Besides Christmas: A look at the ‘other’ winter holidays

Pixabay (CC0), Daniel Zimmermann (CC BY 2.0), George Kelly (CC BY 2.0), Celeste Lindell (CC BY 2.0)
Pixabay (CC0), Daniel Zimmermann (CC BY 2.0), George Kelly (CC BY 2.0), Celeste Lindell (CC BY 2.0)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — Christmas dominates the headlines in November and December. The Christian holiday is mainstream across the globe and plays such a pivotal role in the American economy and social zeitgeist, that it makes sense it takes the lead in winter holiday discussions.

But not everyone celebrates Christmas. Let’s learn about other winter holidays commonly celebrated by Americans.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple after the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians in 165 B.C.

Hanukkah often is referred to as the Festival of Lights, which stems from the story of the famed Hanukkah miracle. According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s central texts, during the rededication of the Second Temple, they only had enough pure olive oil to keep the ceremonial menorah burning for one day. However, the menorah burned for eight days, leaving them enough time to find more oil. Jews celebrate the miracle with the annual eight-day festival.

Today, the holiday is celebrated by people of Jewish faith around the world, by lighting the menorah, eating traditional Jewish foods, playing games and exchanging gifts.

This year, Hanukkah will be celebrated from December 24, 2016 to January 1, 2017. Hanukkah is based on the Jewish calendar, which marks its new year in the fall and is based on a lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar. Therefore, the holiday shifts dates each year but routinely falls sometime between late November and late December.

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 as a means to bring African Americans together and celebrate their heritage. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, was a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He founded the holiday off of traditional celebrations from different tribes in Africa, particularly the Ashanti and the Zulu.

The name Kwanzaa stems from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” The holiday is a seven-night celebration where families gather each night and discuss one of the seven principles – called the Nguzo Saba — set aside as values to reinforce community among African-Americans. The seven principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Similar to Hanukkah, families celebrating Kwanzaa gather for large feasts of traditional foods, music and dancing. Those celebrating also light seven candles held in a kinara, with each candle representing one of the Nguzo Saba principles.

On the seventh day of Kwanzaa, families celebrate Imani (faith) and exchange gifts.

Kwanzaa is celebrated annually from December 26 through January 1.

Winter Solstice

Since ancient times, cultures across the world have celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day – and longest night – of the calendar year. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on December 21 and marks the formal beginning of winter.

Throughout history, humans have created religious and cultural traditions around the day to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the “darkest period of the year.” Romans held a week-long feast called Saturnalia in observance of the winter solstice to honor the god Saturn.

Historians believe Pope Julius I created the Christmas holiday around the winter solstice to incorporate the Christian holiday into other cultures. Much of today’s Christmas traditions stem from pagan winter solstice origins. Traditional pagan decorations are similar to Christmas décor, including hanging evergreen wreaths, holly and mistletoe. Druids often adorned their homes with green, red and white decorations to celebrate the winter solstice.

Today, winter solstice celebrations are most closely associated with pagans and the Wiccan movement, trying to tap into traditional pagan celebrations of Yule. These celebrations include gatherings and ceremonies that honor nature and the sun.

Festivus

Festivus is a holiday first created informally by Daniel O’Keefe Sr. in the 1960s and popularized by the American sitcom “Seinfeld.” Dan O’Keefe, a son of the creator, worked as a writer on “Seinfeld” and pitched the idea for an episode where the main cast attends a dinner party at George Costanza’s parents’ home and are introduced to the bizarre holiday.

The holiday today is celebrated annually on December 23 by fans of the show or those who enjoy the kitschy-ness of the holiday.

According to O’Keefe, the holiday originally was established to remove the religious and commercial overtones from Christmas and went from there. Several traditions mentioned on the show were exaggerated for effect but largely stem from the actual celebrations.

On the show, George’s father, Frank Costanza claims to be the inventor of Festivus, a holiday “for the rest of us.” The holiday includes four main elements: the Festivus Pole, the Festivus Dinner, the Airing of Grievances, and the Feats of Strength.

In direct opposition to the Christmas tree, Festivus is celebrated with an aluminum pole. Unlike a Christmas tree adorned with ornaments and tinsel, the Festivus Pole is praised for its high strength-to-weight ratio. It also is low maintenance and less distracting than a tree, per Frank Costanza.

There is no official traditional Festivus meal, although, on the “Seinfeld” episode, Estelle Costanza serves meatloaf on a bed of lettuce.

During the Festivus Dinner, the head of the house initiates the Airing of Grievances, an opportunity for everyone to vent and talk through their problems. According to O’Keefe, Festivus tradition had family members recite their gripes – mostly lighthearted — into a tape recorder. Frank Costanza took a slightly different approach, shouting at his guests, “Welcome, newcomers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear about it!”

The Feats of Strength are the final Festivus tradition, where the celebration is not over until the head of the household is wrestled and pinned to the floor, according to “Seinfeld” lore. O’Keefe says he was never forced to wrestle with his father, but he often jostled with his brothers on the holiday.

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