12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

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For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. FIRSTBORN SONS NEED TO FAST.

matzo
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The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. IT LASTS EITHER SEVEN OR EIGHT DAYS.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
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The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. LEAVENED GRAINS ARE A NO-GO …

Person sweeping the floor
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One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. … UNLESS THEY CAN BE COOKED WHILE WALKING BETWEEN MIGDAL NUNAIYA AND TIBERIAS.

baking matzo
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While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes. [PDF]

5. ESSENTIALLY, GRAINS ARE COMPLICATED.

matzo ball soup
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As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. SOME OF THE BEST MATZO FLOUR IS MADE IN ARIZONA.

field of wheat
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One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. PETS ALSO GET SPECIAL FOOD.

cute dog with head tilted
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For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. THERE ARE SIX SYMBOLIC FOODS.

seder plate for Passover
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The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. SOMETIMES AN ORANGE IS ADDED.

slice of orange
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In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. SOME MAJOR COMPANIES GET INVOLVED …

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. … ESPECIALLY MAXWELL HOUSE.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. THE WORLD’S LARGEST SEDER ISN'T WHERE YOU MIGHT EXPECT.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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