog with one picture from each participating blog, and the link to the full post. The result is a wonderful exploration of certain themes within Muslim fashion, and of the diversity and creativity of Muslim dress. The category HFW on Em's blog now numbers 20 posts, including the lead up, followup, and future developments posts relating to HFW.

Below are the aggregate posts with their links to all participant posts for each day of HFW 2010:

HFW Day 1--Money on My Mind: Work Wear
HFW Day 2--Celebrate Good Times: Eid
HFW Day 3--Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: Girls Night Out
HFW Day 4--Vacation is Where I Wanna Be: Vacation / Travel Wear
HFW Day 5--Flavor of the Week[end]: Weekend Wear
HFW Day 6--Lovestoned: Date Night with the Hubby (or future hubby)
HFW Day 7--The Cup of Life: Running Errands

Vote For Your Favourite Muslim Fashion Blog!

SistersWhoBlog is hosting Awards in a number of blog categories: Arts and Crafts; Fashion; Food; General; Islamic; Motherhood; New; Teen. All the nominees are listed and the voting in place on the side bar to the main post. The About section explains more, and there are tabs to show the entries by region.

Voting is open December 29-31, 2010; and, the winners will be announced on January 1, 2011.

The nominees in the fashion blog category include some of those linked above or in Hijab Fashion Week, and some new ones.

Check them out and vote!

Independent Fashion Bloggers is another potential source of fashion blogs of all sorts.

Related Posts:

Medical Cover: Abaya/Lab Coat/Scrubs
On Choosing Hijab in a Bi-Cultural Interfaith Family
Hemlines: Fashion, Modesty, Abaya Wearing, and Cross-Cultural "Wars" (Conjugal and Other)
October 27, 2010--Global Pink Hijab Day! Muslims and Breast Cancer Awareness

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Saudis at the South Pole!

"South Pole Success", Saudi businessman Waleed Zahid (centre) and sons Haytham (left) and Mohamed (right) plant the Saudi flag at the South Pole, the climax of their Expedition

The title in the Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS) newsletter, "Conquering the Last Degree – Saudi Expedition Reaches South Pole", was irresistible, if only to determine if this were a governmental or a private expedition, and hence to judge it (fairly or unfairly) as geo-strategic (but why?) or insane (not revealing any personal biases about travel to the South Pole). Ah, one of those father-son bonding experiences! Insane in a special universal way. I assume no one shaved for the duration.

"Flying In", photo, from the Zahid South Pole Expedition November/December 2010 blog.

After perusing the Zahid South Pole Expedition website, I feel the SUSRIS article is an excellent one, capturing the highlights of the dispatches. All it is missing is a little pictification, and another quotable quote. So I have added those from the Expedition website, using the Gallery, and quoting their captions.

Thought of the day
"No sane human being could possibly enjoy this"

"Skiing the Last Degree"--The flight path of "Flying In"-from Patriot Hills, Chile, the Union Glacier to degree 89 to start the ski journey the final degree south to the South Pole

Conquering the Last Degree – Saudi Expedition Reaches South Pole
DECEMBER 29, 2010
Conquering the Last Degree

The flag of Saudi Arabia has been carried into outer space and unfurled on Mount Everest and now it has flown at one of the last milestone destinations reachable by human intrepidity, the South Pole. An expedition led by Saudi businessman Waleed Zahid, accompanied by his sons Haytham and Mohamed reached the geographic South Pole on December 10, 2010, the conclusion of a grueling trek across the harshest environment on Earth, is believed to be the first Saudi team to complete the challenge.

The arrival at the Pole, 90 degrees south latitude, was the capstone of months of preparation, training and conditioning; travel to an Antarctic base station; and a flight to a location at 89 degrees south latitude; to launch the overland trek across the polar plateau known as “The Last Degree.” It is a 111 km journey on skis, over a number of days – achieving 20 km a day is remarkable – with painful progress decided by the whims of the weather, which had the team pinned down in their tent shelters 41 km short of their goal, for several days.

The weather in Antarctica is the most formidable foe of human physiology with the temperature at the Pole, when the team reached 90 South, a numbing -33C on the thermometer but feeling like -50C in the steady 40 km plus wind. However, other hazards face trekkers at the bottom of the planet. The ground at the South Pole is near sea level but the actual altitude of the Amundsen-Scott Polar Station, given the ice build up, is about 2800 meters. Becoming acclimated to the thinner air of higher altitude is made worse by the phenomenon of the earth’s rotation dropping air pressure to what would be expected at 3350 meters.

"A giant sun dog hangs over the camp" [at 89 degrees]

The inhospitable conditions at the Pole were first noted by Captain Robert Scott, who led a 1912 expedition that took second place, 35 days behind Roald Amundsen as first to the Pole, “Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here.” The Scott expedition perished on their polar egress.

The Zahid Expedition documented their experiences in Antarctica and their trek across “The Last Degree” on a blog that recorded the team’s dispatches. On December 8th when stranded two days short of their goal, Haytham Zahid recorded, “The weather report came in at 8am this morning saying that the wind will persist for another 24 to 36 hours.. ..We’ve been pinned down by the weather at 41km from the pole for the last 36 hours and now we may have to wait another 36 hours before we can move again..” He continued, “The wind really does make it a miserable existence out here.. ..inside my down sleeping bag that is rated to -40 degrees C, I still had a chill in my bones.. ..if that wasn’t enough it started snowing in the inside of our tent .. our breath condenses and freezes on the inside of our tent and over the 36 hours that we have been here it has built up, then the wind blows hard, shakes the tent and in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping I get very fine ice particles falling on my face.”

"The plane departing, leaving the team alone at 89 degrees, in the middle of nowhere"

Until recent years the area around 90 South was the exclusive preserve of scientists based at the American Amundsen-Scott research compound, but it has become a destination for adventure travelers who fly in for short, symbolic visits to the geographic South Pole. The “Last Degree” trek, however, captures the challenges and dangers faced by the Antarctic pioneers. The three Zahids were accompanied by Duncan Paul of South Africa, Dr. Jeff Lunt of Britain and Guy Cotter of Adventure Consultants who was commissioned as the expedition organizer.

The demands and exhilaration, the inspiration and spirituality of such a journey was perhaps best summed up by Waleed Zahid in a blog posting from the Union Glacier base station on the outbound trip. On December 12th he wrote, “When Mohamed and Haytham first suggested we undertake this expedition I was thrilled at the prospect of sharing in such an adventure.. ..I expected it to be hard, I had no idea how hard it would actually turn out to be – physically, psychologically, emotionally and hygienically.. far the most demanding and challenging two weeks of my past 60 years. Two weeks that would normally flash by unnoticed in our everyday life, crawled excruciatingly slowly here on the ice. Every kilometer gained and every hour clocked felt like a lifetime. But in all those kilometers and hours, it was the last two, when the pole was so close that it seemed so unattainably far. But alhamdulillah we made it, by Allah’s grace and mercy, all in one piece and none worse for wear other than the brutally blistered feet and marginally frost bitten noses and hands.” Waleed Zahid celebrated his 60th birthday on December 7th, the target date for reaching the South Pole, but weather delays kept them from the goal until December 10th.

"The Intrepid Explorers"

The last steps of “The Last Degree” trek were documented on the blog by Mohamed Zahid who wrote: “I enjoyed every aspect of it. The frigid cold, the brutal wind, the powerful hidden UV rays, the vast nothingness and the company of my father and brother.. ..There is no margin for error. The cold can freeze you, the sun can burn you, the wind can bite you and the monotony can wear you down. On the last day, I thought Antarctica had accepted me because of the generous treatment it gave me but not so. On the final stretch, it slapped me with a fierce wind bite on my cheek leaving a scar, hopefully not permanently, a sure reminder to be on alert at all times. The long grueling hours of skiing took a toll on the body but, alas, it was what was needed to achieve the goal of reaching the South Pole and my determination kept me in good spirits.. ..The sight of the South Pole, first spotted from 15 kilometers out, gave us a false perception of heaven. It was a large fortress, the Amundsen-Scott station, neatly hidden and tucked in the dense clouds, a rare sighting after 10 days of nothing but the wind, sun and ice. It was adrenaline jolting. Yes, after arriving at the southern most point on Earth at the day’s end, I felt a tremendous reward and the paying off of the planning, training, self-discipline and tedious treks but neither compared to the feeling rushing through me at the appearance of my father and Haytham collapsing into each other’s arms with joy pouring out of them.. ..It was emotionally magnificent.”

The closing notes from the expedition, summed up by Haytham on the blog were not of the hardships but of the accomplishments and rewards, “Memory is a very funny yet kind creature, whenever we look back on experiences we always remember the good and tend to forget the bad, or at least the bad doesn’t exist as prominently in our psyche as the good. The funny thing about this experience is that it was the very things that I complained about that I now cherish and relish and very much miss.. ..What an experience! If it hasn’t been mentioned yet, Antarctica is the most beautiful place I have ever been to, the polar plateau is featureless, beautiful nonetheless but that’s not what I’m talking about … The sites were awe inspiring, the mountains on three sides, the clearly visible glaciers of blue ice, the whole thing was just magnificent!”

"Departing the Pole"

Those were words echoed by Mohamed in his expedition epilogue, “Standing on Antarctica, the last great pristine and protected place on Earth, is a privilege! The wind, sun and ice. Ah, I miss it.”

You can share the adventure, including background, dispatches and photography, at the web site.


"Waleed and the boys and an end to another adventure"

The last dispatch is entitled, "Flying from Santiago to Paris"--now that is a trip worth taking!

Joking aside, this expedition is a considerable accomplishment, and reminiscent of others who have used their private funds to explore, re-explore, and assert a presence--because it's there, and to challenge themselves physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

"Little dots on a large white sheet"

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
Would you consider such a journey, or any to Antarctica?
Do you prefer to watch Kenneth Branagh in Shackleton?

Christmastide Posts

My apologies that a number of posts directly relating to Christmastide, and others relating to current topics have been delayed by computer problems, Blogger problems, and reduced access.

About the only thing not impeding finalization and posting has been the snow storms, which are good for keeping one computerside.

I hope to start publishing the planned posts soon.

Thanks for your patience!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas to Celebrants; Peace, Love, Joy, and Blessings to All

Merry Christmas to Celebrants!

Peace, Love, Joy, and Blessings to All!

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Christmas Eve! Do You Know Where Santa Is? NORAD Does!

For Western Christianity, Christmas Eve falls on December 24, and is a time of religious and festive celebration. With the spread of the idea of Santa Claus, it is also a secular vigil for a visit from a jolly old man, bearing gifts, especially for children, which he distributes by sleigh over the night of the 24th to the early morning of the 25th. Of course his sleigh is drawn by his 8 reindeer, with Rudolph's bright red nose guiding the way.

Traditionally, most haven't known of Santa's whereabouts in the world until Christmas morning when they discover that he has left presents in the stockings they hung on the mantle, and under the Christmas tree. If they were so kind as to leave him cookies and milk, they will discover he had enjoyed the snack.

In recent years, however, all may track Santa's progress around the world, thanks to the efforts of NORAD ( North American Aerospace Defense Command), a US-Canada governmental military organization created in 1958, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, to defend North American airspace and territory. Since 9/11 its surveillance includes all airflight within the USA.

Beginning in 1955, and starting with its predecessor program, NORAD has annually turned its military attention to helping children track Santa. This initiative grew out of an misprint that gave NORAD's telephone number in Colorado to a Santa Line set up by a local Sears store.

The Colonel in charge that night, Colonel Shoup, told all staff to reply to children's questions with a "current location" for Santa. The idea has expanded into a program of volunteers manning phones, emails, and now Twitter and Facebook.

Moreover, all with internet access can track Santa via the NORAD Santa Tracker website, as he begins his journey from the North Pole into the first of the Christmas Eve time zones then moves east to west covering the globe from north to south. Along the way they visit the places he does, and NORAD volunteers narrate the journey, describe important stops, and  put up videos of interesting places.

NORAD's Santa tracker of course has a mobile phone app; and, while Santa speaks all languages, the rest of us have the option of tracking him in English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.

For those who may have forgotten their Santa details in the bustle of adult life, please read below:

The Night Before Christmas Poem
By Clement C. Moore

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Oh, my, it's getting late! This little Santa's helper should go to bed, because Santa will wait until all are asleep to come down our chimney. Besides, there are no "I Saw Auntie Kissing Santa Claus" songs!

Merry Christmas to All!

And to All a Good Night!

Advent 2010 and Papal Politics: From Condoms to Therapeutic Abortions--Not

Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate a vespers service to mark the beginning of Advent, the period leading up to Christmas when the faithful mark the birth of Christ, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010. The pontiff called for politicians, the media and other leaders to show more respect for human life at its earliest stages, saying embryos aren't just biological material but dynamic, autonomous individuals. This year, the Vatican urged bishops around the world to make the service a vigil for "nascent human life". (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito) See accompanying article

The Pope's Opening Salvo

This year Pope Benedict XVI heralded the First Sunday of Advent, and the New Liturgical Year, with a Pro-Life Vigil. The Pope's homily (sermon), translated by Vatican Radio, here, lays to rest any speculation on a change of attitude towards contraception--speculation prompted by his statement in the week prior that condoms may be used to prevent death, in the case of a male homosexual prostitute at high risk for HIV/AIDS. In short, in extreme cases of male homosexual risk condoms are tolerated by the Church, but the Church's positions on the role of sex for procreation, against contraception, and the sanctity of life from conception (when the sperm fertilizes the egg) have not changed.

I was more surprised that people, including leading Catholics, had thought that this highly conservative Pope's positions on homosexuality, contraception, or the right to life had altered in any way, than by the fact that he used his New Year's speech to reinforce the more conservative interpretations of Catholic Doctrine. One could easily dismiss the whole episode as false hope from one side and an astute corrective from the perspective of the other, except for the ongoing implications of the Church's stance in a number of health matters, including reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and physical and mental health.

Pope Benedict XVI prays First Vespers on the First Day of Advent, 2010

For example, while many Catholics do use birth control other than the "natural" or rhythm methods (aka the how to get pregnant whether you want to or not methods), many do not because of Church teachings, or have limited or no access to reliable birth control methods because of finances or restriction in sales and availability in conservative Catholic countries.

As another example, prevention of  HIV/AIDs would be enhanced by the Church relaxing its stance on condom use, and teaching their value in preventing the transmission of sexual diseases, rather than focusing on abstinence, and sex between married couples for reproduction only. Given that one of the major modes of transmission of HIV/AIDS is from husband to wife, then from mother to fetus, heterosexual sex between married couples should also be protected from sexual disease transmission, since even the Church acknowledges that desire and pleasure drive sexual activity.

Multiple pregnancies, with close spacing, can be injurious to a woman's physical health due to complications like gestational onset diabetes, insufficient time to let the body recover its normal weight and muscle tone, uterine prolapse, urinary incontinence, etc. A woman's mental health can be compromised by "having so many children she doesn't know what to do", especially if resources are limited, her husband and marriage are also strained by family size, or there is one or more children requiring special care and attention.

Most concretely the risk of having a postpartum mental illness (depression, anxiety disorder, psychosis) and the severity of the illness and its complications increase with each pregnancy, particularly in women with other biological or psychosocial vulnerabilities to postpartum mental illness. Some women I know have stopped at 2 children because of that. One is herself a child psychiatrist, and would have preferred to have more, but has experienced major postpartum depression with each pregnancy and much more severely with the second, even though the first was severe enough to require her to be off work for 6 months while her anti-depressants took full effect.

Pope Benedict XVI leading prayers during the Holy Vigil, First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2010

The Bishop's Closer

As Advent draws to a close (ending December 24th daytime), another Church action (on December 21, 2010) shows further how such a conservative Papal stance endangers Catholics, and, by association, those in the broader society. In direct line with conservative interpretations of the Church's stance on abortion, in the last few days the Diocese of Phoenix (Arizona) has been in turmoil and in the international news.

Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted, declared that the Catholic hospital, St Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, had violated church teachings on birth control, sterilization, and abortion, and could no longer be designated a Catholic hospital. As such it would be required to forfeit the presence of Catholic symbols or mass supplies, remove any indication of affiliation to the Church, and publicly lose its credibility with Catholic patients. There are also budgetary implications, in the withdrawal of financial support, and potential staffing issues especially with nursing sisters or nun and priest administrators being withdrawn. The impact on financial and human resources is compounded when one tries to replace nuns and priests with persons drawing a more competitive salary and benefits package.

Catholic hospitals treat all patients, and are respectful of their religious beliefs, through multi-faith chaplaincy services, and dietary accommodations. One is also free to believe in nothing or not want any religious or spiritual component to one's care. The Catholic hospitals also employ top physicians, surgeons, and other health care practitioners, without consideration for their personal religious affiliation.

Those with an academic affiliation have leading research and teaching units, where researchers and trainees are accepted without regard to religion. The Catholic hospitals' bed capacity, emergency and other outpatient services are figured into a region's planning for health care needs, or in a private health care system, into the marketing analysis about the local needs and competition.

In other words, access to care is affected for all, if Catholic hospitals are closed  or services reduced due to inadequate funding.

Bishop Olmsted began investigating, and threatening St Joseph's Hospital after the hospital ethics board decided in November 2009 to perform a first trimester therapeutic abortion on an 11-week-old fetus, in order to save the life of the 27-year-old mother. The mother was suffering from imminently fatal pulmonary hypertension, aggravated by the hormones required to maintain the pregnancy. To do nothing was deemed by the medical experts to sentence the mother to death, and thus the fetus as well. The woman was also the mother of other young children who would then be orphaned of her.

The ethics board of the hospital reviewed the case, and deemed that it fell within the American Council of Catholic Bishops guidelines on allowing a therapeutic abortion to spare the life of the mother where the pregnancy is a direct harm, and the board deemed this case as analogous to that of a case of a uterine cancer. This could be where a cancer of the uterus presents or is aggravated by a pregnancy, and only therapeutic abortion will spare the mother's life. However, the most conservative interpretation of the Church's position on abortion precludes saving the mother's life, even in this circumstance.

In the most conservative scenario, the only acceptable therapeutic abortion, if there were to be one at all, would be where what seems initially to be a normal pregnancy is in fact a "molar pregnancy". A molar pregnancy is where a hydatidiform mole, an abnormally fertilized egg, implants in the uterus and develops abnormally, usually resulting in a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), though sometimes becoming cancerous and threatening the mother's life. In the case of a molar pregnancy a therapeutic abortion is warranted to prevent complications to the mother of the unusually high hormone levels and abnormally large pregnancy, and to pre-empt the cancer risk. There is no viable fetus in formation. In that sense, and from the Church's perspective, there is no fetus, hence no abortion, only uterine surgery.

Bishop Olmsted, in keeping with conservative Catholic doctrine, and unlike most more liberal American Bishops, believes the 27-year-old mother with the life threatening pulmonary hypertension aggravated by her pregnancy should have been allowed to die, and her 11-week-old fetus with her, as that would be natural, and God's will. In this, he is as Catholic as the Pope.

As can been seen in this map (full colour key) of national abortion laws, only the red countries prohibit abortion to save the life of the mother in any circumstance: The Vatican, Belize, Chile, The Dominican Republic, Laos, The Maldives (Muslim), Nicaragua, El Salvador, Tuvalu (Protestant), Uruguay (Buddhist). Except where noted, the predominant, and/or official religion is Roman Catholicism. In Malta, also predominantly and officially Roman Catholic, abortion to save the mother's life is legal, but not available.

In Saudi Arabia abortion is illegal except in cases where the mother's life is at risk or there is risk of grave harm to her physical or mental health. In those situations the abortion must be approved by a medical committee if the pregnancy is less than 120 days (before ensoulment), and by a panel of specialists if the pregnancy is more than 120 days (after ensoulment). In all cases, both the woman and her mahrem/guardian (usually her husband, or if not her father, or if he is not living, her oldest brother of legal age, or paternal grandfather or uncle) must sign a written consent.

Other Muslim majority countries, almost all of which follow Islamic Family Law, are more liberal (Bahrain, those of the Levant, for example) or more conservative (UAE, Yemen, for example) in their restrictions of the circumstances, but do allow for legal abortion to preserve the mother's life. The Maldives, a South Asian country off the southwest tip of India, and a republic of mainly Sunni Muslims, is an exception among Muslim majority nations in making abortion to save the mother's life (and under all other circumstances) illegal. Sunni Muslim is officially the only religion allowed there, though small numbers of Buddhists, and  ~300 Christians do live there.

In the United States, abortion laws vary in detail among the states, though federally (Roe v Wade) abortion is legal at a woman's request as long as it is performed by a licensed medical practitioner. Arizona has retained its pre-Roe v Wade laws, though they are technically illegal, and is among the most conservative states when it comes to abortion laws and practices. It is still legal, however, for a medical practitioner to perform an abortion to save the mother's life, and certainly legal to do so in the first trimester of the pregnancy (up to 12 weeks).

In this, Olmsted is more Vatican than Arizonan or American, following Vatican law over the American Council of Catholic Bishop's laws. This has American Catholics and their leaders worried about a precedent that would compromise maternal care in other Catholic hospital. Some are advising pregnant Catholic women to seek obstetrics care in non-Catholic hospitals.

Bishop Olmsted on President Obama speaking at Notre Dame University in 2009

One might ask, "Why not simply transfer the pregnant woman to a non-Catholic hospital for the abortion?". From a Catholic religious perspective that would also be against religious law, and the doctors employed by the hospital would be bound by that restriction along with the other restrictions on performing abortions in a Catholic hospital. Usually those restrictions are that no elective abortions are to be performed, and that therapeutic abortions to save the woman's life will have the official recommendation of more than one medical expert, and of the hospital's ethics review board which follows Catholic teachings.  This was done in the St Joseph's Hospital case, and the nun on the ethics panel, Sister Margaret McBride, also a senior administrator at the hospital, gave her consent too. For that Bishop Olmsted had her excommunicated a few months later, saying she had automatically excommunicated herself with her consent to the life sparing therapeutic abortion, and thus depriving the Catholic health community of one of its most respected and qualified members.

Now, Olmsted has "excommunicated" St Joseph's Hospital, in the closing days of an Advent season that began with Pope Benedict XVI's pro-life vigil, and his homily on the sanctity of life in all cases--except a pregnant woman's life, and that of her offspring too young for viability even with care in a neo-natal ICU.

Let's just say I'm more in line with 90% of the Muslim world on this one, and even more in line with Canadian Law, which leaves abortion to a woman's conscience, and to medical laws governing the necessity of a licensed doctor performing the abortion within medical guidelines regarding the safety of the procedure for the mother's health, and before the age of viability of the fetus, as set by current medical norms.

Whether one would personally choose to have an abortion or not, or as a man to support one, and under what circumstances, one may agree to allow others broader options, particularly life sparing ones.

Related News Articles:
ACLU: Catholic hospitals must save women
Abortion fight at Catholic hospital pushes ACLU to seek federal help
A Matter of Life or Death
Debate over faith and medicine in wake of bishop's decision
Abortion debate opens rift between bishops, hospitals

St Rita of Cascia (1381 – May 22, 1457), the Saint of Impossible Cases, was the victim of a forced marriage to an abusive husband who gave her 2 equally immoral sons. Once widowed she became a nun, and was later beatified (1627) and canonized (1900).

Related Posts:
Advent 2010--The Beginning of the Liturgical Year; Preparing for the Coming of the Christ Child

What is your impression of the Pope's original statement on condom use, and the seeming reversal a few days later? Coincidence or political astuteness?
Allowing for the fact that abortion is a complex and sensitive topic, what are your comments and thoughts on this particular decision by Bishop Olmsted and the broader implications?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions?

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Vesper Prayers on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2010

Advent 2010--The Beginning of the Liturgical Year; Preparing for the Coming of the Christ Child

The Liturgical Calendar

A liturgical calendar is a religious calendar that is structured around and marks major events and celebrations of the faith. In Christianity, primarily Catholicism, but also Protestantism, the liturgical year begins with Advent, the period of preparation for the coming Nativity of the Christ Child, which begins 4 Sundays before Christmas (December 25). It ends on Christmas Eve Day (December 24), and Christmastide begins.

Christmastide, or Yuletide begins on Christmas Eve Evening (December 24), includes the traditional "12 Days of Christmas" up to Epiphany Eve (January 5); Epiphany (January 6), the manifestation or appearance of Jesus as a human incarnate, particularly to the 3 magi, or wisemen; and, the Sunday following Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus. Anglicans include Candlemas (the celebration of the presentation of Jesus in the temple), in February in this period of the liturgical year. Many Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas on January 5-6, and their Epiphany, about 12 days later falls on January 19.

An Ordinary Time, a time of ordinals or counted weeks, follows until the beginning of the period of Lent. As this period depends on the timing of Easter, which is the one remaining "moveable feast", calculated by the lunar calendar, in the Christian liturgical year, the weeks may number 3-8 Sundays. These weeks are marked by readings and teachings about Jesus Christ's ministry as a preacher on earth.

Lent, which is a time of penitence, in preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ at Easter, follows this first Ordinary Time of the liturgical year. Since Christians believe that Christ came and died for our (humans') sins, including our Original Sin (the Fall of Adam and Eve), this is an important period of reflection and penitence through fasting and prayer. Lent lasts 40 days, like the 40 days of Moses wandering in the wilderness, and the 40 days of the Devil's Temptation of Christ. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, the Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus (the 6 Sundays are not counted in the 40 days).

This somber time includes the Easter Triduum--Good Friday (the day of Jesus Crucifixion and death);  Holy Saturday (the day Jesus lay in the tomb); and Easter Sunday (the day of Resurrection). Each of these days begins the evening before with a vigil. Easter Sunday itself is a time of change from the sadness of Jesus' death as a human, to the joy of his resurrection as the Son of God.

Eastertide in the liturgical year begins with the Easter Vigil on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday, and continues to the end of Pentecost Sunday. In total, Eastertide lasts 50 days. Beginning with the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter, it culminates on the 40th day with Ascension Thursday, when Jesus returned to Heaven, and ends on the 50th day with Pentecost Sunday marking the Holy Spirit being sent to Jesus' Apostles, and the beginning of the Christian Church.

A second period of Ordinary Time begins following Pentecost. These counted weeks focus on the development and spread of Christianity by the Apostles. In the final few weeks before the Feast of Christ the King the primary theme is the End of Days and the preparation for the second coming of Jesus--the themes of the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation (in the Protestant faith).

Advent 2010

For Western Christian Churches, and the Eastern ones following the Vatican, or Roman Rite, Sunday, November 28, 2010 was the First Sunday of Advent, and the New Year's Day of the Catholic Liturgical (religious) Year. Advent begins on the 4th Sunday before December 25, and is concerned with preparing for the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas Day; and, for the Second Coming of Christ.  Its name derives from the Latin advenire (to come towards) and adventus (the coming).

The Feast of Christ the King falls on the last Sunday before Advent, and is a joyous end to the previous liturgical year. This Feast Day is based on the identity of Jesus in the Bible as a heavenly king to whom all owe their spiritual allegiance, and who has primacy over earthly kings. It was introduced in 1925 by then Pope Pius XI to counteract the rise of nationalism and intolerance of the Other; and, to deflect the faithful away from the earthly power of Benito Mussolini.

Other Christian faiths, particularly Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian also observe the Feast of Christ the King, and Advent. Advent celebrations are marked through religious services with each of the 4 Sundays of Advent having a particular theme. The 4 Sundays are marked by lighting the corresponding Advent candles. Each of the denominations of Christianity which celebrate Advent has their own colour symbolism for the candles.

In the Roman Catholic Church there are 3 purple candles, using the colour of royalty to symbolize Christ as the Prince of Peace, and on the 3rd Sunday a pink coloured candle to symbolize the  rejoicing of the nearness of  Christmas. Protestant denominations often favour blue candles, as the colour of hopeful expectation. Anglicans and Lutherans prefer 4 red candles, which are in keeping with the rarity of that colour in other religious celebrations throughout the year, and with the colour of the Christmas season.

The 4 candles are often set around in a wreath, with sometimes a centre white  candle that represents Christ and would be lit on Christmas Eve or Day. The wreath or decoration with evergreens symbolizes the everlasting life of Christ.

A single Advent candle marked with the days of Advent may be burned down enough to mark each day's passing and serve as a reminder in the home of the coming of the Nativity. Other homes may light their own distinctly coloured candles to mark the Advent Sundays passing.

The German tradition of the Advent Calendar to mark the days has spread around the world, and has given rise to other more secular forms, those marking the progress of the season or the "holiday countdown". Traditionally little doors for each day opened to a chocolate or toy surprise. That tradition continues and has expanded, as have the forms of the calendar from the original wooden ones to paper, cloth, and virtual ones.

For the last 3 years The Big Picture at has featured an Advent Calendar comprised of daily pictures of the universe from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope Calendars from 2008 and 2009 are complete, and that from 2010 is near completion. Each begins on December 1 and ends on December 25.

December 24, 2010--Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300 is considered to be prototypical of barred spiral galaxies. Barred spirals differ from normal spiral galaxies in that the arms of the galaxy do not spiral all the way into the center, but are connected to the two ends of a straight bar of stars containing the nucleus at its center. At Hubble's resolution, a myriad of fine details are seen throughout the galaxy's arms, disk, bulge, and nucleus. Blue and red supergiant stars, star clusters, and star-forming regions are well resolved across the spiral arms, and dust lanes trace out fine structures in the disk and bar. Numerous more distant galaxies are visible in the background. In the core of the larger spiral, the nucleus shows its own extraordinary and distinct "grand-design" spiral structure that is about 3,300 light-years long. NGC 1300 lies roughly 69 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation Eridanus. (NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI/AURA)

Related Posts:
Cross-Cultural Christmases: Saudi, Arab, Muslim, and Non--
Part I Cultural Traditions
Part II Interfaith Christmases
Part III The Christianity in Christmas

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?

December 14, 2010--A colourful star-forming region is featured in this image of NGC 2467. Looking like a roiling cauldron of some exotic cosmic brew, huge clouds of gas and dust are sprinkled with bright blue, hot young stars. Strangely shaped dust clouds are silhouetted against a colourful background of glowing gas. Like the familiar Orion Nebula, NGC 2467 is a huge cloud of gas, mostly hydrogen, that serves as an incubator for new stars. Hot young stars that recently formed from the cloud are emitting fierce ultraviolet radiation that is causing the whole scene to glow while also sculpting the environment and gradually eroding the gas clouds. (NASA, ESA and Orsola De Marco, Macquarie University)


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