Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Proposing a Toast

Tonight, celebrants around the world will raise a glass to toast the New Year. Where did this tradition come from? Why do we raise a glass and drink (personally, I’ll be using Ginger Ale tonight) to someone’s health and well-being? What does alcohol have to do with wishing, anyway?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the expression “to propose a toast” comes from the use of spiced toast to flavor drinks in the 1700s. This helps us understand where the term “toasting” comes from, but again, why do people do it?
Since the dawn of time (or perhaps the dawn of fermentation), alcohol has been associated with spiritual things, due to its mind-altering qualities. People often have a tendency to confuse intoxication (note the root word “toxic”) with spiritual experience.

In the year 1610, the word “spirits” was first used to refer to a “volatile substance” by alchemists. Later, the term was narrowed to “strong alcoholic liquor” by 1678.
The ancient tradition of making a wish when sharing spirits comes from the idea of offering alcohol as gift to God or gods. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines a libation as “pouring out of wine in honor of a god.” When a person offers a libation, he pours a bit of the alcohol on the ground prior to drinking. The spilt alcohol is an offering to God. The drunk alcohol is said to be sharing a drink with God. So you could say that a toast is really a prayer, powered by alcohol.
So, when you share your Diet Pepsi or whatever this New Year’s Eve, will you add a little spice from toasted bread? When you make your toast, will you drink first, or pour it on the ground? The real question isn’t about your relationship with “spirits” this New Year’s Eve. The real question is—what is your relationship with The Spirit? Which will you trust with each day of your new year?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Year Traditions

As we approach the New Year, I thought I'd share with you an article I wrote for the Southside Messenger a few years ago. Happy New Year!

"New Year Traditions"

By Greg Smith (c) 2005 - Published in The Southside Messenger

In cultures around the world, the New Year brings special traditions. Many of our holiday customs come from the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. In these lands, people celebrated the first few moments of the New Year with family and friends. It was thought that making loud noises would frighten away evil spirits. Thus we inherit the custom of sounding bells, using noisemakers at boisterous parties, and shouting loudly to ring in the New Year. Today, many of us celebrate New Years Day by eating black-eyed peas, which are a symbol of luck, together with ham, which represents prosperity. Cabbage is another popular New Year dish, because its green leaves which remind us of money signify wealth in the New Year.

Not all traditions begin the year on January 1. For example, this year Chinese New Year will begin on February 9. Jewish New Year began on September 15. Asian calendars, unlike the Julian calendar that we use, are based on the cycles of the moon and planets. Their dates are not fixed, but are movable, depending on celestial events.

The Chinese begin their New Year with spectacular celebrations and parades. These traditions are based on bringing luck, prosperity, happiness, and good fortune for the coming year. Thousands of people line city streets, while dragons and lions dance and weave in and out of the onlookers. These sacred animals symbolize longevity and strength, and their heads are said to ward off evil. Firecrackers scare away evil spirits, and people display bright new clothes, and flowers which betoken fertility in the coming year. The first thing Chinese people do to celebrate the New Year is give honor to the family ancestors, then to Deity, after which the younger members of the household honor their living relatives. A pair of tangerines may be given as a symbol of unity and abundant happiness. Noodles are eaten as a symbol of long life. The New Year is a time to cast off old grudges and renew commitments to friendship, so family and friends visit one another during this nine-day festival.

Chinese New Year festivals center around the family. Participants reflect on how they might bring harmony to their relationships. Throughout the celebration, people focus on what they might do to develop good fortune in their lives. Houses are cleaned, debts are paid, and attention is given to goal setting and prosperity.
Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, is a similar time for facing the future and clearing up the past. Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year,” and is a day of judgment and reckoning. However, believers face this day wearing good clothing and with prayer, being certain of God’s mercy. The holiday is celebrated for two days in Israel and elsewhere, beginning at sundown on the first day and ending at sundown on the second.

After evening prayers at the synagogue, worshippers return home for a festive meal with family and friends. Like the Chinese, Jews celebrate with special “omen” foods. They share traditional wine and challah bread, which is shaped like a ladder and represents prayers ascending to heaven. Sometimes it is shaped like a crown, which reminds the people that God is the king of Heaven. The bread is dipped in honey, which represents a sweet New Year. Fish is often served, and celebrants often bring the fish’s head to the head of the family, who prays on the household’s behalf, “May it be your will that we be like the head (leaders) and not like the tail (followers).” Carrots are a popular food, since in Hebrew, gezer (carrot) can also mean decree. So the request is made that God will not allow any evil decree against the Jewish people. One Jewish author suggests that the same principle could be applied in English, so eating celery with raisins in it could represent a desire for a “raise in salary.”

Like most New Year celebrations around the world, Rosh Hashanah is welcomed with loud noise. The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown in solemn assembly, to remind the faithful of the sacrifice Abraham made in offering Isaac to God. For this reason, the festival is also called “The Feast of Trumpets.” It is a time for self-reflection and asking the question, “What sacrifice can I make for the Lord?” While Rosh Hashanah does have its festive side, Jewish New Year is a time for getting one’s spiritual house in order. Preparing for the New Year means evaluating the past, and making plans for the future. Elul, the last month of the year, is a time for charity, which is one of the commandments of God.

L.L. Peretz tells the story of Rabbi Nemirov, who would vanish every year during the month of Elul. Some said he was in heaven, asking God to bring peace during the coming year, but one villager had doubts about that. So the villager decided to sneak into the rabbi’s house just before dawn and hide under his bed. When the rabbi awoke, he got dressed. He put on his shirt, pants, boots, and tucked his axe into his belt, then headed out the door. The villager followed the rabbi to the woods outside of town. There Nemirov cut down a small tree, chopped it into sticks, tied them in a bundle, and slung it on his back. Under his heavy load, he made his way to a dilapidated shack and knocked at the window.

“Who is there?" asked the frightened, sick woman inside.

"I, Vassil the peasant," answered the Rabbi, entering the house. "I have wood to sell."

"I am a poor widow. Where will I get the money?" she asked.

"I'll lend it to you," replied the Rabbi.
"How will I pay you back?" asked the woman.

"I will trust you," said the Rabbi.
The Rabbi put the wood into the oven, kindled the fire, and left without a word.

Now whenever anyone reports that the Rabbi has gone to heaven, the villager only adds quietly, "Heaven? If not higher."

For most of us, the year begins and ends with parties and overindulgence. It is a last hurrah before we have to go on those diets we resolved to start, or put out that smoldering cigarette. The first thing we do as the calendar turns is kiss somebody or take a drink. We have forgotten the spiritual side to New Year celebrations. Many of us face the new day with fear, but God has a different plan for us. Jeremiah 29:11-14a says, For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD.

This New Year, let’s begin with faith. In the place of revelry, may we find revelation. Instead of making resolutions, may we have a revolution in our thinking, in our traditions, and in our way of life. When we begin the New Year with faith, we are certain to have a future with hope. Beginning in love, we may find ourselves like Rabbi Nemirov—visiting heaven, if not higher.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Sign of the Times

I saw this little decoration in a store recently, and had to take a picture of it to share with you. It's a sign of the times, don't you think? A Christmasly decorated thingy that just says "Merry Everything." I'm not normally one to rant about people taking Christ out of Christmas, but this one really got to me. Humbug!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Some Pictures from Last Night's Christmas Caroling Trip

What a great time we had!

Christmas Coffees

It's Christmastime, and for coffee lovers that means new flavors at Starbuck's and other favorite coffee shops. But you don't have to go to those shops for great Christmas coffee! You can make it at home.

I don't know about you, but I think those flavored creamers you get in the grocery store are pretty good. The problem is, they're not very subtle or complicated. So here are some suggestions beyond the chocolate or hazelnut you might find in the grocery store.

For all of these, I recommend strong coffee because, well, it's better.

Triple Chocolate Coffee:
Put a dash of cocoa powder and a teaspoon of sugar (don't mess with that artificial sweetener garbage) in the bottom of the cup. Fill cup (almost) with coffee. Add frothed milk or whipped cream (I prefer frothed milk). Drizzle the top with chocolate syrup, and add some chocolate sprinkles. Yum!

Black Forest Mint Coffee:Put a dash of cocoa powder, a few drops of peppermint extract, and a teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of your cup. Fill (almost) with coffee, and add frothed milk or whipped cream on top.

Pumpkin Pie Coffee:Yes, I know you can buy pumpkin pie creamers this time of year, but they aren't as good as this. Put a dash of pumpkin pie spice (from the jar) in the bottom of your cup, along with a teaspoon of sugar and a few drops of vanilla extract. Fill (almost) with coffee, and add frothed milk or whipped cream on top. Can you tell that I like something on top?

Eggnog Coffee:
Add some nutmeg, vanilla extract, and allspice, and rum flavoring (just extract, mind you--we wouldn't want the Baptist preacher advocating anything else) along with a teaspoon of sugar in the bottom of your cup. (Almost) fill the cup with coffee, and add frothed milk or whippped cream on top. Add red and green cookie sprinkles on top for texture and color.

Cinnamon Sin-sation Coffee:
Add some sugar and vanilla extract to the bottom of your cup. (Almost) fill the cup with coffee, and add frothed milk or whipped cream to the top. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Add a sprinkle of cocoa to the top of that, if you dare!

Helpul Hints:
  • When you put your mixtures in the bottom of the cup first, the pouring action mixes them up, so you don't have to stir.
  • Ikea has a wonderful milk frother that works like a plunger. You can use it on either hot milk or cold milk, and it only costs $1.99. When you use this, together with strong coffee, and get the right mixture of milk to coffee, it mimicks espresso without the extra machine that's hard to clean.
Have fun with your holiday coffee, and Merry Christmas! My wife was just reading over my shoulder. "Is this stuff you actually do?" she asked.

"Yes," I answered.

Wandering away, she said, "I wonder if there's a 12-step program for coffee-addicts."

A Christmas Shopping Game

Do you have Christmas shopping lines as much as I do? I don't mind the shopping so much as I mind the lines. It's actually fun to find things to give people you love. But standing in line is the pits. So here's a suggestion for how to make shopping lines fun, if you're in a group. The more people in your group, the better.

Divide your group into as many lines as possible. See if you can get into similar positions (with the same number of people in front of you). Then it's a race to see whose cashier is fastest, and who gets to the cashier first. If you're buying a bunch of stuff, then each person can buy an item or two. But suppose the whole group is only buying one item. That makes it even more fun! In that case, when the "winner" who gets to their cashier first is greeted by the cashier, they wave their hands and recall the entire group to that register. Even if the "winner" didn't have the item to be purchased, they have it now, and can make the purchase. Want to make it even more interesting? Why not make it so the winner gets a nickel (or a quarter or a dollar or a stick of gum) from each of the losers? (I'm not advocating gambling--just a little incentive.)

Or--another way to play--instead of recalling the group to return to the winner, let everybody stay in line until they get their cashier. The person who actually has the item or items for purchase does the purchasing, but the others wait as if they have a transaction to make. When the cashier greets them, they say, "I didn't want to buy anything--I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas." Now won't that make the cashier's day?

You don't have to let Christmas shopping stress you out. Have fun with it. Use your shopping experience to brighten up someone else's day. You've gotta spend time line anyway--why not have fun with it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I was going to blog about the origins of Mistletoe--basically because I think it's a funny word and wanted to share what the word and its traditions were all about--but I found a great Youtube video that already has all the same stuff. So here it is. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Must-See Movie For All Ages

If you want a great family-friendly movie that's a lot of fun and has a deeeper message for the older viewers, you absolutely have to watch Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which recently came out on DVD.

The incomparable Dustin Hoffman plays Mr. Magorium, the proprietor of a magical shop filled with all kinds of wonders. He is 243 years old, and has decided that he is about to die. So he leaves the shop to his helper, Molly, who is played by the adorable Natalie Portman. Molly doesn't believe that the shop will be magic for her, and when Magorium is gone, she has to learn to believe on her own.

This would be a great family or youth group Bible study starter, tying in John 15:9-17, and John 14:1-12.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Recently, I finished reading Monster, by Frank Peretti. I cut my teeth on Peretti with his first books, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Both are supernatural thrillers about spiritual warfare. Angels are major characters in these books, and I'd be lying if I said they didn't contribute somewhat to my interest in angelic fiction in general, and to Giant and Death Angel specifically.

Monster is a truly great work of Christian fiction, a genre with rules all its own, like other kinds of fiction. Christian fiction generally tackles an issue of importance in Christian life. This time, the issue is evolution. I commend Peretti for not being too preachy, but just telling a good story and letting the story do the preaching. Most Christian fiction has the fault of being too milquetoast, but not Monster. Full of fight and flight scenes, it will keep you on the edge of your seat.

(Here's a picture of Peretti)

This is how Monster advertises itself, from the front flap of the dust jacket:

Reed Shelton organized this survival weekend. Hired the best guide in the region. Meticulously trained, studied, and packed while encouraging his wife, Beck, to do the same. But little did they know that surviving the elements would become the least of their worries.

During their first night of camping, an unearthly wail pierces the calm of the forest. Then someone--no, something--emerges from the dense woods and begins pursuing them. Everything that follows is a blur to Reed--except for the unforgettable image of a huge creature carrying his wife into the darkness.

Dependent on the efforts of a small town and band of friends, Reed knows they have little time to find Beck. Even more important, he soon realizes that they aren't the only ones doing the hunting. Something much faster, more relentless--and definitely not human--has begun to hunt them.

Frank Peretti is at the top of his game in this ultimate tale of "survival of the fittest." Nothing is as it first appears in this thriller where things that go bump in the night are only a heartbeat away.

One thing that Monster lacks (in a positive way) is that element that is always obligatory and gratuitous in Christian fiction. Just as the romance novel always has an obligatory and gratuitous sex scene, so the Christian novel always has a scene that goes, "And so (insert main character's name) bowed (his/her) head and prayed to receive Jesus as (his/her) savior and lord." Now don't get me wrong--there's nothing wrong with receiving Jesus as your savior and lord. That's what our faith is all about. But it gets pretty predictable if every Christian novel centers around that. In this story, there's none of that--just some main characters finding courage in a tough situation, and learning that God is there no matter what. A good lesson for all.

Another thing that Monster lacks (in a positive way) is a neat and tidy ending. Things don't necessarily end, theologically, the way you'd expect them to. I was left pondering Shakespeare's statement, “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in our philosophy (Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5 (1604)." And that's a good thing.