Why Do We Have So Many Winter Holidays


Amy Zucker Morgenstern
Reverend Amy Zucker Morgenstern
December 10, 2006
Palo Alto, CA

Happy Chalica, everybody!

Chalica is a newly invented holiday celebrated by some young UUs: youth and young adults. 1 For seven nights, each night they light the chalice and reflect on one of the seven principles. The activities for each day of the holiday correspond to the principle. For the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, you might give or read a book. Here at UUCPA, it would be a good day for a book group meeting. To respect the interdependent web of existence, you might start a compost pile. To challenge oneself to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the creators of Chalica suggest a positive interaction with someone you’ve had sharp disagreements with: send them an apology, or invite them to dinner.

Chalica coincides with a season in which our society celebrates many other festivals, and it adapts some of the practices of those festivals for itself. In these ways it is just like most of the holidays we celebrate in this congregation and in the US here in the dark of winter.

Kwanzaa celebrates the principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. While nowhere near the scale of Christmas or even New Year’s, it has caught on in an American population that badly needs to reclaim these strengths. It was created by an African-American activist, Ron Karenga, in his words, “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.” In many ways, of course, Kwanzaa does adapt those practices. It begins immediately after Christmas, not at some unrelated time — why not August, when holidays are scarce? Because it’s an alternative to the existing holiday. It involves the lighting of a candle on a candelabra for several consecutive days, though it’s called a kinara, not a menorah. And it’s become traditional to give gifts, especially to children, and even to send cards.

In fact, even though it was conceived as a pan-African holiday and the principles celebrated each night are called by Swahili names, there is nothing indigenously African about Kwanzaa. This is only to be expected. Most people of African origin living in America were forcibly cut off from their roots many generations ago. When one doesn’t even know what nation one’s family comes from, when people of all tribes and countries are thrown together and treated as one, and when records are nonexistent, one has to recreate culture with whatever is at hand. And as diaspora people have always done, African-Americans celebrate their origins through the forms that have become familiar to them in the new country.

Hanukah is a similar mix of old and new, ancient Judaism combined with contemporary celebrations taken from the dominant culture. Hanukah has never been an important holiday — it’s far less important than the three harvest festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, and if you’ve never even heard of one or two of those, you’re in good company with the vast majority of non-Jews and an awful lot of non-observant Jews as well. At those holidays one attends special worship services and observes restrictions such as one observes on the Sabbath and high Holidays. Hanukah carries no restrictions. Most Jewish holidays have special tractates of the Talmud devoted to them. Not so for Hanukah. The rabbis whose teachings became the Talmud were on the whole uneasy with the militarism of the Maccabees and the whole story, and so it remained a minor holiday for most of Jewish history.

So why is it such a big deal in America today? There’s little doubt it’s because of Christmas. It’s hard to be a minority religion in a country where the songs and symbols of the dominant religion take over public space for several weeks. It’s hard to be a kid where almost every other kid is getting a pile of gifts. Hanukah was conveniently around the same time as Christmas, which is why it was elevated in a way that Purim in March, say, or that obscure Shavuot, in June, was not.

One reason we celebrate is because others are celebrating.

And Christmas is no different. No serious scholar believes that the date of Jesus’ birth can actually be pinned down as December 25, nor any time in the winter for that matter. The origins of many Christmas celebrations are foggy. Some say the Christmas tree comes from an ancient Roman practice, some say it didn’t take hold until a couple hundred years ago. And some say it was an ancient Roman practice, but the Roman pagans got it from the new Christians, not the other way around. These things may prove impossible to trace, but we know one thing for sure: the new religion set the celebration of Jesus’s birth at a time of year when the practitioners of the local, dominant religion was already celebrating. Mid-to-late December was when Romans celebrated Saturnalia. As Seneca wrote, “It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business...” Sound familiar? It was the time of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, the Roman celebration of the sun god. It would be 14 more centuries before the poet John Donne would sing praises to the English language for providing the religiously significant pun of Sun, s-u-n, and Son, s-o-n. Early Christians didn’t have that wordplay available to them, but they knew a prime time of year when they saw it.

And Christmas was most likely timed to coincide with the ancient celebration of the winter Solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, Christmas is a summer holiday — but Christmas started in the northern hemisphere, where December is time neither for harvest nor planting, but for rest and renewal. A quiet time of year. When the light regains its strength and the sun once again begins to warm more of the day, at just about the same date the new religion chose as its birthday. When after months of increasing weakness, the god of light returns and begins to grow strong. A perfect day to welcome a helpless babe who will grow into the savior of humanity and be declared God Himself.

So anyone who celebrates that old time religion had better move over and make room for the Pagans. And even today’s Pagans are re-creating in new form the practices that they believe were once important to their ancestors, with little history to guide them because so many of these practices were prehistoric. There is nothing new about creating a new religion either on the foundations of an old one that has declined, or on one that is so dominant a juggernaut that the people who practice the new religion want to hitch a ride.

That’s one reason we have so many holidays at this time of year: because the holidays were already here. But why else? What are these holidays about? Can we remember?

Sometimes, even if we’re members of the dominant religion, we forget the real reasons we celebrate. I heard a story on the radio just this week that struck me as ironic, being that it came from the Bible Belt. South Carolina no longer has blue laws statewide, but many of its counties have these laws that prohibit businesses from operating during some or all of the day on Sundays. In many cases the rule is that they can open at 1 p.m. but not before, because people are supposed to be going to church. This year, many merchants in these counties are petitioning their local lawmakers to suspend the law for just one Sunday, because Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday. Apparently the day before Christmas is almost as big a shopping day as the day after Thanksgiving, and these merchants worry about what will happen to their revenues if people can’t shop that morning.

Now, I’m no fan of blue laws. I grew up observing one Sabbath (Saturday) and forced to observe another (Sunday): my family couldn’t do its retail shopping on Saturday because it was against our religion, and we couldn’t do it on Sunday because it was against the religion of the Connecticut Puritans of two hundred years earlier. The laws still implicitly said that Sunday was the most important day of the week, that the Christian Sabbath was the Sabbath. It wasn’t the worst hardship known in the history of religious persecution, but it was a major inconvenience. (My mom took us for most of our clothes shopping on weekday evenings, after she’d already worked a full day and gotten dinner on the table and the dishes washed up.) A pluralistic society allows people to honor their holy days in their own way, so I’d just as soon see the blue laws disappear and let stores close at whatever time they thought appropriate.

But the South Carolina merchants aren’t asking for a change so that their neighbors can more easily honor their God on their Sabbath of Friday or Saturday; the God they’re concerned about is Mammon. It seems a little ironic that these mostly Christian business owners are concerned that they’ll lose out on a morning’s business because people are going to church on Sunday morning on the eve of one of their holiest days. Maybe the Bible Belt is loosening at last, driven not by a concern for minority religions but for profit. As Tom Lehrer sang, “God rest ye merry merchants, may ye make the Yuletide pay … Angels we have heard on high tell us to go out and buy!” 2

But I don’t want to pick on a few Bible Belters. We’re all prone to forgetting the origins of our holidays as the bells, pop songs, parties, and presents, presents, and more presents accumulate on top of them. As wonderful as all those trappings are, they do begin to dominate to the point that we forget why we ever started. So at this time of year, when the celebrations of so many different traditions converge, we can use this convergence to remember why we are celebrating: because we are connected to the earth. Because we are connected to family, and friends, and strangers. Because we are grateful that whatever we honor as holy was born and lives on. Because in the darkness we want to remember the resurgence of light and joy. Because we want to remember the principles that anchor us in the religion we were born into, or chose, or both.

Chalica tickled me because it does these things so well. What it doesn’t have going for it is centuries of tradition. But neither did Christmas when it got going, or Hanukah when it became a major event in the contemporary US, or Kwanzaa, which is only a generation old--but now there are adults who have celebrated it all their lives. Traditions have to begin somewhere, and they usually begin with rituals adapted from the dominant culture. They also begin by meeting a need: a need to reconnect with other members of one’s religion, a need to remember the values that make that religion meaningful. That way they have some depth when they start. Whether they will develop the depth that only comes with centuries of celebration, with all the music, folklore, and cultural memory that give a tradition its richness, only time will tell.

And whether your family should begin lighting the chalice at Chalica is up to you. Maybe the holidays of the season already meet your needs for connection to each other, to your community, to the past, to the future, to the earth.

The important questions to ask about whatever celebrations we embrace is: do they deepen our spiritual lives or do they support the forces that make us forget what is most important? Something has gone wrong when the bottom line is more important than the holiness of the day, as in South Carolina, and when the reason for the season is to give the economy one last shot in the arm, as in everywhere across the country.

And something has gone very right when our celebrations recall to us our most passionate longings and our most treasured values. When they bring us together as families and communities. When they are times to gather the spirit and harvest the power. May all our holidays, ancient or brand-new, be so blessed.

1 Daylene Marshall, “Chalica — Unitarian Winter Holiday” (no date given), Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network and Campus Ministries (December 16, 2006).
2 “A Christmas Carol,” More of Tom Lehrer (Decca, 1959).



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