WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
It’s December, which means the world has officially kicked into a new, very familiar mode. One that involves a whole lot of commercialism and decking of halls. A mode directed towards a very vague ideal: “The Holidays”. But what does that mean, exactly?
Many of the holidays in December have a religious origin. And in America, we have the gift of religious freedom, which means we are free to celebrate any of them openly. We don’t have to hide what we celebrate, who we worship, and how we do it. I know I take that gift for granted, but in other countries around the world, that simply isn’t an option. Today, we’ll explore the many ways in which we celebrate the holidays in the United States.
We all know the story of the “first Christmas”. There was gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There were animals, shepherds, wise men, and (most importantly) a holy baby in a manger. But our modern Christmas celebrations look vastly different from that cold night in Jerusalem. I live in a small town in the South, which means I get to take part in many local Christmas celebrations and traditions. Usually, there are parades and bonfires, craft fairs and theatre. For example, a night I always look forward to is the annual Christmas Tree Lighting. We gather in our downtown square, drink hot cocoa, coffee, and tea, listen to holiday music, and eagerly await for the lighting to begin. Cafes and boutiques stay open, windows glow with warm lights, and—if it’s a clear night—the sky twinkles with stars. Though the evening itself has nothing much to do with religion, it’s such a beautiful, almost holy entry into the Christmas season. Something about watching the tree come to life with thousands of lights (while my nose freezes) really says “holiday magic”. And yes, I know I sound like a walking Hallmark movie!
Speaking of Hallmark, did you know that the first Hallmark Christmas card was put on the market by the Hall brothers in 1915? Though the first holiday card actually debuted in England in 1843, reading “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”, the tradition didn’t necessarily kick off in the U.S. until the 1910s. Those sold in America began as simple folded cards with an included envelope.
Let’s move on to another major holiday: Hanukkah. The Festival of Lights! Hanukkah is a beautiful Jewish holiday that comes with many games, celebrations, and foods. It marks the anniversary of the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, where the Maccabees, in order to properly dedicate the temple, had to light a menorah and keep it burning constantly. There was only enough oil to keep the flames burning for one day—but miraculously, it burned for eight, giving the faithful Jews enough time to find more oil. Modern Jews still celebrate by burning nine candles on a hanukkiyah (casually referred to as a menorah). Hanukkah treats are cooked in a specific, pure olive oil, commemorating the oil that was burned in that miraculous menorah, in the second century BC.
Did you know? In New York City, on Fifth Ave. and 59th St., stands the Guinness World Record-holding giant menorah. The Talmud (a comprehensive text of Judaism and its laws) prohibits menorahs too tall to be appreciated by a human on the ground, so Rabbi Shmuel Butman made sure it stands 36 feet tall—which according to him, the overseer of the project, is just the right size. It’s lit every year with a festival of live music, fresh latkes, and prayer.
But Hanukkah and Christmas are not the only religious holidays celebrated this time of year. Among many others, celebrations include:
Rohutsu, or Bodhi Day, a Buddhist holiday. It commemorates the prophet Siddhartha Gautama, who vowed to sit under a tree and not rise until he was truly enlightened. The holiday is a day of meditation, of remembrance, and of personal enlightenment and harmony with others.
Kwanzaa, a modern African-American celebration. It places emphasis on imani, a Swahili word for faith, and celebrates culture, family, and community.
Yule, or Winter Solstice. It is the longest night of the year, and is celebrated by pagans and Wicca for its cycle of seasons. It’s a day to reflect upon one’s self, the beauty of nature, and the sun’s rebirth, and to celebrate the winter-born king.
I’m grateful to live in a country in which I can celebrate and let celebrate. There’s incredible beauty in the fact that all around our country, millions of people are able to rejoice for what they believe in, without fear of government persecution. To learn about the many religions in America and how they came to be here, I invite you to watch season two, episode two of Reconnecting Roots—“Religion: Church in States”. Watch anytime, anywhere, for free, at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots!
Whatever you celebrate, we wish you a safe and joyful holiday season.