By Jan Norwood
Observances in December
December is full of celebrations. Most of us are well acquainted with Christmas. This time of year, we see tons of advertisements touting the latest technology, the best toys, and the perfect gifts to buy for our loved ones. December is not just about Christmas. It’s about spending time together and sharing customs and traditions. Let’s take a look at some of these customs and the history behind them.
Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that starts on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. In 2021, Hanukkah began on Sunday, November 28 and ended on Monday, December 6. Hanukkah or The Festival Lights is based on historical events that took place in 165 BCE in Jerusalem. (Pelaia, 2019) It began when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was vandalized by Emperor Antiochus IV and his troops. Mattathias, a Jewish priest at the time, and his sons rebelled. After gaining control of Jerusalem and Temple, they lit the holy lamp or menorah. Even though they only had enough oil to last one night, the lamp stayed lit for eight days. As it began with a family, so Hanukkah remains a family event that is celebrated across eight days in a row to commemorate the eight days the holy lamp stayed lit. The central candle or shamash of the menorah is lit first. The shamash is then used to light one candle each night until all candles are aflame on the eighth night. Families sing or say special blessings in Hebrew before the candles are lit. Foods for the event feature oil and it is traditional to eat fried foods such as latkes, pancakes made of potatoes and onions and sufganiyot, jelly-filled donuts. The Dreidel game is played, and gifts are exchanged in some families.
Las Posadas or “The Inns” began as a method to teach the Christmas story to the indigenous peoples in Mexico. Friar Diego de Soria, an Augustinian friar of San Agustin de Acolman near Mexico City obtained permission from Pope Sixtus V in 1586 to conduct “Christmas bonus masses” or misas de aguinaldo. (Barbezat, 2019) Las Posadas spans nine nights from December 16 to the 24 in Mexico and parts of the southwestern United States. The celebration is a reenactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for a place to stay for the night. During each of the nine nights a group with two people dressed as Mary and Joseph or figurines standing in for the couple go to a different house and ask for shelter. The group sings one part of a song asking for shelter while the homeowner or inn keeper sings the refusal to shelter. The songs goes back and forth until the innkeeper agrees to let the couple into the house. The festivities each night include food, hot drinks, and pinatas filled with candy for the children.
Yule and Winter Solstice
Yule falls on the day of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and occurs around December 21. The name Yule has its origins in the Norse culture’s celebration called Jul. Jul was a time for feasting, merrymaking, and possibly sacrifices. (Wigington, 2019) Celtic legend promoted Yule as a battle between the young Oak King or the light of the new year and the Holly King who represented darkness. This battle is reenacted in some Wiccan and Pagan beliefs. (Wigington, 2019) Yule is a time of renewal of life since the days will get longer each day after the solstice. Evergreen branches, pinecones, and holly were used to decorate for Yule and Yule logs were burned in the fireplace. Significant colors for Yule are red, green, white, and gold. The traditions of Yule also can be seen in Christmas.
Christmas is a religious holiday and a huge commercial enterprise. It is celebrated on December 25 but the shopping and decorating for the holiday begin in November or earlier. Christmas in July, for example, is a new celebratory, mostly commercial, event created in recent history. Participants in the day exchange gifts, attend religious services, and share meals with friends and family.
Christians celebrate the day as the birthday of Jesus, but the actual day of his birth is unknown. Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the day to honor the birth of Jesus in the late 330s. (Editors, 2021)
Christmas has not always been as we know it. Christmas celebrations in the Middle Ages were rowdy and comparable to Mardi Gras. (Editors, 2021) The holiday was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681 due to the strict beliefs of the pilgrims. People were fined if caught celebrating the holiday. (Editors, 2021)
Stories written by Washington Irving in 1819 helped promote the tradition of Christmas as a time of peace and togetherness of all humankind. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was also written around the same time. It emphasized charity and good will among the different members of society.
Other fun facts about Christmas include:
Christmas did not become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition was started in 1931 by construction workers.
Rudolph the red nosed reindeer originated from a copywriter’s imaginative poem in 1939 to help lure customers into Montgomery Ward department store.
The poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” by an Episcopal minister named Clement Moore in 1822 helped solidify the idea of Santa Claus as a jolly man with a white beard. To further the image, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist used the poem to create the image we recognize as Santa Claus. (Editors, 2021)
Want to learn more about Christmas, visit History of Christmas - Origins, Traditions & Facts - HISTORY
Created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, Kwanzaa is a holiday to celebrate family, community, and the culture of African Americans. Karenga found inspiration in the First Fruits or Harvest Festivals of Africa and the ideas of Kwanzaa are expressed in the Swahili language. (Kwanzaa First Fruits, n.d.) Kwanzaa is celebrated from Sunday, December 26 to Saturday, January 1. The seven- day event combines the values and practices of Continental African and African American cultures.(Kwanzaa A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, 1999-2020)
The celebration starts when the leader of the group asks the official question, “Habari Gani?” which means “What’s happening?” (Kwanzaa First Fruits, n.d.) The group then responds with the principle of the day. The Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles are represented by candles in the kinara or candle holder. On the first day, the black center candle is lit for Umoja or Unity. The Umoja focuses on family, community, nation, and race. Day two is Kujichagulia or Self-Determination is represented by a red candle to encourage celebrants to speak for oneself. On day three, another red candle is lit to stand for Collective Work and Responsibility or Ujima. Ujima is a time to work together to consider each other’s problems and work together to solve them. Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics is the principle for the fourth day. A green candle is lit to stand for a time to build and support businesses in the community. Day five is the day of Nia or Purpose. The lighting of a second green candle purports the building of community back to traditional greatness. Creativity or Kuumba is honored on the sixth day by a green candle. Participants are reminded to have influence in the community and make it better for the next generation. The last green candle is lit on the seventh day for Imani or Faith. It is a time to believe in each other and honor their struggles. On this day, all candles are lit.
Celebrants spend time eating meals together and learning about African American culture as a family. Some families include prayer in the Kwanzaa celebration. It is a time to honor and remember ancestors, family, and culture.
To learn more about Kwanzaa visit: Official Kwanzaa Website or Kwanzaa | National Museum of African American History and Culture (si.edu)
Whatever your beliefs or customs, enjoy and explore one of the celebrations this month. We wish you and yours a very merry holiday season.
Barbezat, S. (2019, November 28). Posadas: A Traditional Mexican Christmas Celebration.
Editors, H. (2021, November 9). History of Christmas.
Kwanzaa A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture. (1999-2020).
Kwanzaa First Fruits. (n.d.).
Pelaia, A. (2019, December 12). What is Hanukkah? Dates, Traditions, Story.
Wigington, P. (2019, June 25). History of Yule.