Happy Holidays! It’s the warm greeting used by many this month, but what does it really mean?
Of course, we are all familiar with Christmas on December 25, and Hanukah, which traditionally begins on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. But with an estimated 4,200 religions in the world, winter plays host to a wide array of holiday celebrations.
On December 18, the Gulfport Historical Society held a History of Christmas party where museum curator Daun Fletcher discussed the similarities Christmas has with ancient pagan celebrations.
“Samhain, or what we call Halloween, was the start of winter,” Fletcher said. “It was a time where it got very dark and cold and people knew they were in for a rough time. After Samhain, they knew it was all downhill from there so they tried to make it as fun as possible.”
Fletcher says the winter celebrations were ways of thanking the gods for a good year, or a way of apologizing to them for a bad year.
Massive bonfires were lit to brighten the long, cold nights. As the nights got longer, fires became more important for not only celebration, but for survival.
The winter solstice brought the longest night of the year and the biggest party.
“The winter solstice, or mid winter, was the biggest celebration. It meant, ‘We made it this far, we can keep going,’” Fletcher said.
According to Fletcher, this is where the tradition of the Yule log comes from and, another symbol of Christmas borrowed from pagan rituals – the Christmas tree.
Ancient people often put shiny material on trees surrounding bonfires that would reflect the fire and light up the trees, much like we do in our homes today.
Since ancient times, however, winter has been the time of many other traditions.
December 8 is known as Bodhi Day in the Buddhist religion. It is a day commemorating Buddha’s achievement of Nirvana, and is celebrated with additional meditation, kind acts and a traditional meal of tea and cake.
In much of the Slavic region of Europe, Christian faiths celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, which falls on December 6 (or December 19 for followers of the Orthodoxy).
On St. Nicholas’ Day, children are encouraged to leave their shoes by the window, and “good” children will awake to shoes filled with candy and small gifts.
In many Germanic regions, St. Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, the devilish companion. While St. Nick rewards well-behaved children, Krampus is said to snatch up “bad” children in a sack and chains and take them away to his lair.
But that’s not as scary as the Icelandic legend of Gryla, a giant that could detect children who misbehaved year-round. Come winter time, it was said Gryla would come out of her cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields and feast on children who did not behave.
While St. Nick, Krampus and Gryla stem from centuries of folklore – and the aparent need to bribe children into good behavior – Kwanza is a modern holiday established in 1967 to celebrate the western African heritage of many African Americans. Celebrations held between December 26 and January 1 focus on faith, unity and creativity and can include gift giving.
Kwanzaa ceremonies can include a wide range of activities including reading and discussing of African American texts, singing, drumming and lighting the Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles.
In 2015, December 23 and 28 (for Sunni and Shia, respectively), followers of Islam observe Mawlid. Mawlid, much like Christmas is to Christians, is a day celebrating the birth of the profit Muhammad. Since the Muslim calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar, the dates vary for this holiday between late November and early January.
Every Muslim country has their own celebrations for Mawlid, but some ways of spending the day can include fasting, decorating homes and mosques, feeding the poor, reading stories of Muhammad and celebrating with a large Carnival-like parade.
In the midst of all the religious celebrations, however, one “holiday” sticks out from the rest. It’s a secular celebration that can include all creeds and nationalities – a holiday “for the rest of us” – Festivus.
Originally made popular by the sitcom Seinfeld, Festivus was invented by scriptwriter Dan O’Keefe and his family and annually takes place on December 23.
Festivus traditions included the Festivus meal, “Feats of Strength” and the “Airing of Grievances,” when family members sit around the table and explain the ways they have been disappointed by each other in the past year.
But no Festivus celebration would be complete without the Festivus pole. The aluminum pole is left undecorated, a nod to Festivus’ anti-consumerism principals.
One St. Petersburg resident, who goes only be E.Z. the Sign Guy, proudly displays his Festivus pole in his front yard on 49th Street.
“We always put something different out front,” E.Z. said. “People honk and stop by to take pictures.”
E.Z. says he is not religious, so Festivus is a fiting holiday. And, E.Z. says, people have been “airing our grievances around the diner table for years.”
Yet another winter tradition, especially in the Commonwealth Nations is Boxing Day on December 26, sometimes called “second Christmas.”
Boxing Day was traditionally a time to give servants and others who worked on Christmas, boxes of gifts, money and leftover food to take home to their families. Today, it is celebrated much like Black Friday with sales and shopping.
Winter has always been a festive time, full of diversity and tradition. We may celebrate for different reasons, but whether it be in the name of God, Muhammad, Buddha, Santa or Seinfeld – this time of year, everyone has a good reason for a party.