How Do Muslims Fast for Ramadan if There's No Sunset?

iStock.com/ozgurdonmaz
iStock.com/ozgurdonmaz

Earlier this month, many Muslims all over the world began their observance of Ramadan, the month of daily fasting that serves to train believers' spiritual and physical discipline and self-control. Between dawn and sunset, observers refrain from all food and drink, as well as other physical pleasures like cigarettes and sex.

In some parts of the world, however, this is easier said than done. Some areas have exceptionally long days during the summer. Scandinavia, Canada, Russia, and Alaska all have cities above the Arctic Circle, where the sun literally does not set for weeks at a time. Since Ramadan is tied to the lunar calendar and moves annually, these places will have the opposite problem during winter Ramadans where the sun won't rise for more than a month.

What's a Muslim in Longyearbyen, Norway or Barrow, Alaska supposed to do when there's no sunrise or sunset to guide their fasting? Starve? Fly south for Ramadan?

With no central authority or leadership like the Roman Catholic Pope to give guidance, different Muslim scholars and organizations have to come up with their own ways of dealing with the problem, and many seem to have convened on one solution: ignore the sun's local position and follow more reasonable sunrise and sunset times from another place.

The Islamic Center of Northern Norway, for example, issued a fatwa—a decision given by a scholar of Islamic law or other Muslim judicial authority—that gives local Muslims the option of following the fasting hours of the holy city of Mecca when the local fasting day exceeds 20 hours. The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America made a similar ruling that said that Muslims living at extreme northern points of Alaska use the sunrise and sunset times of another part of the country where "day is distinguishable from night." The Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia likewise decided that Muslims "in a land in which the sun does not set during the summer and does not rise during the winter" should set their fasting times based on "the dawn and sunset each day in the closest country in which night can be distinguished from day."

One Muslim has gone even further afield from the religion's Arabian homeland than some snowy arctic village. In 2007, Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor had to figure out how to fast for Ramadan while orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and going through 16 day/night cycles every 24 hours. To advise in his fasting and daily prayers, Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development and its National Fatwa Council put their best minds together and came out with a booklet called "Guidelines for Performing Islamic Rites at the International Space Station." Shukor was given the option to defer his fasting until his return to Earth or follow the sunrise and sunset times of Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where Shukor was launched into space.

This story was republished in 2019.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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Why Does Santa Claus Live at the North Pole?

allanswart/iStock via Getty Images
allanswart/iStock via Getty Images

As children settle in for a restless night’s sleep this Christmas Eve, they’ll no doubt be picturing Santa Claus on his way from the snowy ’scapes of the North Pole to deliver them Star Wars LEGO sets, Frozen 2 dolls, and everything else on their wish list. They picture Santa at the North Pole, of course, because they’ve seen him living there in numerous Christmas movies, books, and television specials, from perennial Rankin/Bass programs to more modern classics like 2003’s Elf.

While it might seem a little more magical if we told you that nobody really knows why Santa lives there, there is a relatively traceable paper trail: The first known reference to Santa’s North Pole residence is in an 1866 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.

According to Smithsonian.com, famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast—who was also responsible for establishing the donkey and elephant as the symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively—first started creating Harper’s Weekly Christmas cartoons as Union propaganda for the Civil War in January 1863. Borrowing imagery from Clement Clarke Moore’s (alleged) 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (which you’d probably recognize as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Nast developed the white-bearded, rosy-cheeked, all-around jolly guy that we know today, and showed him passing out gifts to Union soldiers, climbing into a chimney as a soldier’s wife prays, and more.

harper's weekly santa claus at camp by thomas nast
Thomas Nast, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cartoons became so popular that Nast branched out from his source material and began inventing his own details to add to Saint Nick—like where he’s from, for example. A December 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly debuted a multi-image cartoon titled “Santa Claus and His Works,” which includes a small inscription along the circular border that reads Santa Claussville, N.P. According to The New York Times, we don’t know exactly why Nast chose the North Pole (or if it was even his own idea), but there are a few reasons it made sense for the time period.

For one, Santa Claus was already widely associated with snow because most of the publishing companies producing Christmas cards and other content were located in New England, where it actually snows around Christmas. Furthermore, the 1840s and 1850s were partly characterized by high-profile—and ill-fated, in the Franklin expedition's case—attempts to explore the Arctic, and the public was generally interested in the mysterious, poorly-charted region. Because the Pole was unoccupied, Santa and his elves could toil the year away without interference from prying eyes; and, because it was unclaimed, Santa could remain a bastion of benevolence for every nation.

merry old santa claus by thomas nast
"Merry Old Santa Claus," perhaps Nast's most famous illustration of Santa, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Thomas Nast, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though we’ll likely never know Nast’s personal rationale behind placing Santa Claus in the North Pole, one thing’s for sure: At this point, it’s hard to imagine him living anywhere else. It’s also hard to imagine him riding a broom, wielding a gun, or smoking cigarettes (find out the stories behind those early Santas here).

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