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Christmas was not always sedate family holiday

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, Christmas celebrations are in full swing. Christmas, however, is not celebrated in every home — in fact, it’s estimated that around 17 percent of Americans do not celebrate Christmas, and those that do celebrate it dramatically differently than the inventors of Yule.

Although Christmas centers around the supposed birthday of Jesus Christ, it is quite a secular holiday. An estimated 13 percent of non-practicing Christians celebrate the holiday, and many non-Christians celebrate Christmas in some form or another. Also, with the commercialization of Christmas, it is more a time of presents, decoration and sales rather than a church day.

The origin of Christmas occurred centuries before Jesus was born and was not rooted in religiosity. Four hundred years before Christ, in ancient Scandinavia, Yule was observed to celebrate the winter solstice and the end of harsh winter. Before the advent of Christianity, paganism ruled the spiritual world and there were many variations. For example, the Germanic people used Yule to honor their god Odin. Their version of the holiday was much darker than that celebrated today — Odin was believed to roam the skies at night, deciding who got to live and who got to die, so most people stayed inside.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, also occurring around the winter solstice, which paid homage to the god of agriculture, Saturn. Along with Saturnalia, Juvenalia was observed simultaneously in the form of a feast for the children. The nobility of Rome celebrated the birthday of Mithra, or the Light of the World, on Dec. 25.

In the fourth century, Jesus’ birth became a holiday, and although it is not known when Jesus was actually born, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the day of celebration. Being that the new holiday occurred around the same time as Saturnalia, a lot of the same pagan traditions were adopted, and eventually the celebrations merged.

Christmas became a rancorous holiday with excessive drinking and partying. It was an occasion of mischief, and the poor would go to upper-class houses and beg for food and drink where they would browbeat the rich to gratify them. This is how Christmastime became known as the season of helping the less fortunate.

In 1645, Oliver Cromwell overthrew the English monarchy and took power. A staunch Puritan, he cancelled Christmas, which he thought to be an immoral holiday. This, among other things, made Cromwell extremely unpopular. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II restored Christmas.

When the pilgrims came to America, they held Puritan beliefs, so Christmas was not celebrated in the New World from 1659-1681. Christmas did not come into mainstream American culture until 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant declared it a federal holiday. The Americans decided to reinvent Christmas as a family holiday of peace instead of the traditional riotous occasion. From that moment on, Christmas has evolved into a family-centric holiday focusing on giving to the less fortunate.

There are, however, other celebrations that occur in December aside from Christmas.

The Jewish observance of Hanukkah can fall anywhere between late November and early January and, in the Western world, has become an increasingly commercialized and recognized holiday, due to its occurrence close to Christmas.

Hanukkah was first celebrated in the second century B.C. in commemoration of the Maccabean Revolt and the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Also called the Festival of Lights, it commemorates the miracle in which the menorah candles of the Second Temple burned for eight days, even though there was only enough oil to keep the candles lit for a single night, hence the eight day celebration.

Foods served during Hanukkah are fried in oil, including latkes (or potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam filled donuts).

The menorah is nine branched to represent each of the eight days, with the ninth candle being used to light the others.

Three percent of Americans celebrate Hanukkah, making it the second most celebrated winter observance.

Two percent of Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, and though it is often mentioned in conjunction with Christmas and Hanukkah, its origins and celebrations are unique. The holiday is relatively new having been created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga in response to the racially-charged Watts riots the previous year.

Kwanzaa, which takes inspiration from celebrations of the Zulu and the Ashanti peoples, centers around seven principles that Karenga believed would help African Americans unite — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

On each night of Kwanzaa, one principle is discussed and one candle is lit on the kinara to represent that idea. Festivities include dancing, meals and storytelling, all centering around traditional African customs.

There are also seven symbols essential in the observance of Kwanzaa — crops (fruits and vegetables representing work), place mats (representing African history and culture), an ear of corn (representing fertility), the seven candles (which symbolizes the sun’s light), the kinara (symbol of ancestry), the unity cup (used in the libation ritual) and the gifts (which encourage success).

December may be known for Christmas, but Hanukkah and Kwanzaa provide a different take on universal themes — family, food and faith. Each of these three celebrations may be observed differently, but all are an opportunity for togetherness.

Story by Olivia Malick, UP staff writer

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