Origins of December Holidays

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Harris G. and Jaden C.

         During the late winter months several holidays are celebrated around the world. Many may even celebrate these holidays without knowing the proper origins. These holidays have become the norm for most children around the globe. 

       Christmas is one of the biggest holidays celebrated in winter. Most know the holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but it has a much deeper history than this. Historically, Easter has been a more important religious holiday than Christmas. In the 4th century church officials figured that the birth of Jesus should be worshipped. However, the bible did not have any specific date signifying the date of Jesus’ birth, so Pope Julious I decided the 25th of December should be marked as a day of nativity for Jesus. The idea spread across Europe from this point, but later it was found that Jesus was most likely born in spring. All this together means that Christmas has been largely more secular than not.

     The modern Christmas is, in reality, a combination of many different ideas from mostly European cultures. Most of these come from the Winter Solstice. In Europe, the Winter Solstice is on one hand a depressing time due to the surplus of food around the date. So, all over Europe stories about magic visits around December originated. One of the earliest of these is St Nicholas, who in 280 A.D. Turkey would give away his riches and wealth to ensure the better of the sick and poor. He became a popular tale and known as a protector. In the 18th century, the late Nicholas’ fame reached the Netherlands and Belgium, where he is known as Sinterklass and is celebrated to this day on December sixth. Another figure is Father Christmas in England, who was a symbol of a merry old man who oversaw celebrations. In the 19th century, these traditions reached America and began to combine. Works such as The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon by Washingon Ivry and A Visit From St. Nicholas (often erroneously known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore were extremely influential in this change, and quickly the figures of Sinterklaas (Americanized to Santa Claus), St Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and more combined into a lovable and iconic name we know today.

      Kwanzaa is a refreshingly modern holiday, first celebrated in 1966. The holiday was created by Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University, following the Watts Riots of Los Angeles. The riots were in response to the great mistreatment of African Americans by the police and systems of housing, employment, and schooling. Dr. Karenga created the holiday, then, as a celebration of life and a way to bring together the African American community. Today, the holiday is celebrated by millions of people in a myriad of ways. At the center of these are the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani. Each of these principles is represented by a candle on the Kwanzaa display. The display often also includes dried corn and other crops. The holiday is observed from the 26th of December to the 1st of January every year.

       Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish celebration that takes place from the twenty-eighth of November to the sixth of December. It commemorates the rededication in the first centuries B.C. of the second Jerusalem temple. In English, Hanukkah translates to dedication. Hanukkah is often celebrated by lighting the menorah, traditional food, games, and gifting. 

    Tales state that this time is when the Jews stood their ground against their Greek-Syrian persecutors. In the first century, Israel became under the control of Antiochus III, who was a Syrian king. However, he seemed to be a benevolent ruler and agreed to let the Jews practice their own religion. Once he passed his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, became the next ruler and took a far step from what his father was. He outlawed the Jewish religion and forced the people to worship Greek gods. Then in 168 B.C. Antiochus’ IV soldiers wandered upon Jerusalem, this ended in a massacre of thousands and the destruction of the second holy temple. The temple was changed to be dedicated to Zeus and sacrifice would take place to honor him. After a while, the Jews had had enough, and there was a revolt. Unlike previous revolts this one was successful. Unlike in 166 Matthias and his son, Judah, had attempted to regain order. After the temple was rebuilt Judah ordered the temple to be cleansed. This is where the Hanukkah miracle took place. According to the Talmud, when the menorah’s candles were lit there was only enough untainted oil for one day of burning, but eight days after the day of lighting the candle it continued to burn. This was named a miracle in its remembrance, the holiday is celebrated by millions across the globe. 

    Although Boxing day has always lived in the shadow of December’s more notable holidays, it is not without its own history. Celebrated the day after Christmas, the holiday originated in Britain and its commonwealth countries with servants being given a day off from work after having to work through Christmas the day prior. The titular boxing of the holiday has been attributed to both boxes of gifts given to servants by the rich, or alm boxes placed in churches for donations to the poor. Neither of these traditions exists any longer, of course, but the holiday is still celebrated in Britain, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Jamaica as a day for shopping (similar to Black Friday) and sporting events.