Monday, December 03, 2007

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, etc.

Well it is once again the time in America that we begin the cultural wars over the holidays that once brought times of celebration, joy and good will. When I was a kid living in a small Midwestern town, I didn't know about any holiday other than Christmas. I knew that not everyone that celebrated Christmas celebrated the birth of the Christ child. But everybody I knew still celebrated Christmas. Nobody was offended by a "Merry Christmas" and every retailer took full advantage of the season to make their year profitable. In my small world, everyone enjoyed the "Christmas" programs at the schools, the kids all looked forward to the "Christmas" break from school and there were no law suits over any decorations or infringement of somebody's rights.

As a young man, I spent a year in New Orleans at Tulane University. It was there that I had my first exposure to some of the Jewish holidays. Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) and Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) were two holy days (holidays) that came in the fall. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was at home and so I still hadn't learned anything about Hanukkah. We celebrated our Christmas much as we had always done--mostly the whole secular commercial version with occasional reminders that this is really about the birth of the Christ child.

Today I can tell you that Hanukkah is a celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple. You won't find the story in the Bible (unless you're using a Catholic version). It is found in the historical books of the Maccabees. (A side note about the Apocryphal books: don't dismiss these books just because they weren't a part of the canonized 66 books. They are still great reads with much history and insight and great lessons to teach.) When the Israelites went to re-dedicate the Temple, all of the oil for the lamps had been profaned. They found a single container--enough oil to light the eternal flame for a single day. Miraculously, the flame burned for eight days--the time it took to press and consecrate new oil!

It doesn't take a theologian to tell you that our Jewish friends don't celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Having worked in a retail jewelry store (Jewish owned) at Christmas time, I can tell you that business is business. Christian, Jewish or atheist--no good businessman is going to refuse your sale based on the holiday that you choose to celebrate. It would be a bit hypocritical to take offense on the one hand while raking in the cash with the other.

Chronologically, Hanukkah obviously predates Christmas. In fact, Christmas in December wasn't until the fourth century. Predating both of these religious celebrations are celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice. Many cultures have watched the sunlight fade and made their appeals to whatever gods they believed would answer their pleas and bring the sun back and lengthen the days. Large fires were set and many rituals performed to appeal to the gods. The origin of the Yule Log is from these celebrations. Evergreen boughs, wreaths and trees were symbols of life in the midst of the cold darkness of winter. (So for anybody that has said, "It's not a holiday tree, it's a Christmas tree!"--it is actually a holiday tree.)

And new to the winter festivals is Kwanzaa. This one doesn't have the long traditions attached to it that other winter celebrations have as it is only entering its fifth decade of existence. It was the brain child of Ron Karenga (changed from Everett) and began in 1966. It is a celebration of the African/American culture. I'm not sure if Karenga didn't get the Christmas celebration or really felt the need for a way for the African/American to celebrate their culture and history. (I thought February was Black History Month) He is quoted as having said, " was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."

I guess I never thought of Christmas as the practice of a dominant society.

Here in Southwest Missouri, we have already had our Christmas politics. On the campus of Missouri State University a Christmas tree went up, was taken down and went up again. You can read the story here.

For myself, I am most offended by everybody that wants everything to go their way. I am not offended when somebody wishes me "Happy Holidays." Why should I be? It's a good wish for me. I would not be offended by a "Happy Hanukkah," either. Again, why should I be? I don't know if "Happy Kwanzaa" is the appropriate wish, but I can think of no reason to take offense. I hope that others will not be offended by my "Merry Christmas." It really isn't meant to offend. The first wishes of Christmas were from angels and the tidings were for peace on Earth to men of good will. Comedian Brad Stine says, "Which part do you find offensive--the peace on Earth or the men of good will?"

I would encourage you to be everyone. Make your holiday wishes with sincerity and genuine love for your fellowman. Everybody gets to decide for themselves if they will be offended.

For me, Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child. It is an amazing story of love; a story of a promise fulfilled...but a story for another day.

Merry Christmas,


Amanda said...

I had not heard of Kwanzaa until I read your post. Interesting.

Good summary of the other festivals too.

Bilbo said...

Another great post, John! I loved the Brad Stine comment, and your penultimate paragraph is just about the same one I would have written - no one has ever improved on the Golden Rule. Let me be the first to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas. Bilbo.

MSU gal said...

Yes, thanks for pointing out Christmas in December has evolved.

I had a religion professor who presented material that many thelogians believe the Christ child was either born in the Spring or at Harvest time.

Various cultures chose December to celebrate in order to introduce Christianity to once-pagan winter rituals--but it is a great time of year to celebrate his birth!