9 Common Misperceptions About Religious Observances

A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP/Getty Images

Religion can be confusing. Not only do many religions have similar philosophies and holidays, for many of the world's most widely practiced religions, the details for observing certain holidays or rites can differ based on location, denomination, or modernization. And for those who are less familiar with a particular religion, the details can be easy to overlook. From Ramadan to Advent to Bathing the Buddha, we break down nine common misconceptions surrounding popular religious observances.

1. WHAT'S WRONG: RAMADAN IS A HOLIDAY.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

"In American thinking, we think of [Ramadan] as a holiday because that's the way we associate important religious dates as holidays," Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told NPR. "It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday."

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar, which explains why the date moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar). It's significant because the Qur'an was first revealed, and the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, during this time.

Lailat al Qadr is the actual night of the revelation of the Qur'an, and praying on that night is said to be "better than a thousand months." But no one knows what night it actually was, only that it was probably in the last 10 days of the month. As such, the last 10 days of Ramadan are generally treated as special days.

The main holiday associated with Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr (or Eid ul-Fitr), which marks the end of the month and the end of fasting.

2. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALL ABOUT NOT EATING.

A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Turkey.
A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Diyabakir, Turkey
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In the West, much of the attention is focused on how, for the month of Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. But that's only part of the story—Muslims are also supposed to abstain from sex, fighting, smoking, bad thoughts, and sometimes even TV during the time of the fast. According to Nasr, "It's a period of spiritual reflection," of which not eating is a part.

But not all Muslims abstain from eating during Ramadan. Some Ismaili Muslims abstain from eating on only a handful of days throughout the year, and during Ramadan focus instead on those other forms of fasting.

3. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALWAYS FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET.

The suun setting over mountains.
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The majority of the time, this is true. But for Muslim communities in the far north, fasting from sunrise to sunset can be a problem—in the summer, the sun might not set for days or weeks, and in the winter the sun may never rise. Some tough it out, while others follow the time of the nearest major city, nearest Muslim country, or Mecca.

4. WHAT'S WRONG: ADVENT STARTS ON DECEMBER 1.

A child pulls a drawer out of an advent calendar.
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Virtually all the Advent calendars available in the market start on December 1, but this is only rarely correct. Advent actually starts on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30. It's believe that the misconception can be traced back to a German man named Gerhard Lang. Lang, inspired by the Advent calendars his mother made him as a boy, began mass producing the calendars in the early 20th century; he eventually decided to standardize the calendar as starting at December 1.

5. WHAT'S WRONG: LENT IS THE 40 DAYS BETWEEN ASH WEDNESDAY AND EASTER.

A palm cross in a dish of ashes on top of a green palm leaf.
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According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "Strictly speaking, Lent ends with the beginning of the Triduum on Holy Thursday. The Ordo [the official book that details such issues] notes: 'Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive on Holy Thursday.'" [PDF]

The change to Holy Thursday only dates to the 1960s and is only true for Roman Catholics (who point out that a distinction is made between liturgical Lent and the Lenten fast), but even among other Western churches the definition of Lent being the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter isn't quite right. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not including Easter, as traditionally Lent ended on Easter Saturday). The other six days are on Sundays, when fasting is forbidden.

6. WHAT'S WRONG: THE HAJJ IS THE WORLD'S LARGEST RELIGIOUS GATHERING.

The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
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Every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, 2 to 3 million Muslims gather for the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite that number, it is not the largest religious gathering in the world. Kumbh Mela brings Hindus together every three years at one of four alternating sites, with the main Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad; In 2013, it counted approximately 120 million people. According to the BBC, the story of Kumbh Mela is that gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar and a few drops fell on each of the four cities that now host the festival, and during the festival the water becomes the nectar.

7. WHAT'S WRONG: BATHING THE BUDDHA IS A UNIVERSAL CELEBRATION.

An Indonesian Buddhist bathes the Buddha statue during a Vesak ceremony in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Robertus Pudyanto, Getty Images

One of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the West is Vesak (or Wesak), and one of the most well-known components of the day is Bathing the Buddha, where water gets poured over the Buddha to purify the mind.

But in reality the day is more complex than that. Vesak is a day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhists view these three events as happening at three separate times, with only the Buddha's birthday occurring the same time as Vesak. In modern Western cities that have multiple Buddhist groups, the Mahayana tradition of Bathing the Buddha often gets combined with the Theravada celebration of Vesak, so much so that one Theravada Buddhist writing for the Huffington Post noted that he had never even heard of the Bathing the Buddha tradition as part of Vesak before college.

8. WHAT'S WRONG: RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES ARE ALWAYS SPECIFIC TO THE RELIGION.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

While most of the time a religious holiday is exclusive to its religion, there are certain festivities that span across religions. The Muslim day of Ashura originated when Mohammed arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting in honor of Moses. Mohammed then ordered a fast as well. Today, scholars debate whether the Jews of Medina were celebrating Passover or Yom Kippur, but Ashura was originally based on a Jewish holy day.

9. WHAT'S WRONG: ALL MEMBERS OF A RELIGION CELEBRATE THE SAME HOLIDAYS.

Four burning candles for Diwali.
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Just as some holidays can spread across multiple religions, some holidays are not universally followed within the religion. Quakers, which are a denomination of Protestant Christians, have traditionally not celebrated Christmas or Easter because they consider every day a holy day. Traditionally, the people of Kerala in the south of India don't view Diwali as a major celebration, for reasons that are debated. And on the flip side, groups within a religion often have their own holidays, such as the Old Believers (a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who split from the main branch) who celebrate holidays such as the Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas, commemorating the movement of the relics from Turkey to Italy.

12 Facts About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was never able to cast a vote legally, though she helped secure that right for women across America. As the philosopher of the women’s rights movement in 19th-century America, she expressed what she felt regardless of what others might think. Read on for more facts about one of the most important women in history.

1. HER FATHER WISHED SHE HAD BEEN A BOY.

Cady Stanton’s father, Daniel Cady, served in Congress and the New York State Assembly, and was a New York Supreme Court judge. He and his wife Margaret had 11 children; five daughters, including Elizabeth, and one son would survive to adulthood. When her brother Eleazar died at age 20, Elizabeth’s father allegedly said to her, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!”

That may have been her father’s way of lamenting the hardships she would suffer as a woman, but Elizabeth responded by throwing herself into studying Greek, chess, and horse riding, vowing “to make her father happy by being all a son could have been,” Lori D. Ginzberg writes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. Daniel Cady did encourage his bright and self-confident daughter when she was upset that laws could not help one of his female clients: “When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech, you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators,” he told her. “If you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter.”

2. A PREACHER ACTUALLY SCARED THE BEJESUS OUT OF HER.

Even as a young person, Elizabeth bristled against her family’s Presbyterian beliefs. In 1831, as a required part of her lessons at the Troy Female Seminary, she attended a revival at which noted evangelist Charles Grandison Finney spoke. She found his ideas about sin so alarming that she had to take time off from school to recover. Ultimately, she rejected organized Christianity’s dependence on fear, and later came to view religion as at odds with her work in the feminist movement.

3. SHE SPENT HER HONEYMOON AT AN ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION.

In 1840, Elizabeth married Henry Stanton, a prominent abolitionist who was active in the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After the wedding, the new couple headed to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where Henry was a delegate and Elizabeth was forced with other female attendees into the back of the lecture hall [PDF]. There she met feminist Lucretia Mott, who shared her support for women’s and African Americans' rights.

4. CADY STANTON ATTENDED AN EPIC TEA PARTY …

When you think of an important tea party, the Boston event probably springs to mind—but there was at least one other tea-related confab that was just as historic.

On July 9, 1848, Cady Stanton and three other women—Lucretia Mott, her sister Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock—were invited to the Waterloo, New York home of Jane Hunt, a wealthy Quaker dedicated to social reform. During the gathering, they discussed how women weren’t allowed to vote or own property and why the Quaker religion avoided getting involved with women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. The decision to create an organized meeting to advocate women’s equality was decided right then and there, though who came up with the idea is not known.

5. ... WHICH LED TO THE FIRST WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION IN AMERICA.

Cady Stanton, Mott, and their colleagues announced “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Ten days after the tea party, more than 300 people attended the event (also known as the Seneca Falls convention). The first day, July 19, was planned as an all-women discussion, and July 20 was open to the public.

Stanton wrote and read a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” for the occasion, a discourse based on the Declaration of Independence describing the oppression of women and the rights to which they were entitled. It began with these famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence had almost identical wording except for the “and women” part.) Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the declaration. Seneca Falls launched annual conventions to advocate women’s rights, and was the start of the long battle that eventually earned women the right to vote.

6. CADY STANTON AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY WERE BFFS.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and they quickly became an unstoppable pair. In their shared goal of achieving women’s equality, Anthony handled the campaigning and speeches, while Cady Stanton did the lion’s share of the writing from her home in Seneca Falls. While Anthony objected to Cady Stanton allowing her role as a mother to interfere with her reform work, she also helped her take care of the seven Stanton children. Cady Stanton said of Anthony:

“In the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains."

Together, they formed the anti-slavery Women’s Loyal National League and published the first three of six volumes of History of Woman Suffrage.

7. SHE OPPOSED THE 15th AMENDMENT.

Cady Stanton and Anthony also founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 in response to the proposed 15th Amendment. According to Ginzberg, feminists faced a choice after the Civil War, when Congress debated suffrage for emancipated slaves. “There was a battle among abolitionists—of which Stanton counted herself—between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans,” Ginzberg told NPR. “Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal human rights for all and—historians have argued about this ever since—not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men.” The 15th Amendment, giving men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870. Women did not end up achieving the franchise until 1920.

8. SHE RAN FOR CONGRESS.

Women could run for public office even though they couldn’t vote, a situation that Cady Stanton sought to challenge. She ran for the U.S. House of Representatives—the first woman to do so—as an independent representing New York in 1866. She knew that she was treading new ground when she announced she was running. “I have no political antecedents to recommend me to your support, but my creed is free speech, free press, free men, and free trade—the cardinal points of democracy,” she explained in a letter. She received only 24 votes of the 12,000 cast, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no women could vote—but her audacious campaign likely inspired others. Six years later Victoria Woodhull became the first female candidate for president. It wasn’t until 1916 that a woman, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to Congress.

9. SHE WROTE A BESTSELLING CRITIQUE OF CHRISTIANITY.

Her 1895 book The Woman’s Bible, which criticized the ways religion portrayed women as less than men, drove a wedge between Stanton and the women’s movement. Cady Stanton argued that the Bible taught “the subjection and degradation of woman” and that equality demanded a revision of its lessons. Anthony felt it was more important to welcome people of all religious beliefs into the fight for suffrage. Thanks to the controversy, the book became a bestseller.

10. SHE BELIEVED BIKES WOULD LIBERATE WOMEN.

As the 1970s feminist slogan goes, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” In Cady Stanton’s day, a bike made it so that a woman wouldn’t need a man, at least when it came to transportation. Biking had become popular by the 1890s, and was strongly associated with the modern woman of the latter part of the 19th century, liberated from stuffy social and marital expectations. At 80, Stanton told The American Wheelman magazine that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect [and] self-reliance,” eventually leading to women’s suffrage. Both she and Susan B. Anthony have been credited with saying “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.” They could see beyond the convenience of getting from point A to point B: Bikes symbolized a new freedom for women.

11. SHE TRIED TO DONATE HER BRAIN TO SCIENCE.

Cady Stanton died in 1902, just before turning 87. Susan B. Anthony was heartsick. “I am too crushed to speak,” she told The New York Times’s obituary writer.

But Cady Stanton had tried to ensure that she would still help women’s causes after her own death. Her friend Helen Gardener, a fellow suffragist, had convinced her to donate her brain to Cornell University so scientists would have an eminent female brain to compare with those of eminent men. Stanton had told her family of her plan, and Gardener announced her wishes publicly. Gardener said Cady Stanton “felt that a brain like hers would be useful for all time in the record it would give the world, for the first time—the scientific record of a thinker among women,” Kimberly A. Hamlin writes in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Cady Stanton’s family, however, refused to believe she had agreed to the plan, and the brain was buried with the rest of her in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

12. SHE WILL APPEAR ON THE $10 BILL IN 2020.

The 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote, celebrates its centennial in 2020. To commemorate the anniversary, a new $10 bill will be issued with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul on the back—the first time in more than 100 years that a female portrait has been featured on paper money. (Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front.) You can also expect to see Cady Stanton and Anthony memorialized in a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park that will be known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument. Amazingly, the suffrage pioneers are the first two women to be honored with statues in Central Park, and only the fourth and fifth American women represented by public statues in any NYC park.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

iStock
iStock

No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
iStock

It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
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The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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