Ready: December is more than just Merry Christmas

Staff Writer
The Destin Log

When someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” please cut them a little slack. December has several days that are special to people of diverse cultures and faiths.

Last week, I wrote about the Christian tradition of Advent candles, so it’s only fair to mention Hanukkah beginning Sunday, Dec. 6 and ending Monday, Dec. 14. This is an important time for Jewish friends, and it wouldn’t hurt any of us to know something about the event when we wish them “Happy Hanukah.”

When I was a teacher at First Baptist Christian Academy (now Rocky Bayou Christian School), I taught my students about Hanukah, We sang the songs, played with dreidels, and learned about the history behind the holiday. We even ate some of the traditional foods associated with it, such as jelly filled donuts, latkes, and chocolate gelt.

Also called Chanukah, the celebration lasts for eight days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev and ending on the second day of Tevet from the Hebrew calendar. During Hanukkah, Jewish people remember their struggle for religious freedom.

Known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, it’s a time to venerate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire of the 2nd century BC.

Like Advent candles, the festival is observed by kindling the lights of the nine-branched menorah, lighting one candle on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. The typical menorah consists of eight branches with an additional, visually distinct branch. The extra light, from which the others are lit, is called a shamash (Hebrew: שמש‎, "attendant") and is given a distinct location, usually above or below the rest. Somehow that 9th candle reminds me of the center Advent candle, the symbol of the Servant Messiah.

The reason for the 8 candles (or electric lights) on a menorah has to do with a miracle occurring after the successful rebellion of the Maccabees family against the tyrant, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. According to the Talmud, the temple was purified, and the wicks of the menorah miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day's lighting. (God’s clever like that!)

My students loved the dreidels, four-sided spinning tops that children play with during Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an abbreviation for the Hebrew words נס גדול היה שם (Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "A great miracle happened there"), referring to the miracle of the oil.

There’s religious history behind that simple toy. Tradition has it that the dreidel game is played to commemorate a ruse devised by the Jews to camouflage the fact that they were studying Torah, which was outlawed by the Seleucids. The Jews would gather in caves to study, posting a lookout to alert the group to the presence of Seleucid soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the Jews would hide their scrolls and spin tops, so their oppressors thought they were gambling, not learning scripture.

But, wait, there’s more to the Happy Holidays month of December. Some religious, some not.

On the 8th is Bodhi Day or Pali (Buddhism) honoring the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama who experienced nirvana on this day after meditating under a tree.

Dec. 21, winter solstice, is Yule Day for Wiccas and Pagans.

Dec. 23 is Mewled un Nabil, celebrating the birthday of Muhammad. Sunni Muslims discourage celebrating any birthdays at all, especially Muhammad's because they believe that would deify him. But some Muslims, like Sufis, do honor his birthday.

Zarathosht Diso on the 26th is a day for honoring Prophet Zarathustra celebrated by Zoroastrians around the globe. Along with Hinduism, The Zoroastrian faith is one of the oldest faiths in the world,

Also on the 26th comes Boxing Day for British friends and Anglophiles. Traditionally, it’s a day when employers distribute money, food, clothing, or other valuable goods to their employees. I would guess one needs boxes for that.

Always on Dec. 26 is Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday celebrating history, culture, family, and community. Started in California in 1966, it’s celebrated primarily in the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean.

Focusing on values, culture and history, Kwanzaa encourages people to learn more about their roots and to focus upon the values of unity, self-determination, work, responsibility, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Like Advent candles and the menorah, Kwanzaa’s seven values are symbolized by an arrangement of seven candles, which also represents seven days of the holiday.

There are 13 separate holidays this month depending on your faith, culture, or social tradition.

So, Happy Holidays in December.

Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.