The history of “the holidays” goes back a long way and spans many cultures. And, some of them you might not know. Sometimes called “the most wonderful time of the year,” the holidays can be magical. Additionally, most are full of beautiful lights, decorations, joyful music, and plenty of food. Sadly, many people go through the motions, like putting up Christmas trees or following family traditions without knowing where any of it came from. Therefore, it’s easy to be sucked into a tradition without thinking.
I’m pretty sure you’ve wondered about the history of the holiday season. Why do people celebrate all these different holidays, like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Winter Solstice? For instance, I still think it’s a little odd we put an evergreen tree in my living room. Well, you might be surprised how far back some of these traditions go. With all that in mind, allow me to shed a little light on the holiday season for you with the History of the Holidays You Might Not Know.
The Winter Solstice of Old
Celebrating Winter Solstice has been around for quite a long time. It marks the shortest day on the calendar year and also the beginning of having “new light” for the coming year since the days grow longer. Ancient cultures, like Germanic and Scandinavian, celebrated Winter Solstice by lighting fires and Yule logs to signify new life and welcoming new light.
Modern Winter Solstice
Today, cultures all over the world celebrate Winter Solstice differently. Modern Druidic practices celebrate the death of the Old Sun and the birth of the New Sun, usually at the site of Stonehenge where the sun perfectly aligns with the stones. In Austria, Krampus appears to scare little children, and in Japan, people take it easy and have a nice hot bath to protect themselves from the cold.
Hanukkah's Turbulent Beginnings
Starting around the second century BCE, this Jewish holiday had explosives origins. It all started with the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greco-Syrian King at the time. He marched his armies into Jerusalem and massacred thousands before building a statue of Zeus inside the Second Temple and sacrificing pigs within its holy walls. On top of that, he forced the Jews to worship Greek gods.
Outraged and defiant, the Jewish priest Mattathias, with his five sons, led a revolt which became a full rebellion.
The Jewish Festival of Lights
When Mattathias died, his son Judah Maccabee took over in 166 B.C. He was known as “The Hammer,” and while using guerrilla warfare tactics, led several successful campaigns against the tyrannical king, driving them out of Jerusalem. He ordered the Second Temple be cleansed, the altar be rebuilt, and the menorah to be lit.
At the time, they only had enough olive oil to keep the lights burning for a single day, but for eight consecutive days the lights continued to burn. Considered a miracle, Jewish tradition started an eight-day festival of lights, commemorating the event known as Hanukkah.
A Modern Hanukkah Interpretation
Today, modern historians think the origins of Hanukkah might have looked differently than tradition tells us. Some believe at the time of Antiochus IV, Jerusalem fell into civil war between the Jews that assimilated to Greek culture and the traditionalist Jews that refused. The real battle was between two factions of Jews rather than against Antiochus IV.
It’s also maintained by Jewish scholars that Hanukkah might be a belated celebration of Sukkot, one of their most important holidays, consisting of seven days of fasting and prayer.
A modern, secular holiday invented in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, its focus was to bring African-Americans together through their common heritage and cultural practices in Africa. The name comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits” in Swahili. Karenga studied many African harvest festivals from Ashanti to Zulu and combined them for Kwanzza.
It also includes a candelabra for its celebrations. Each night, the family gathers and has a child light a candle while reading one of the seven principles formed by Karenga. African drums, dancing, storytelling, and a large meal is also common in the celebrations.
A dead, ancient pagan Roman celebration in December, Saturnalia was a festival celebrating and worshiping their agricultural god, Saturn. At first, the ancient Romans only celebrated it on one day, but it became so popular, they expanded the holiday for a whole week.
During this time, everything came to a screeching halt. People took off work and had big parties, gambled, sang, played games, decorated their homes with wreaths and other things, and gave each other gifts. They also heavily decorated fir trees in the Temple of Saturn as a symbol of fertility.
Early Years of Christmas
The early Christian church from the first century CE up to around the fourth century CE didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth. The gospels don’t provide a specific date, so Pope Julius I decided on December 25th. Some think this was a way to convince pagans celebrating Saturnalia to adopt Christianity. Originally, they called it “The Feast of the Nativity.” The name “Christmas” came later from the Middle English word “Cristemasse” which just means “Christ’s Mass.”
It became wildly popular across Christendom and by the middle ages had replaced Saturnalia. As a result, many early pagan traditions bled into Christmas traditions, including Christmas trees.
The First War on Christmas
Today, when Christmas comes around, it doesn’t take long before hearing the term the War on Christmas in the media, especially in America, over the secularization of Christmas. However, the first war on Christmas actually came from a Christian religious sect: the Puritans.
In an attempt to curb cultural decline, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans took over England in 1645 and cancelled Christmas. Meanwhile, in America, Christmas wasn’t celebrated at all, with many Puritans believing it wasn’t necessary. Eventually, the holiday was outlawed in Boston, and anyone who celebrated it was fined five shillings.
Before the 19th century, people celebrated Christmas like party animals, engorging themselves on food and getting seriously drunk. It wasn’t exactly a wholesome, family holiday. All that changed, however, thanks to Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Their stories focused heavily on peace, good will, generosity, and family coming together in harmony. Since both works were wildly popular in the United States and England, Christmas traditions changed toward family and became mainstream. Eventually, the United States declared it an official holiday on June 26, 1870.
Did you learn anything new? Want to add something? Sound off in the comments and let’s have a joyful discussion about the holiday season.