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Festivals of lights

December 19, 2005, by Bill Cawthon

While there are many sights and sounds we associate with our celebrations of the holiday season, they don't normally include whirling beacons, flashing strobe lights and screaming sirens.

A decorated fire truck passes the crowd during the Parade of Lights.

But a couple of Sunday evenings ago , Marge, Wendy Will and I joined thousands of other area residents in lining a four-mile stretch of State Highway 6 in far west Harris County to enjoy the annual Parade of Lights.

Organized as a benefit for the Texas Volunteer Firefighters Relief Fund, the event is open to anyone who wants to decorate their car or truck and pays an entry fee ranging from $25.00 for a non-profit group to $100.00 for a large business.

All sorts of organizations participate, from area churches to restaurants and the cars and trucks are decked out in everything from some strings of lights to complete floats with Santas and nativity scenes. There were quite a few Chrysler PT Cruisers in the parade, courtesy of the Houston City Cruisers, a local owner's club, and almost enough wreckers that they could have staged their own parade.

But the real stars of the parade are the fire trucks. Volunteer fire departments from a number of southeast Texas communities send one or more trucks to take part in the parade. We saw everything from a fifty-year-old Chevrolet pumper to the latest tandem-axle Pierce decorated with holiday lights and banners. A few even had smoking chimneys.

A local supermarket raised money for charity by selling cocoa and cookies to spectators.

At times the massed electronic and Federal Q sirens were almost deafening, but almost everyone enjoyed the noise. Some smaller children were startled the first time or two a passing truck would sound its air horns but from what I could see, they quickly adapted.

As I watched, I couldn't help but think of several friends and acquaintances who build and collect fire apparatus. They would have been in hog heaven that Sunday evening.

It wasn't all cars and trucks, however. After all, this is Texas and a parade wouldn't be complete without horses so it was nice to see the men and women of Harris County Sheriff's Department Mounted Patrol as they rode in review.

For more than an hour, we were treated to a stream of happy, waving people enjoying a special evening. There were plenty of smiles and waves returned by an appreciative audience.

Parades and other festivals of lights are common around Christmas, but there is another festival of lights that is also celebrated in the season of the winter solstice. In fact, it will begin this year at sundown on December 25th.

Hanukkah begins on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish calendar. As the Jewish calendar is based on the adjusting the lunar calendar to the solar year, the months of the Jewish calendar do not coincide with those of the Gregorian calendar. Kislev overlaps November and December, so the first day of Hanukkah can fall on a variety of dates from late November, as it did in 2002, to late December as happens this year.

Hanukkah is a festival of rededication and celebrates the miracle of the lamp oil in the temple on Mount Moriah.

Well over two thousand years ago, Antiochus Epiphanes, also known as Antiochus IV, was the king of Syria and ruler of the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid Empire was one of several major states left after the breakup of the empire formed by Alexander the Great.

The eight candles of the menorah symbolize the eight days the temple lamp burned after it was reconsecrated by Judah Maccabee and his followers. The center candle is the shammus or servant candle which is used to light the others.

Because the Egyptians were demanding the return of Coele-Syria, a region of southern Syria that had been the subject of a long-running dispute between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires (the Ptolemaic empire took its name from Ptolemy, another of Alexander's generals), Antiochus launched an invasion of Egypt in 170 B.C., conquering every city but Alexandria and capturing Ptolemy VI, the ruler of Egypt. In order to avoid attention from the mighty Roman Empire, Antiochus allowed Ptolemy to retain his crown under the Seleucid ruler's control. Unconquered Alexandria chose Ptolemy's brother Ptolemy Euergetes as their new king (you keeping these guys straight?). After Antiochus returned to his capital the two brothers agreed to rule the country jointly, so Antiochus had to do everything all over again.

In 168 B.C., Antiochus invaded once more, re-conquering almost all of Egypt and preparing to take Alexandria. But this time, the Romans had taken notice of what was happening.

As he approached Alexandria, Antiochus was met by a Roman envoy who informed him that he must abandon his conquest and withdraw from Egypt. When Antiochus tried to buy time by claiming he would have to discuss the matter with his advisors, the envoy drew a line in the sand round him. The Roman told Antiochus that if he stepped out of the circle without having agreed to withdraw, he would be at war with Rome. Confronted by the threat of clearly superior force, Antiochus wisely agreed.

Frustrated in his empire-building, Antiochus vented his fury by mounting a conquest of Jerusalem in 168 B.C. He destroyed the city and tortured and murdered thousands of Jews. The survivors were not only forbidden to practice their faith, they were no longer allowed to study the Torah, the fundamental scriptures and teachings of the Jewish faith. Determined to assimilate the Jews by forcing them to accept Greek culture, Antiochus seized the temple and dedicated it to Zeus. He installed a Hellenic priest and sacrificed pigs, unclean animals under Jewish law, on the altar.

The Jews rebelled. There were two principal groups: the first, dedicated to restoring the Jewish nation, was led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee. The members of the second group were religious traditionalists known as Hasidim or Chasidim.

The actual revolution began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. Greek soldiers assembled the Jewish villagers and the officer in command ordered Mattathias, a high priest, to bow to an idol and eat pork. Mattathias refused, whereupon another man and offered to do it in Mattathias' stead. Mattathias became outraged, drew his sword and killed the man. He then killed the officer and, with the help of his five sons and other villagers, attacked and killed the soldiers.

Mattathias' family went into hiding in the nearby mountains but word of their courage spread and they were joined by many other Jews. From their hideouts, Mattathias' band would attack the Greek soldiers whenever they could.

A popular Hanukkah activity is playing dreidel, a small-stakes wagering game popular with children. A dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each face. The letter showing when the top comes to rest indicates what the players must do. The letters showing on this dreidel are “Heh,” which means the person spinning gets to take half the pot, and “Shin,” which requires everyone to add to the pot.

A year into the revolution, Mattathias died, leaving Judah in charge of their still-growing army. Judah Maccabee, though heavily outnumbered, fought on for almost two more years, finally defeating Antiochus' armies in 164 B.C. Legend has it that Antiochus was outraged and led another army against them, vowing to exterminate the Jews, but was struck dead before the battle could begin.

The victorious Jews rededicated the temple, but discovered they had a problem. According to Talmudic traditions, the lamp in the temple was supposed to be kept burning throughout the night every night. But the Greeks had defiled most of the oil for the lamp and Judah Maccabee and his followers could gather only enough to keep the lamp burning for one day. But as if a sign, the oil kept the lamp burning for eight days, giving Judah and his followers time to gather more.

An eight-day festival was declared to celebrate the miracle and it is this celebration that is the origin of Hanukkah, which is also sometimes called the Feast of the Maccabees.

The symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah, a candelabrum that holds nine candles. Why nine candles? There is one for each day of Hanukkah and one candle, called the "shammus" or "servant" which is used to light the others. According to Jewish custom, only the shammus can be used to light the other candles: it's a major no-no to use one of the other candles which cannot be used for any productive purpose, like lighting another candle.

Each night, a new candle is added to the menorah, working from right to left, which is how the Hebrew language is written. Then the shammus candle is lit, three blessings are said and the candles are lit from left to right, to honor the newest day of Hanukkah first. The candles are allowed to burn out by themselves after a half-hour.

This is the only religious observance related to Hanukkah, which is not one of the major Jewish holidays. In fact, Hanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scriptures. It only appears in the Book of the Maccabees, which is not considered a part of Jewish scripture. That's not such a major deal, when you think about it; the modern celebration of Christmas is based on an amalgam of traditions from many faiths even though it is based on a miracle of great significance to Christians.

Gift-giving is not a strictly traditional part of Hanukkah but as Jews and Christians intermingled it became a custom in many places so that Jewish children would not be jealous of the typical Christmas bounty enjoyed by their friends.

One activity that is a tradition is playing the dreidel, a square top marked with one the Hebrew letters: "Nun," "Gimmel," "Heh" and "Shin" on each side. The letters stand for the Yiddish words "nit" (nothing), "gantz" (all)," "halb" (half) and "shtell" (put). Dreidel is a gambling game, usually played for pennies, candy or a similar wager. Everyone antes up and someone spins the top. When the dreidel lands showing "Nun," nothing happens and someone else gets to spin. If the dreidel comes up "Shin," everyone adds to the pot and a new person spins. The big payoff is "Gimmel." When that comes up, the person who spins the top gets the whole pot. "Heh" is still an okay spin; you get half the pot.

However you observe the season, Marge, Wendy, Will and I wish you much joy in your celebration and hope you will take a moment to share with those less fortunate. Be safe and I'll be looking forward to welcoming you back to Promotex Online in 2006!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: December 21, 2005