Wrapped up in history

It’s that time of year again. Traditionally, it’s been the season when people take their children to visit plump men who get paid to sit in comfy chairs all day and continue the charade of Santa Claus. Going back even further, in other cultures, for example, it’s the season when Jewish children are encouraged to make wagers with coins or candy in a game of dreidel. And it also has become the season when African-Americans celebrate family, community and culture without reference to religion.

According to the History Channel’s Web site, 98 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. For some, the traditions and celebrations associated with these holidays are a given, though history reminds us of a time when they were unknowns.

Hanukkah Dec. 20 — 27
(first candle is lit at sundown Dec. 19)

Hanukkah dates back to 165 B.C. when Jews reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem from Hellenist Syrians. When they won the temple back after three years of fighting, the Maccabees, or army, restored it and celebrated its restoration with a dedication ceremony. During the ceremony, they found that there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. In what is called a miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, which provided them the time needed to seek out new oil to keep it lit. The custom of lighting the menorah every night during Hanukkah is representative of dedication.

“The significance of the menorah can be broken up into two ideas,” said Nicky Spivak, executive director of Hillel Jewish Student Center at USF. “One is symbolic of the miracle that occurred, and the other of the whole idea of rededication.”

The ritual begins by placing the candles in the menorah from right to left. Each night, the candles are lit from left to right using the Shamash, or servant candle. Each night blessings are spoken before the candle lighting, which symbolizes the greatness and growth of the miracle of the original Hanukkah.

Another Hanukkah tradition mentioned earlier is the dreidel, a four-sided spinning-top engraved with Hebrew letters that, when interpreted in America or anywhere outside of Israel, stand for “A Great Miracle Happened There.” Before the reclamation of the temple, Jews who were caught practicing their religion would be executed. Jews who would gather to study the Torah originally used the dreidel game to trick soldiers. When they were in danger of being discovered by a soldier, they would hide their holy scriptures and pretend they were playing a game of dreidel.

“(The dreidel) is now used during Hanukkah to get children involved,” said Spivak. “The Hebrew letters on the dreidel sort of tell the story. By being able to teach children what the letters on the dreidel stand for, besides how to play the game, helps teach the story in a fun way.”

Christmas Dec. 25

Easter was the main holiday for Christianity until the fourth century, when church officials decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus in addition to his rebirth. Though the Bible does not give a date of birth for Jesus, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25.

According to the History Channel’s Web site, many believe that this date was chosen “in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival,” a holiday honoring the god of agriculture, Saturn. By declaring the holiday during a time of year when festivals were already popular, church officials had almost complete assurance that the holiday, first known as the Feast of the Nativity, would be embraced. The only downfall would be that they would have less control as to how it was celebrated.

Early Christmas celebrations were similar to today’s Mardi Gras or Gasparilla. After attending church, Christians would party in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere, and crown some beggar the “lord of misrule.”

“People had a problem with the early celebrations in the case that it left the impression that (Christians) agreed with Pagan holidays,” said Lynn Stringfellow, campus minister for the Bay Area Church of Christ, a USF student organization.

The celebrations had spread throughout Europe by the end of eighth century, altered by each region through adoptions of their own beliefs and customs. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that Christmas was questioned by political authority. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces conquered England with an oath to rid it of decadence, which included canceling Christmas. The holiday returned when Charles II was restored to the throne. But across the Atlantic, it would face more scrutiny in years to come. The Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, were even more Puritanic than Cromwell. In many parts of early America the holiday was banned, including in Boston, where showing Christmas spirit between 1659 and 1681 would cost you five shillings.

December 25, 1789, was the first Christmas under America’s new constitution. Yet it wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was declared a national holiday in the United States. It took even longer for Americans to really embrace the holiday.

“(Americans) were going to be reluctant to accept any change coming from (England) because that’s what they escaped from,” Stringfellow said. “Anyhow, (Americans) take a long time to transfer anything.”

When Americans accepted Christmas they converted it from the raucous carnival holiday that is was into a family day for peace and nostalgia. The reasons behind their newfound adoration of the holiday are rooted in a time of class conflict, turmoil, high unemployment and gang rioting, which eventually resulted in New York City’s first police force to deal with a Christmas riot in 1828.

Books such as Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, a compilation of stories about celebrating Christmas in an English manor house, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which delivered the message of the importance of charity and good will toward all humankind, supported the “new” Christmas. According to the History Channel’s Web site, other contributing factors included a decrease in family discipline and an increase in sensitivity toward children’s emotional needs.

Today, Christmas in America is a hodgepodge of different traditions and cultures that have grown to include Christmas trees, cards and gifts.

December 26 — January 1

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by the chairman of Black Studies at California State University who had been searching for ways to bring African-Americans together as a community after the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Maulana Karenga formed Kwanzaa after researching African “first fruit” celebrations and combining different aspects of his findings.

“Kwanzaa, in itself, is historically a celebration of families,” said Cheriese Edwards, academic support services coordinator for USF’s Institute on Black Life. “In African traditions, families got together and shared. (Kwanzaa) is about fellowship and getting back to the basics.”

Kwanzaa is similar to Hanukkah in the aspects that they are both multi-day celebrations and both involve the lighting of candles. The Kwanzaa counterpart for the menorah is the Kinara, which is lit by a child among family and followed by a discussion of one of seven principles, called the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili). The principles, which include unity, self-determination and cooperative economics, stand for values of African culture that promote and reinforce the construction of community among African-Americans.

In addition to the seven principles, there are seven symbols that represent values and concepts important to African culture. The symbols are brought together on Dec. 31 for a feast known as Karamu. The seven symbols of Kwanzaa are: Mazao (fruits, nuts and vegetables), Mkeka (place mat), Vibunzi (ear of corn), Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles), Kinara, Kikombe Cha Umoja (the unity cup), and Zawadi (gifts).

Gift giving during all three holidays

One theme concurrent with each of the holidays is gift-giving. For Christmas and Kwanzaa it is done on one day, while some Jewish children get eight days of gifts for Hanukkah.

Gift-giving for Christmas started similar to theories of the origins of the Halloween pastime trick-or-treating. During rambunctious celebrations, the poor demanded to be given the best food and drink from the rich. If they were given no treats, tricks were almost assured, and according to the History Channel’s Web site, Christmas eventually became the time when the upper class repaid “real or imagined ‘debt’ to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.” Later, under American’s “new” adoption of Christmas, it became a day that it was OK to spoil their children.

Spoiling children is far from the original reason to give gifts for Kwanzaa, where gifts are given to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement and success. Gifts are exchanged with members of immediate family and guests during the celebration of Imani, and are meant to promote or reward accomplishments and commitments kept. The gifts all stand for a promise, and accepting the gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill this promise. Handmade gifts are encouraged during the celebration to avoid chaotic holiday shopping and conspicuous consumption.

“Instead of going out to buy gifts, you share what you’ve grown and what you’ve made,” Edwards said. “Of course it’s getting commercialized, but when it was first founded it was about getting away from the commercialization.”

The significance of gifts during Hanukkah is less defined. Spivak said part of Judaism is that different customs are used as a way to get children interested and involved with different holidays.

“For Hanukkah, it happens to be gifts. There’s no religious reason why gifts are given,” said Spivak. “Traditionally, people would give money but because of the time of the year and society it’s become a giving of gifts.”

This holiday, whether it is to buy gifts, food or flowers, people are expected to flock to the stores and as a group (and) spend more than $217 billion, an estimate made by the National Retail Federation’s 2003 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey. The same survey predicts that the average consumer plans to spend $671.89 this season to be divided up as so: $518.44 on gifts, $34.18 on decorations, $25.79 on greeting cards and postage, $79.42 on candy and food, and $14.06 on flowers. An additional $146.69 will be spent this year by more than half of consumers who plan to take advantage of sales and promotional items to purchase non-gift items for themselves.