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What You didn't Know about popular winter holiday celebrations

George Maragos | Interrobang | Lifestyles | December 11th, 2017

It’s the most magical time of the year. The holiday season is steeped with tradition across cultures and throughout history. There may be some things people don’t know, as well as some interesting similarities to celebrations throughout the world.


People go out and buy gifts, and children hope not to have made Santa’s naughty list. It takes the innocence of a child to believe a mysterious man riding a fl ying sleigh with magic reindeers delivers gifts. Many relate Christmas with Santa Clause, though the origins of this holiday, like many celebrations around the world, began with religious roots.

On Dec. 25, Christians remember the birthday of Jesus. However, the date is mentioned nowhere in the Bible. It is speculated he was actually born sometime in the spring.

The date was chosen by the Ancient Romans to coincide with other traditions going on during that time. The name Christmas came from “Mass of Christ”, or church service where Christians remember Jesus died and rose from the grave. The practice of gift giving is to resemble the gifts given to Jesus by the three wise men. Christmas is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on Jan. 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, during the Epiphany (or manifestation in Greek); when it was revealed that Jesus was G-d.

The name Santa Clause came from a Christian bishop St. Nicholas, from what is now modern day Turkey; who in the fourth century inherited great wealth and gave it away to help the needy. St. Nicholas became Sint Nikolaas, and Sinterklaas, before finally becoming Santa Clause.

To learn more interesting facts you didn’t know about Christmas check out


This holiday is celebrated for eight days, this year Dec. 12 to 19. The Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles so the dates of Hanukah change.

Hanukkah commemorates the liberation of the Jewish Holy Temple from the hands of Syrian-Greek oppressors.

In the temple a menorah was found, but there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Miraculously the light burned for eight days.

Called the festival of lights; Menorah lighting is at the heart of the festival. The shamesh candle is used to light the other candles from right to left, one candle each night.

The classic Hanukah game dreidel originated during the time of Jewish oppression, when it was outlawed to practice Torah (the Jewish holy book). Children would spin a dreidel with four letters on each side representing an acronym in Hebrew for, “a great miracle happened here,” referring to the miracle of the light; it also stood for the rules of the game: none, half, all, and put (or give), representing what to do if it lands on that side. The game is played for a pot of nuts, coins, or candy, until one person has everything. Children would play this game to study Torah, if caught they would pretend to be gambling.

There is a tradition of gift giving that originated as giving gelt (money) to children. Gelt is used to reward good behavior, studying Torah, and gives children the opportunity to practice charity.

For more interesting information on the origins of Hanukkah check out


Known as a celebration of family, community, and culture; Kwanzaa was created by African Studies professor Dr. Maulana Karenga, celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

This holiday focuses on the Nguzo Saba; The Seven Principles: Unity (Umoja), Self-Determination (Kujichagulia), Collective Work and Responsibility (Umija), Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa), Purpose (Nia), Creativity (Kuumba), and Faith (Imani).

Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili saying “matunda ya kwanza” meaning, fi rst fruits. First fruit celebrations are common in African countries.

The greetings you offer someone during Kwanza are spoken in Swahili. “Habari gani?” means, “What’s the news?” and the answer would be the principle that that day represents. “Umoja,” would be the answer for the fi rst day.

Gifts called zawadi are given to children; usually books, emphasizing the tradition and value of education.

There are seven candles put into the kinara (candle holder) which is placed on a mkekka (mat). The candles are called mishumaa saba, are black, red, and green and represent each of the Nguzo Saba. The center candle is the only black candle with red candles on the left and green candles on the right. The candle lighting procedure is to begin in the center and light it left to right, one candle each night. This represents the people (black) that struggle (red) and the hope that comes from it (green).

The last day of Kwanzaa, the fi rst day of the year called Siku ya Taamuli, The Day of Meditation; is to be used as a day of remembrance and assessment of the past year.

For details on organizing your own Kwanzaa celebration check out


For the family that doesn’t have a religious or cultural tradition to follow during the holidays; Festivus is for the rest of us. In the fi nale season of Seinfeld, in an episode titled The Strike, lays the origin of this peculiar holiday.

Festivus was inspired while Christmas shopping; Seinfeld’s friend’s father reached for a toy, as did another man, and they began fi ghting over the toy. Realizing there must be another way, a new holiday was born.

At Festivus dinner it’s customary to have The Airing of Grievances; families complain about everything that’s bothered them over the year.

Instead of a tree or decorations, an aluminum pole is erected. The pole is in opposition to decorative ornaments and ceremonial artifacts.

Festivus miracles, a satirical rebuff of Christmas miracles, are easily explainable events declared to be miracles to make the most mundane coincidences seem special.

The head of household tests their strength during a wrestling match called The Feats of Strength. Festivus is not over until the head of the household is pinned. Wrestling can be substituted for arm or thumb wrestling.

To find out more about the origins of Festivus watch the episode that started it all, and check out

Dongzhi (Winter Solstice Festival)

The Chinese celebrate the change of seasons during the Winter Solstice much in the same way other cultures celebrate the holidays during this time; with food, family, and friends.

In the history of China many people froze to death in the harsh winters so tang yuan, glutinous rice balls, are eaten in remembrance of these times, and to symbolize family and unity.

Dongzhi is celebrated on the shortest day and longest night of the year, which falls on December 22nd. On this day, from the perspective of the Chinese with the theory of Yin and Yang; Yin is at its peak. Acknowledging that each day after the solstice will get longer this day is considered to be a lucky day to celebrate.

There is an idea that after fi nishing the winter solstice dinner that you will be one year older, a concept called tiansui. This is considered the Little New Year’s Day, as it occurs only six weeks before the Chinese New Year.

During the days of the Chinese dynasty the Winter Solstice was a day of worship and sacrifi ce to G-d, as well as to ancestors, people would also show respect to their parents and elders.

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