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Holidays in December
Dated: December 17 2020
Holidays in December
Around this time every year, people gather together to celebrate the Holidays. Typically, when someone says, “The Holidays” you might think of the names of all the holidays that the phrase ties together. But, how many of you actually know what those holidays are about? How they started? What about the holiday that you celebrate? Do you know their origins? Why are the traditions you do the traditions you do?
While I can’t fit all of the many, many holidays into one post, I’ll go over a couple of the main ones: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, and Christmas. We’ll go over how and when they began, as well as the history of some of the traditions as we know them today.
The word “Hanukkah” (Also spelled “Chanukkah”, “Hannukah”, etc… They are all pronounced the same way pretty much) is derived from the Hebrew word “חנוכה”, which means “Dedication”. It’s also sometimes called the “Feast of the Dedication”. (For those who don’t read Hebrew, those letters read “Chanukah”). It’s start date flip-flops around from year to year, sometimes it begins in November and sometimes in December. That’s because it starts in accordance with the Hebrew Calendar, in which it starts every year on Kislev 25th and lasts for eight days.
Why did they choose “Dedication” to be the name of a popular winter holiday, you might be asking?
Well, it all started waaaaay back when the Israelites were finally able to come back home and build the Second Temple. They built it, ran it for a couple of years, everything was great.
Then Antiochus III the Great died (he was the King when all this happened).
When his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, then took over the throne, he decided he wanted to force all the Jews to worship the Greek gods, and whoever didn’t would be killed. He even went as far as to build an altar for Zeus in the Temple the Jews had just rebuilt, getting his goonies to sacrifice pigs (an unclean animal, according to Jewish Law) on said altar, and defiling the Temple in any other way they could.
A lot of the Jewish didn’t like this, as you would imagine. So, being led by a man called Mattathias (one of the previous priests that worked in the temple before Antiochus took it over), the Jewish people began to fight back. When Mattathias dies, his son Judah, now known as Judah Maccabee, took over for him and helped his people win the war against the Greeks.
After the war was won, the Greeks vacated Jerusalem, leaving the Jewish people to reclaim what was originally theirs. First thing on the agenda: Clean and Rededicate the Temple to the Lord.
After removing the things the Greeks put there and giving the Temple a good scrubbing down (and rebuilding the altar all together), the last step was the rededication.
Now, as the story goes, to Rededicate the Temple, they had to light the Menorah for a week or so. (A Menorah is an eight pronged candelabra). The problem: They only had enough oil for one day. But, they lit the Menorah anyway, praying that the Lord would provide more oil somehow.
They came back the next day to see that the Menorah was still burning. And it continued that way for eight full days. They never added any oil to it after that first night: It was a Miracle.
The Miracle of the Oil is what the Traditions of Hanukkah are based off. For eight days, at night specifically, people will gather around the family Hanukkiah (the smaller version of the Temple’s Menorah) and light a candle, lighting an extra candle each night of the festival. They also eat a lot of fried foods, because… um… oil.
The Dreidel Game, a popular game to play during Hanukkah, also has origins around the same time as the Miracle of the Oil. During the times of the Revolt, teaching and learning Torah (a scroll that is the basis for most, if not all, Jewish laws. Also the first five books of the standard bible) was illegal, so they had to hide in caves to learn. When a Greek patrol came close, they would hide the Torah scrolls and pretend to be gambling amongst themselves.
Fun Fact: The Books of the Maccabees (the books that state the story said above) used to be in the Bible. There is some discrepancy in exactly when and why it was removed (at least, there was when I looked it up on Google), but the general consensus is that some people decided it wasn’t Canon to the bible, so it was removed from the Protestant and Hebrew bibles. Catholic Bibles, though, still have the Books of the Maccabees. I’m not entirely sure why, though.
In August 1965, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, an African-American was pulled-over for alleged reckless driving, and a small argument broke out. Since this was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the small argument turned large, with more and more people joining the fight. The next six days turned into a bloodbath, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage.
In the aftermath of the now dubbed Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion as some sites have decided to call it) a man named Dr. Maulana Karenga, a Professor and Chairman of Black Studies at California State University, wanted to find a way to bring the African-American community together. He searched and searched, researched and researched, and finally, in 1966 he created the holiday we know as Kwanzaa.
The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “Matunda ya Kwanzaa”, which translates to “Firstfruits” when you put it through Google Translate. As the name suggests, Kwanzaa is based on the combination of different Harvest celebrations of a couple of different African tribes, such as the Yorubas, Ibos, Ashantis, Zulus, and others.
The holiday lasts for seven days, starting each year on December 26th. Each night, children light a candle on the Kinara (a candle holder not too unlike Hanukkah’s Hanukkiah). Each of the nights focuses on one of the Seven Principles:
Collective Work & Responsibility
Much like Christmas, each family has their own variation of the traditions when it comes to celebrating Kwanzaa, though typically the traditions include singing, dancing, African Drums, storytelling, and food.
Fun Fact: The first US postage stamp that commemorated Kwanzaa was issued in 1997. That’s a full 31 years after the holiday’s creation!
Boxing Day’s origins have quite the mystery surrounding them… Meaning that nobody truly knows how or why Boxing Day started.
Yes, there are theories; There are always theories. Everywhere you look there are theories. The world pretty much runs on them at this point.
But, for today I’ll only go over the top two theories surrounding Boxing Day’s beginnings.
The first theory suggests that Boxing Day got its start when, in the olden days, the Masters of the house in ye ol’ England would box gifts to give their servants on December 26th. Most of the household servants would have to work on Christmas itself, so their employers would give them the 26th off to open gifts and spend time with their families. The gifts, called Christmas Boxes (hence ‘Boxing Day’) would be small stuff like money and food leftover from dinner the night before.
It was essentially the old-timey version of a Christmas Bonus at work.
Another theory suggests that the holiday got its name from the wooden box that, again in ye ol’ England, would sit outside a church during Advent (a Catholic Holiday which takes place the twelve days leading up to Christmas)(And here is when I realized that the song “Twelve Days of Christmas” is based off Advent). During said holiday, people would come and put money in the box, and on December 26th the contents would be distributed across the poor people of the town.
Today, people living in British Commonwealth countries celebrate this holiday by… Relaxing, mostly. They eat the leftover Christmas Dinner food and sit around watching sports.
Or, at least, that’s my understanding of what happens. I don’t live in a place that celebrates Boxing Day, so I can only rely on what Google says.
When I was telling him all this, my Dad stated, “It’d be better if it were Kick-Boxing Day.”
Fun Fact: If Boxing Day lands on a Saturday or Sunday, as it will in 2020, businesses in Commonwealth countries will treat that following Monday as Boxing Day and not open until the next day.
Christmas is the most well celebrated December Holiday in the world. Everybody is exposed to Christmas at some point in their lives. Nobody can escape it and still be alive.
The standard story told about the beginnings of Christmas is the Birth of Christ. I quickly restate it here just in case you haven’t heard it before:
A woman, Mary, was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. One day, Mary saw an angel who told her she was going to have a baby. She was confused by this, telling the angel, “I’ve never done the thing… How can I have a baby if I’ve never done the thing?” The angel then responds, “The baby will be God’s baby.” Then she goes, “Okay.” Now she’s pregnant.
The king of Judea at the time ordered a census, so everyone had to go to their birth countries to be counted. Mary, now being Joseph’s wife and pregnant with God’s baby, goes with Joseph to Bethlehem.
After they get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor, and Joseph runs around looking for someplace for her to give birth. All the inns are full, but they find an innkeeper that lets them stay in the barn. A literal barn. With animals. Mary gives birth to Jesus (or Yeshua, as his Jewish name would’ve been) in the barn.
Now, there are other details, obviously. But, those are the main ones we need for now.
Crazily enough, people celebrated Christmas before the birth of Christ. How can that be?
Well, it wasn’t “Christmas” per say. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a holiday where they honored Saturn (the god, not the planet). The higher class of Romans would also celebrate the Birthday of Mirtha, one of their sun gods, on December 25th.
The Norse, on the other hand, celebrated “Yule”. They’d bring home giant logs, light it on fire on December 21st, and celebrate “The Returning of the Sun” until the logs burnt out, which, according to Google, could take up to two full weeks.
Those must’ve been some massive logs if it took that long to burn out.
Even when Jesus was born, people didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we do today for another hundred years or so. Jesus probably didn’t even celebrate his birthday. He was Jewish, and Jewish people didn’t really celebrate birthdays in bible times.
So, when did Christmas start becoming what we know it as today?
Well, there was a time where the Pope pretty much ran everything in the world. Pope Julius I decided that it was time people celebrated the Birth of Christ. All he needed was a date.
The bible doesn’t specifically say when Jesus was born. Some people think it was in the spring, because why would shepherds be out with sheep during the dead of winter? Others think it was in the fall, during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (a holiday where it is a requirement to camp for a week), because it’s the perfect time to travel.
With that in mind, nobody really knows why Pope Julius I settled on December 25th. One of the theories is that he wanted to try and incorporate the Roman holidays with the Birth of Christ, but that’s just a theory… A Christmas Theory! (Sorry/Not-sorry.) (Google it.)
Whatever the reason was, it caught on. And now Christmas is the most widely celebrated, and most widely commercialized holiday in the world.
Fun Fact: In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations more resembled the Mardi Gras parties of today. Loud, rambunctious, and lots of drinking.
In conclusion, no matter what you believe or what you choose to celebrate around this time of year, there’s always something for everyone. Like I said before, there are plenty more holidays that I didn’t get to. If I had, we’d be here all month!
I hope you learned something from this. I know I did!
Stay happy and learning, friends! Until next time!
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