Thursday, April 25, 2024

Many reasons for the season

| December 17, 2020 1:00 AM

The “Christmas season” is about a lot more than Christmas, even for Christians. Many December traditions have histories reaching back centuries before the birth of Christianity — some have been absorbed into the culture of Christmas itself.

Perhaps that’s why increasingly, Americans celebrate more than one in mish-mash fashion. I’ve known families whose December traditions include combinations of Christmas trees, menorahs and dreidels, ethnically diverse décor, or, in years when the dates coincide, Ramadan’s henna lanterns.

Sometimes that’s because family beliefs and histories include more than one religion or background. Sometimes it’s simply in memory of times lived among other cultures, or perhaps to honor a holiday guest.

Whatever the reason, it’s apropos of this melting pot nation.

Tomorrow is the last night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights. Hanukkah isn’t the “Jewish Christmas” (in terms of religion, Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur mean more), but celebrates a miracle that happened when a cherished temple was reclaimed from an invading army. The menorah tradition of lighting of candles, one for each night of Hanukkah, celebrates the story of a temple lamp which burned eight days despite containing only enough oil for one.

Perhaps the most widespread and oldest December tradition is the Christmas tree, given to us by the ancient Romans. Saturnalia not only started the decorated tree tradition, it also helped cement the timing.

Historians tell us Saturnalia began as a three-day festival to honor the god Saturn. Its centerpiece was an evergreen tree decorated with garlands. Romans also decorated their homes with greenery. Candles were lit. Much feasting and merrymaking.

More than simply a mythological god of agriculture, Saturn also represented plenty, wealth and renewal. In short, he was a big deal in ancient Roman lives. Saturnalia began on Dec. 17, and by the time the festival stretched to a week, it ended Dec. 24.

While early Christians celebrated Christmas on Jan. 6, in the fourth century conversion-focused Pope Julius officially moved the date to Dec. 25. That wasn’t just to discourage Saturnalia celebrations in Rome; the sun gods Attis of Phrygia (now Turkey) and Mithra of Persia (also celebrated in Rome) were celebrated Dec. 25. The Norse holiday Yule — from which several modern Christmas traditions derive — started Dec. 21.

All began before the birth of Christ, and many of their elements have been incorporated into what has become synonymous with Christmas celebration and symbols.

Why was the end of December such a popular time? It coincides with the winter solstice, signaling the seasonal change. The winter and summer solstices have been meaningful to nearly all known cultures throughout human history.

So whatever and however you’re celebrating, here’s a happy wish to you and yours.

Next Thursday: A brief trip down Christmas traditions lane.

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network whose home embraces multiple traditions. Contact her at