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I Researched Popular Winter Holidays So You Don’t Have To

It’s finally that time of year again! In case you live under a rock, it’s holiday season, and I truly could not be more excited. The thing is, depending on your family and upbringing, you might not celebrate the same holidays as others, or you might even celebrate many holidays with different parts of your family. Regardless, there are so many cool winter holidays celebrated during this season with such interesting histories. And you might even learn something about the origins of a holiday you do celebrate. Here is a rundown of some popular winter holidays:

Christmas

Christmas began as a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who in Christianity is the savior and son of God. Basically, Jesus’ mother, Mary, discovered that she was pregnant with Jesus, who was destined to become the rightful king of Jerusalem, despite being a virgin when an angel came to her and told her. Long story short, Mary and her husband Joseph traveled to Bethlehem but the lodging there was full, so Mary gave birth to Jesus in a barn. This ended up working out pretty well because the king of Jerusalem at the time ordered the death of male babies born in Bethlehem out of fear that one was going to take his place.  (Shout out to bible study camp because I remembered that story without having to look anything up). Anyway, Jesus’ birth and the circumstances of it is regarded as significant, and therefore is the basis for Christmas celebrations. However, it was not celebrated until nearly two centuries after Jesus’ death, and was initially celebrated in affiliation with winter solstice.

At this point you might be wondering where the heck Santa Claus comes into the picture. Though there are variations of Santa Claus from around the globe, generally, Santa Claus comes from the belief that Saint Nicholas, or some variation of him, visits children’s homes the night before Christmas, leaving gifts for them whether it be under a tree, in a stocking, or in their shoes (yep, that’s a thing).

Two major parts of American celebration of Christmas are having a tree (indoors, which is kinda weird not that I think about it) and listening to holiday music. The practice of putting up Christmas trees came from 18th century Germany as a part of Christmas Eve traditions, then spread to England throughout the 19th century and decorations like candles and cookie ornaments were added. It was not until later that glass ornaments and tinsel became part of the mix. As for music, aside from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, the most popular Christmas songs in America seem to all be from the 40s and 50s. There’s no definite explanation for this, but many attribute it to nostalgia for America’s postwar prosperity, and I suppose that could be true.

Chanukah/Hanukkah

First of all, while researching this I found out that there are fourteen fourteen possible ways to spell Hanukkah (Chanukah?), so that’s pretty dope. For the purpose of this article, I will be using ‘Hanukkah’ because apparently that it the most common spelling.

Anyway, the story begins with Antiochus Epiphanes, a Syrian king, taking control of Jerusalem, where many Jews resided, and forcing the worship of Greek gods. With the help of his army, Antiochus enforced the outlaw of Judaism, destroying their temple and converting it into a place of worship for Zeus. Antiochus issued an ultimatum: Jews must convert or face certain death. In opposition to this, Judah Maccabee and others fought the Syrian king’s army. Though outnumbered, Judah and his supporters won. This surprising win is significant in showing Jews’ commitment to their faith and strength during hardship.

The practice of Hanukkah comes into play during the aftermath of the war, when the Maccabees began repairing the temple destroyed by Antiochus. The Maccabees, Judah Maccabee and those who joined him in fighting, immediately relit the ner tamid, a light that eternally burns in synagogues, however they only had enough oil to keep it burning for one night. The Maccabees sent a messenger to get more oil for the ner tamid. It took the messenger 8 days, yet the ner tamid miraculously burned until his return.

Today, Jews celebrate this by lighting a candle on a menorah for eight days. Hanukkah is not as major a holiday compared to Passover or Rosh Hashanah, but it has grown in North America. Because it takes place during America’s holiday season, many non Jewish people assume that Hanukkah is the Jewish version of Christmas. Though this is a misconception, the North American emphasis on Christmas did make gift giving and receiving a larger part of Hanukkah celebration.

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a secular holiday commemorating African American culture. Kwanzaa is a fairly new holiday; it was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to honor African culture and values. Not all African Americans celebrate this, but a fair amount do.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits” in Swahili, which is the most widely spoken language in Africa.

The holiday lasts for seven days and has seven core values, meaning that each principle is celebrated on each day. The seven principle include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, a sense of purpose, creativity, and faith.

Additionally, the holiday utilizes colors and symbols as part of the celebration. The colors of Kwanzaa are green, black, and red. Green for fertile land in Africa. Black to represent the people of Africa. Red for blood shed by those who fought for freedom. The symbols used include a unity cup, a candle holder, various fruits and vegetables, seven candles that represent the principles, a straw or cloth mat, an ear of corn, and gifts.

Today, many black Americans celebrate Kwanzaa starting on December 26 through January 1. On December 31, karamu takes place; this is a large feast where families come together and eat foods that align with African and African American culture. The next day, gifts are exchanged within families. These gifts often aim to educate African American children about their cultural background.

Yule/Solstice

Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and generally occurs during late December. Early groups of people, usually pagans and Celts celebrated Winter Solstice; these are considered some of the earliest winter celebrations ever.

Celebrations of Winter Solstice began to honor the rebirth of the sun and began being called Yule. In pagan celebrations of Yule, they honor various deities associated with nature, the sun, and rebirth. Both Celts and pagans originally celebrated Yule by decorating their homes, spending time with family, and getting a special log called a yule log to burn through the night.

Many Yule traditions influenced the nonreligious traditions of Christmas. For example, pagans and Celts decorated their homes with holly and mistletoe, which carried over into Christmas traditions. Additionally, the colors representing Yule are red, green, and gold, which have become the primary Christmas colors. The prevalence of evergreen trees and bushes in Christmas came from the Yule tradition of harvesting boughs of evergreens.

In present day, Yule is not as widely celebrated but is still celebrated by many practicing pagans. Additionally, wiccans have begun to take part in Yule celebrations. In fact, the holiday makes appearances in TV shows and movies concerning witchcraft. Yule is integrated into the Harry Potter series with the ‘Yule Ball’ and the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s newest episode. Modern celebrations of Yule often involve a modified version of yule log in which the log is used as a symbolic candle holder.

Three Kings Day

Three Kings Day is the final day of Christmas celebration for many Hispanic people. Instead of Santa Claus bringing gifts to children, those who celebrate Three Kings Day believe that three kings deliver gifts 12 days after Christmas, on January sixth.

Recall the story of Jesus’ birth, which is the story that informed the creation of Christmas. Following Jesus’ birth, the three kings, also referred to as the three wise men, followed the star of Bethlehem to Jesus, who was deemed ‘king of the Jews’ by many (at this point I’d like to highlight that Jewish people do not believe this, only those that practice Christianity or some variation of it do). Each king rode to Jesus on a different animal and brought him a different gift. The three gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh; gold represented Jesus’ recognition as a king, frankincense represented worship and the miracle of Jesus’ birth, and myrrh foreshadowed Jesus’ death to cleanse people of sins.

Anyway, the day that the three kings gave Jesus his gifts came to be Three Kings Day, which many people of Spanish descent celebrate every year. People celebrate Three Kings Day by exchanging gifts and eating traditional foods. A major food eaten on this holiday is Rosca de Reyes, which is a breadlike dessert. Inside each Rosca de Reyes, a plastic baby Jesus is hidden and whoever finds it hosts the next celebration.


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