From a musical Advent procession to the civic lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, Palo Alto celebrates the holiday season this month through get-togethers featuring music, food and much good will.
Carolers strolled into First United Methodist Church in downtown Palo Alto for Advent Sunday, Dec. 7, then participated in a service that featured verses, hymns and songs of the season.
The season called Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, notes Pastor Linda Holbrook.
She called the Advent Service a "kind of lesson in music. ... The music is about leading up to Christmas, about expectations, looking forward," beginning with the processional hymn, "Wonder of God's Glory Bright" and including the hymn, "To a Maid Engaged to Joseph."
The lessons harked back to the Old Testament, and much of the music to Old English songs, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, she said.
A candle-lighting service is planned for Christmas Eve at 11 p.m., when it's almost Christmas Day, "symbolizing Christ coming into the world," Holbrook said.
On the same Sunday evening, homes in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in the Barron Park neighborhood were gaily strung with lights -- including a reindeer on a rooftop -- to create a festive atmosphere for the posada.
Beginning in 2012, according to Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Association, the posada was organized as a "way to get to know the community, share a bit of our culture, make them aware of what's happening," she said.
Close to 500 visitors lined up at the sidelines, holding battery-operated candles and singing a traditional song in a Spanish/English mashup.
The posada began with a procession of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels, all symbolically seeking shelter, which they are refused until they reached the "stable," a tent strewn with straw where they are welcomed.
"Mary and Joseph are looking for shelter, and we're in danger of losing our homes," Escalante said, referring to the planned closure and sale of the mobile home park.
After the procession, guests at the posada were entertained by Veracruz, Michoacan and Jalisco-style dancing by the group Raices de Mexico. After breaking the seven-pointed-star pinata, a feast of ponche (hot punch), tamales, pozole (hot soup) and pan dulce was enjoyed by all.
The community was welcomed to Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto on Tuesday, Dec. 16, to celebrate Hanukkah, aka Chanukah, called the Festival of Lights. The courtyard glowed with the community candle-lighting (one candle, called the shamash, is used to light one other candle each night for the eight nights of the festival).
No celebration is complete without traditional foods -- fried potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (fried donuts), to remind folks of the legend: When the Maccabees, Jewish freedom fighters, retook the Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE, they found only enough holy oil to last a day. Instead, the oil lasted eight days.
David Booth, senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Emeth, noted that although Hanukkah is considered a minor Jewish holiday, it carries some wonderful imagery: "the external image of light in the darkness, light that can overcome depression.
"There's something very beautiful about the holiday," he said. "It's closest to the darkest time of year ... and we remember the hope that light can give us.
"One of the commandments for Hanukkah is to publicize the holiday, often by putting a menorah in the window. ... It's not a message to people to become Jewish but that God's light is in the world," Booth said.
Even with rain threatening, Rabbi Zalman Levin of Chabad of Palo Alto was determined to "Light up the Night" at Palo Alto City Hall on Tuesday evening, Dec. 16.
"It's a Tiki torch. It burns even in the rain," he said.
Sponsored by Chabad, the event kicked off with the lighting of the 12-foot Hanukkah candelabra. About 50 people braved the elements, huddling under tents without sides while sampling latkes and sufganiyot as well as participating in crafts and activities. Lasagne and a cheesecake bar added to the attractions.
The message of Hanukkah is "that even in times of darkness, we can always spread light, ... even one little candle to bring light to the darkness," Levin said.
"We want to bring out the light to the public, light up even the darkest places. The light represents goodness and kindness, hope, faith -- the triumph of goodness," Levin said.
Rounding out the December festivities was a celebration that's usually held at another season, following Ramadan (which was in July this year). Samina Sundas, founding executive director of American Muslim Voice Foundation, organized an Eid Festival on Dec. 12, with the help of a City of Palo Alto $1,000 Know Your Neighbors grant.
Held at the Lucie Stern Community Center ballroom, the event drew 300 people who enjoyed a Pakistani dinner, shared desserts from around the world and participated in Nasheed spiritual singing. There was even a photo booth with opportunities to have a photo taken in ethnic dress.
The event also honored "unsung community heroes," including Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Altaf Chaus, the Muslim Burger King owner who returned $100,000 cash to the police because of his faith.
Sundas noted that holding the Eid Festival now is part of an initiative dubbed "Share the joy of Eid," which she said "is part of the American Muslim Voice's larger goal to move all Americans 'from fear to friendship,' by expanding the sense of community at a grassroots level."
Sundas posited why so many chose to come during the busy holiday season: "Given the state of our nation all Americans are tired of being divided and being afraid of each other. And now our message of unity, kindness, love, peace and friendship is appealing to all," she wrote in an email.
"What do we have to lose? The old ways have created a culture of despair, division and violence, and together we can replace it with a culture of hope inclusion and peace."