from Eight Candles and a Tree
written by Simone Bloom Nathan
illustrated by Brian Barber
Beaver’s Pond Press, 2014
I read somewhere recently that Americans celebrate fourteen different Winter holidays. That’s a lot, for sure! When I started verifying that statement, I found, well, not that many. Each holiday is different, but all have something in common.
First of all, the word holiday can be traced back to about 1200 CE, to Old English haligdæg, holy day. It was used to designate a variety of consecrated days including the Sabbath. One hundred years later, the meaning had broadened to include both a religious festival and a day to pause from work and recreation. By the mid 15th century, the phrase happy holidays, when used in British English, included summer vacation from school. And in American English the Christmastime greeting was popularized in 1937, in Camel cigarette ads, of all places. (etymonline.com)
According to a a Pew Research poll from a few years ago, 90% of Americans celebrated Christmas, and only half of those who celebrated considered the religious aspects of the holiday. Most Americans say Christmas is a cultural holiday, and that number seems to be increasing.
So what do the other 10% celebrate? Even though only about 2% of the American population identifies as Jewish, Hanukkah (with all its various transliterated spellings!) is probably the next best known. It begins at sundown on the 15th day of Kislev every year. The celebration, a re-dedication of faith, commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE.
Practicing Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha on the 10th day of Dhul-Hijjah, the twelfth and final month of their lunar calendar. During Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) obedience to Gd (Allah) by preparing his son for sacrifice. Of course we all know how that story ends. Jews study the same story during the High Holy Days, Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.
While Hanukkah and Eid al-Adha occur on the same day of their respective calendars, they correspond to different days of the Gregorian calendar. The new moon begins a new month on both the Hebrew and the Muslim calendars. Muslim holy days travel around the Gregorian calendar according to the number of days in each lunar month. The Hebrew calendar compensates for the fewer number of days in a lunar year by using a complicated formula to add a leap month when necessary to keep the months in sync with the seasons. This is not to say one calendar system is better than another, only that they are different.
The custom of Yuletide goes back to the old Winter Solstice festivals first celebrated in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe. Winter Solstice acknowledges the day with the least number of daylight hours and celebrates the sun’s return as each day gains more and more light.
Diwali was originally a Hindu holy day. Now Jains and Sikhs and some Buddhists celebrate, too. Also called the Festival of Lights, lit candles represent the triumph of our inner light.
A relatively recent African-American cultural holiday is Kwanzaa. Beginning right after Christmas, a candle representing an African family- or social-value, is lit. Day by day, like the Jewish Hannukkia, the Kinara grows brighter with each new candle. Lightness and all it symbolizes: learning; knowledge; truth; wins over darkness and all it symbolizes: ignorance; lies; fear; every time.
Whether we light candles or light colorful bulbs, whether the light comes from a Yule log, the returning sun itself, or each person’s inner glow, every day brings its own reason to celebrate. Whether we say our prayers in Latin, English, Gaelic, Arabic, Hindi, or Swahili, Americans throughout our beautiful country pray for the potential of peace.
During these darkest days of the calendars we use to mark time, let’s all strive to bring light to each other and ourselves.
Happy holidays! Cheers for the immutable human spirit!
-—be curious (and find someone to love, yourself included!)