This is the jolly month of December. It isn’t as cold or nasty as January, and there are several religious holidays that make this month stand out. Originally, I was thinking that Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, and Kwanzaa were all religious holidays in December. While Ramadan is a lunar-calendar-based holiday like Hanukkah, it happens in September/October, and Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday at all. So I’m going to focus mainly on Christmas and Hanukkah, while touching lightly on a few others.
December 25 is the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, and 80-88% of Americans are self-professed Christians. 1 Fox News reports that 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas, but the numbers add up to 103%, so there are some people who admit to celebrating multiple holidays. (And who can blame them for wanting to enjoy the winter holidays as much as possible?) While the account in Luke 2 doesn’t mention the day of Christ’s birth, it has become associated with the 25th of December. Very few scholars believe that Christ was actually born on that day, and most acknowledge that early Christians didn’t celebrate His birth at all. This tradition was started in the fourth century, and the date as well as many currently accepted symbols of the holiday were *ehem* borrowed *ehem* from various pagan celebrations. This basically made it easier for the pagan Romans to convert to Christianity and still keep their winter fun. Well, the orgies went, but you can’t have everything.
Do the pagan origins and symbols distract me from celebrating Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ? Nope. Not at all. I have no problem taking the symbols and traditions from other cultures and times and making them part of my traditions. I’m neither Swedish nor Dutch, but I’ll gladly take part in the smorgasbords and Sinterklaas Days brought into my family by my wife.
Hanukkah, or “dedication,” is an eight-day Jewish celebration that pre-dates Christmas. Back in the second century B.C., the Greeks controlled the lands of Israel. The Greek ruler outlawed Jewish ceremonies and rituals and demanded that the Jews worship the Greek gods instead. This kicked off a rebellion led by Mattathias, and later his son, Judah Maccabee, that was successful in fighting off and defeating the superior numbers of Greek warriors.
During Greek rule, the Greeks had taken the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicated it to the worship of Zeus. This defiled the temple, and after it was retaken by the Jews in 165 B.C., the Temple would need to be rededicated. Consecrated oil was needed to light the temple menorah, and all that could be found was a small flask with enough oil for a single day’s use. It would take a week to make more consecrated oil. Miraculously, this one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days, and is the reason why Jews today light eight candles to commemorate the miracle of the oil lasting until it could be replenished.
While this holiday is the best-known Jewish holiday by non-Jews, it doesn’t have nearly as much significance to the Jewish people as do Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish calendar is lunar-based, which means the holiday of Hanukkah doesn’t fall on the same days each year. While Hanukkah mostly falls in December, it sometimes takes place in November. Probably due to its proximity to the Christian Christmas, Hanukkah has become more and more a gift-giving celebration, often with gifts being given on each of the eight days. The Hanukkah holiday is celebrated by about 5% of the U.S.
And so we reach the catch-up section for festivals that other religions celebrate during December. Kartigai Deepam is the Hindu lunar-based holiday that occurs in November or December. December 8th is Bodhi Day, when Buddhists commemorate the enlightenment (bodhi) of Shakyamuni Buddha. There are about a million each of Hindus and Buddhists in the U.S.
While there are about 3-5 million Muslims in the U.S., there really isn’t a religious Islamic holiday in December. Ramadan is in the fall, and Eid al Adha, which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, is another lunar-based holiday that often falls in January or February, although it is scheduled for December 31st, 2005. But since it is based on the sighting of the new moon, it takes place on different days in different places. Finally, many pagans celebrate Yule or Winter’s Solstice on December 21st or 22nd (like today)! If they had any good sense, they’d be celebrating my birthday today.
And what music did I listen to while I typed this up? Why, December, of course, by George Winston.