'Tis the season
December 01, 2019
'Tis the season of holidays, days for family, days for good cheer. Days for remembering, celebrating, gift-giving, and merry-making.
The holidays are rife with traditions, many of them decades— even centuries— old. Traditions are a link to the past. Tradition means “handed down from one generation to the next.” Traditions remind us that we are not isolated individuals, we do not live in a vacuum; we are part of history, part of culture, part of a family. The holidays themselves are a way of remembering the past, commemorating important events —days set apart for a special purpose.
Our holidays, and our holiday traditions, are dear to us. But where do our holidays and traditions come from?
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and usually occurs around December 22. As the end of the darkness of winter, and a sign of spring to come, the winter solstice has been celebrated throughout history. In Scandinavia and northern Europe, the solstice is referred to as “Yule,” which is where the “Yule log” originated.
Christmas, the “mass of Christ,” remembering the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, has been celebrated on December 25 since the year 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. A few years later, Pope Julius 1 officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on December 25. "Christmas is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night." Wikipedia
Epiphany, celebrated on January 6, “Twelfth Night,” is when celebrants remember the Magi, the wise men, coming to worship the Christ child. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1–12).
Hanukkah, or Chanukah:
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of Lights, begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev (close to December). Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, celebrating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the time of Maccabean Revolt in 165 BCE. Preparing the temple for its rededication, they found only a small vial of oil to light the lamp —only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, the temple lights burned for eight days until new oil was brought. In remembrance of this miracle, one candle of the Menorah —an eight-branched candelabra — is lit each of the eight days of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” begins at sundown on December 22, 2019.
Kwanzaa, created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at Cal State, is an African-American holiday celebrating family, community, and culture. Celebrated from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa involves seven principles called the “Nguzo Saba.” The seven principles are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Each principle is represented by a candle in a Kinara (candleholder), with three green candles on the left, three red candles on the right, and a black candle in the center. Black symbolizes the faces of the African people, Red symbolizes the blood they have shed, and Green represents hope and the color of the motherland. The name itself – Kwanzaa – is a Swahili word meaning “fruits of the harvest.”
Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26, and takes its name from a British tradition of giving a “Christmas Box,” a gift of money or food, to the tradespeople and deliverymen who gave service during the year.
In the UK, and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Boxing Day is a federal statutory holiday.
Here are some interesting “holiday tradition” facts you might not know:
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed reindeer:
In 1939, Robert May, a copywriter for retail giant Montgomery Ward, was tasked to write a short Christmas-themed book that the store could give to visiting children. Borrowing from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” May penned the story, loved for generations, of the “most famous reindeer of all.” “The retailer’s holiday advertisements touted “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as “the rollicking new Christmas verse that’s sweeping the country!” Children snapped up nearly 2.4 million copies of the paper-bound book in 1939.” In 1949, Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, set Rudolph’s story to music, which was recorded by Gene Autry, and is one of the best-selling tunes of all time.
Christmas trees date back to 16th-century Germany, when fir trees were decorated (both indoors and out) with candles, colored paper, flowers, and apples. It is believed that Protestant reformer Martin Luther, inspired by the beauty of stars shining through the branches of a fir tree, was the first to decorate trees with lighted candles.
Sir Henry Cole, the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is credited with creating the first real Christmas card. In 1843, finding himself too busy to write individual Christmas greetings for each of his friends, Cole hired artist John Calcott Horsley to illustrate a card with a family enjoying their Christmas celebration and a caption “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
Here are some holiday traditions your family might enjoy:
- Deliver fruit baskets or baked goods. Bring food and good cheer to friends and neighbors. And sing Christmas carols!
- Look at Christmas lights. Drive around town and look at all of the holiday light displays, enjoying the show . . . and the time together.
- Tell stories of years past. Remind each other of your family’s history and your shared memories. It’s good to remember— and to tell your children about— your family’s traditions, and history, and stories.
- Decorate a tree. Go pick out a tree (visit a tree farm . . . or visit Lowe's), and then decorate it together. Those ornaments are stories in themselves: the one with your newborn’s handprint; the myriad of school-made ornaments involving pipe cleaners, wooden craft sticks, and awkward photos; the ornaments given to you by friends over the years. Priceless.
- Give an annual ornament. Give each child an annual ornament, so they will have their own priceless collection when they have their own families.
- Make crafts and decorations. Paper snowflakes, popcorn garland, glittered pinecones, wine cork wreaths, DIY snow globes, and so on. Truly, there is a craft for every age and every level of expertise. And creating something together provides both a fun activity for this year’s holiday, and a memorable keepsake for holidays to come.
- Be generous. The holidays can be a difficult time for those who are alone or in need. There are so many opportunities to give back.
- Visit a nursing home. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank. Donate gently used clothing (particularly warm coats) to a local shelter. Sponsor a family or child in need. Toys for Tots and Operation Christmas Child are two organizations that help provide for needy children.
- Take the same photo each year. The idea is to take the photos in the same location, with the same people sitting in the same places, perhaps even wearing the same (or similar) clothing each year. The photos become a visual timeline of your family’s history.
- Read a special book together. Families have long included reading together in their holiday traditions. Choose your favorites, from A Christmas Carol to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and read them aloud to each other, taking turns readings, perhaps one book each night until Christmas.
- Make some sweet treats. Gingerbread houses. Iced cookies. Peppermint bark. Decorated cupcakes. Dipped pretzels.
- Count your blessings. As the year draws to a close, make an “I am Thankful” list, writing down things for which you are thankful. Write them in a journal, or on pieces of paper (which can be kept in a special box or jar), or write them on paper snowflakes and turn them into a holiday decoration.
- Send a card. Many of us will be sending cards to friends and family, but you could also send a card to someone who might be lonely this year, like residents of nursing homes or soldiers overseas. Any Soldier and Soldiers Angels will help you send a card or gift to military service personnel.
Whatever your family’s traditions, embrace them —and each other —and celebrate!