Holiday Traditions Around the World

The holidays are here! This year, Hanukkah and Christmas actually coincide with each other, which does not happen every year. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, always begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, and sometimes occurs as early as November. This year, it is from December 16th through 24th. The first Hanukkah occurred around 166 BCE when the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, were able to reclaim the Second Temple in Jerusalem from the occupying Syrians. After rebuilding the altar and cleansing the temple, a rededication ceremony was held, at which they thought there was only enough oil to light the lamps for one night. According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s sacred texts, the miracle which inspired the holiday is that the oil actually lit the temple for eight nights. The menorah used in Hanukkah celebrations today represents these eight nights, with one candle for each night plus a ninth candle called the “shamash,” or helper, used to light the others. The focus of the holiday is often more family-oriented than religious-oriented; it is a time to enjoy the company of family and friends and have fun. The tradition of spinning dreidels, or tops, dates back to when the Syrian oppressors banned the reading of the Torah, so when Jews would gather to study it, they would bring the dreidels to pretend they were playing a game.
We all know the Christian history of Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but what you might not know is that early church leaders in the fourth century chose the date of December 25th because it coincided with many ancient pagan European mid-winter festivals, not because December 25th is when Jesus was actually born (that date is unknown). Before this time, Easter was the main Christian holiday and the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. Church leaders chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth at the same time as popular mid-winter festivals to increase the chances that it would be embraced as a holiday and spread. And spread it did, to Egypt by 432, England by the end of the sixth century, and Scandinavia by the end of the eighth century. However, what church leaders could not control was exactly how the holiday was celebrated, and this varies widely across different cultures, even to this day. Up through the Middle Ages, the holiday retained much of its pagan festival elements. Saturnalia, held in honor of Saturn the Roman god of agriculture, was a full month of debauchery and role reversals. Food and drink were plentiful, schools and businesses were closed, and for a month the slaves became the masters and peasants controlled the city. Juvenalia, a Roman festival celebrating children, was also held around this time. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had mostly replaced pagan religions throughout Europe, but Christmas retained its Mardi Gras-like elements until the 17th century when more conservative Christian denominations gained influence. In the United States, Christmas and all other English customs fell out of favor after the American Revolution, and it was not declared a federal holiday until June 26th, 1870.
Christmas is celebrated in many different ways around the world, and we have some unique traditions here in the Valley. The posadas that are so popular here and in Mexico happen for the nine days before Christmas, with the days representing the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. Posada means “inn” or “lodging” in Spanish, and it is a reenactment of Mary and Joseph looking for an inn in Bethlehem on that night of Jesus’ birth. Groups of people, with two dressed up as Mary and Joseph, go from house to house and are rejected until they reach the one that will finally let them in. Songs are sung at each house to “pedir posada.” Once the group is finally let into the last house, or in some cases church, everyone prays around the nativity and then the party begins. Another Christmas-related holiday that is popular in Latin America (and the Valley) and Spain is Día de los Reyes, or the Feast of the Epiphany.  It occurs on January 6th and celebrates the Three Kings’ arrival in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. Most children who celebrate this holiday actually receive their gifts on this day, from the Three Kings, rather than from Santa Claus on December 25th. In Mexico, Día de los Reyes is celebrated by eating a Rosca de Reyes cake, which has a little figure of the baby Jesus baked inside. Whoever gets the piece with the baby Jesus must host a party on Día de la Candelaria in February.

This time of year is important in many different cultures and religions around the world. It is a time to celebrate and be with family and friends. However, it can also be a very stressful and possibly depressing time of year for many people, especially if they find themselves alone over the holiday or have recently lost a loved one. The “holiday blues” have been recognized as a real problem by mental health professionals, and if you think it might be an issue for you, you can check out these articles from UC Davis and the Mayo Clinic for advice.

For more information about any of the topics discussed here, check out the following articles:
The History Channel-  History of Christmas
The New York Times- A Catalan Christmas
The History Channel- History of Hanukkah
Better Homes and Gardens- Hanukkah History and Traditions
México Desconocido- Las Posadas
Wikipedia- Las Posadas
Parade Magazine- What is Día de los Reyes?

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