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Month: December 2018

Christmas is celebrated by people all around the world, in many different ways, and for some countries, the celebrations go beyond the one day. At various times throughout history the celebration of Christmas was banned due to its religious aspects, and in some countries, it is still forbidden. In England during 1644-1660 Oliver Cromwell put a stop to the observance of the day, and in America, the holiday was prohibited between 1659-1681. Christmas didn’t become an official holiday in America until 1870.

As the years have progressed the celebration of Christmas has become more secular and commercial, with the focus turning from the birth of Jesus to exchanging hordes of presents, decorating homes, eating candy canes and kissing under the mistletoe. And of course, we can’t forget the excitement of waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus. It may come as a surprise that many of today’s tried and true Christmas traditions have religious beginnings.

Santa Claus, Stockings, and Giving of Gifts

Santa Claus and his home in the North Pole are two Christmas staples. But who was Santa Claus? Where did he come from? The Santa Claus that is known and loved by many throughout the world is based on a bishop, Saint Nicholas, who lived during the 4th century.

Saint Nicholas lived in a city named Myra, which is part of modern-day Turkey, and he was known for his giving and generous heart. There are many stories told about him, one of the most famous ones is about a poor man with three daughters which explains where did stockings come from. The father had no money for the dowries for his daughters, resulting in little hope for them to ever get married.  It is believed that Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney, and the bag fell into one of the daughter’s stockings that had been hung beside the fire to dry. Thus the tradition of hanging stockings beside the fireplace was born! From then on, whenever someone received a surprise gift, it was always assumed that Saint Nicholas had given it.

By the 1500s Saint Nicholas’ popularity began to wane, and for a time people tried to come up with other gift-givers, but nothing ever quite stuck. Eventually, different names began to be invented for the Saint. In the United Kingdom he became Father Christmas, in France Père Nöel, in other countries Christkind, and in early America, he was given the name of Kris Kringle which was an adaption from Christkind. For the Dutch settlers who came to America, they called him Sinterklaas, which gradually developed into today’s well-known name of Santa Claus.

In the 19th century, several writers helped to develop the story of Santa Claus. Washington Irving, the famed author of the Headless Horseman, first depicted Santa Claus as flying in the sky, but not in a sleigh, he wrote him flying in a wagon. Dr. Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem became famous and is now better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “The Night Before Christmas.” This was the first appearance of Santa riding on a present-filled sleigh, and pulled by eight named reindeer.

Thomas Nast, a popular political cartoonist of the 1800s, first drew his version of Santa Claus in 1863. During 1879 to 1886 Nast drew Santa four times, depicting him living at the North Pole. It is believed that this is the first appearance of Santa having a North Pole residence. It wasn’t though until the 1880’s that he drew a picture of Santa Claus as a smiling, white-bearded, chubby old man, dressed in red long johns. Over the years the image of Nast’s jolly Santa became more and more popular in the United Kingdom and America, and it has become the staple for both countries.


Mistletoe is a common decoration during the holiday season, as is kissing beneath it. The use of mistletoe began thousands of years ago with the Druids, but they did not kiss beneath it. Instead, they believed that it contained powers that could keep away evil and bring luck, so they used it to decorate their homes.

In Norse Mythology mistletoe represented love and friendship, and the act of kissing beneath it began in England, where a berry would be picked each time a kiss was given. Once there were no more berries, the kissing would come to an end.

Mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxon words ‘mistel’ and ‘tan’, which can be translated to ‘poo on a stick’ because ‘mistel’ means dung and ‘tan’ means twig. Who wants a kiss?

The Christmas Tree

For thousands of years, evergreen trees have been used as decoration during the winter months, to help keep in mind that spring would soon be arriving. For Christians, the evergreen represented God’s everlasting life. When the trees were first used as a Christmas decoration is not entirely known. There are many different stories and speculations.

A woodcut engraving appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, titled “Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.” It showcased the beloved and popular Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert standing with their family around a decorated Christmas tree, with gifts piled beneath it. From then on having a tree at Christmas time became a recurring tradition throughout the country.

In 1850 the original woodcut was slightly revamped before it was published in the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book; the Queen’s crown was removed as well as the Prince’s sash to make them look less like royals, and thus the Christmas tree tradition had arrived in America. A few years later, in 1856, the first Christmas tree appeared in the White House.

Candy Canes

The origins of the minty, hook-shaped and striped candy are not entirely known. There are only legends and theories. One of these legends takes place in Germany in the 1670s, where white sugar stick candy was supposedly given to choirboys to help keep them quiet during the Christmas ceremony.

The hooked shape was later added to represent the shepherd’s’ staff. The well-known stripes on the candy canes didn’t begin until the 1900s when the staple red was first introduced, as well as the famed peppermint flavor.

Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night, occurs every December. The date for the Winter Solstice varies from the 20th to the 23rd. The 21st and the 22nd being the two most common dates. 1903 was the last time that the Winter Solstice occurred on the 23rd, and it won’t happen again until 2303. It will not be occurring on the 20th until 2080. The reason for the different dates is due to the rotation of the earth, and the location of the setting and the rising sun. Also the fact that the Gregorian calendar which has 365 to 366 days each year is different from the Tropical year which consists of 365.242199 days. A Tropical Year is the length of time that the sun takes to return to the exact same spot that it was at a year ago.

While the Northern Hemisphere of the world welcomes the first real day of winter, the Southern Hemisphere will be welcoming the first day of summer. 2018’s Winter Solstice is unique due to the fact that there will be an almost full moon. A true full moon will not occur on the night of Winter Solstice until 2094.

Winter Solstice Traditions and Celebrations

The Winter Solstice is celebrated around the world in many different ways, and some of these rituals have been celebrated for centuries.

In Ireland, people gather around the Newgrange monument in Boyne Valley. The over 5,000-year-old stone monument consists of a 62-foot passageway that connects to a chamber. When the sun rises on the Winter Solstice the room fills with light. Every year people enter a lottery to be picked to stand in the room. In 2017 32,500 people entered the lottery, and only 60 were chosen to enter.

A tradition in Japan is a dip in a hot bath, filled with citrus fruits called yuzu. Even local zoos have started to place the fruits in the water that macaques, hippos and capybaras soak in.

Wiltshire, England is the home of Stonehenge and is one of the most popular places to welcome in the first day of winter. No one knows for certain why Stonehenge was built. One of the theories is that it was used as a temple to worship the sun because the stones are situated so perfectly that the sun shines through them as it rises and sets. Every year thousands of people, many of them druids and pagans, gather at Stonehenge on Winter Solstice.

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means “sun,” and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning “to make stand.” Although “winter” has already begun in parts of the country, officially it begins on the winter solstice.  Keep warm and enjoy the holiday season whether you are experiencing a true winter or in sunnier states like Florida. Happy Winter!



Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated for eight days and eight nights. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication. Although most commonly observed in December, it has a few times taken place in November, even coinciding with the Thanksgiving holiday. This year it will begin on the evening of December 2nd and will finish on the evening of December 10th.

The History of Hanukkah

In 200 B.C. Antiochus III, the king of Syria took over Judea, and under his rule, the people were given the freedom to continue their religious practices. It wasn’t until his son Antiochus IV took over that things began to change. The Jewish religion was banned, and the Jewish people were forced to worship Greek Gods. His soldiers attacked Jerusalem in 168 B.C.; they destroyed the city, killing many. The city’s Second Temple was desecrated by them building an altar to Zeus, and making big sacrifices. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, started an uprising with his five sons. The rebellion grew in number, and by 166 B.C. the Syrians were eventually defeated. The Second Temple was cleansed, the altar was rebuilt, and the menorah was lit. At first, it appeared that there was only enough oil for the candles to burn for one night, but the candles managed to burn for eight days and nights, giving them a chance to make more oil. From this wondrous miracle, the celebration of Hanukkah was born.

Hanukkah Traditions

The lighting of the menorah is the most significant part of the holiday. There are nine candles, the shamash (which means attendant) is used to light the other eight. Each night a candle is lit until by the eighth night all of the candles are lit. This is done to honor the miracle that took place in Jerusalem all those years ago.

It varies from house to house who lights the menorah; some even have a menorah for each member of their family. The menorah is generally placed in either a doorway or a window, and is lit most often after sunset, and will burn for thirty minutes. A blessing is recited before the menorah is lit and afterward hymns are sung.

Another way that the oil miracle is honored is by partaking of foods that are fried in oil. Latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganya (jelly-filled donuts) are two of the most common foods that are eaten during Hanukkah.

The Dreidel

A game with a dreidel is commonly played. A dreidel is a spinning top that has four sides, with Hebrew letters on each side. The four letters make up an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “nes gadol hayah sham” which translates as “a great miracle happened there.” The game consists of playing for a variety of items: coins, chocolate coins, and nuts. These items are divvied out equally to each player. Each player places one of their items into the pot, and the game begins. When the dreidel is spun and lands on a specific side, the spinner of the dreidel will either win one of the items, all of the items, or have to add an item to the pot. Once a player loses all of their items they are out of the game. When there is only a single player left, the game is over.

Hanukkah is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday, therefore, is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath, often Saturday.  Families go to work and school as usual but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall.  Many families exchange gifts each night, such as books or games, and “Hanukkah Gelt” is often given to children. However you celebrate, we wish you a joyous Hanukkah with your loved ones. 


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