Winter Holidays with Your Ancestors

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

In the midst of our holiday preparations, I thought I would “regift” you with this post which first appeared in December 2009.

The advent of winter and the holiday season turns our thoughts to family, both our current family and our ancestral families whom we have discovered through our research. Their observance of the winter holidays may have differed significantly from our current observances. Let’s explore the history and observances of three of the major holidays, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa while we also think about our individual family traditions and how they might be passed on to our descendants.

Hanukkah, or Chanukah, is a festival that falls on the 25th day of the Hebrew  month of Kislev. Its history is ancient. In 168 B.C., Antiochus IV Epiphanes, King of Syria and overlord of Palestine, forbade the practice of Judaism. He rededicated the Temple of Jerusalem to the worship of Zeus. Judas Maccabee recaptured Jerusalem three years later, and a new altar was erected to replace the previous one, considered by the Jews to have been defiled. The rededication of the altar included eight days of celebration. It is said that only a one-day supply of undefiled oil was available with which to light the golden menorah in the Temple but, miraculously, that small amount burned for the entire eight days. Today Jewish families light a candle on each day of the Hanukkah observance until eight are burning in a menorah. The Hanukkah celebration also includes special foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts that are prepared to commemorate the miracle of the oil. Small gifts or money may be given to children on each of the eight nights and songs also play a part in the observance.

The observance of Christmas probably began in Rome about 336 A.D. Because the Christmas holiday had absorbed many elements of pagan religious beliefs, the Protestant Reformation, seeking to purge pagan practices, brought an end to its observance. Oliver Cromwell banned its celebration as did the Puritans in New England. Christmas, however, did not disappear. The Dutch brought gift-giving practices with them to New York in the early 1600s, and Christmas continued as an anticipated holiday event particularly in the American South. The often raucous celebrations disturbed many of the more sober-minded individuals; however, and efforts were undertaken to turn the holiday into a more family-oriented observance. Probably one of the first truly successful efforts to change the public’s perceptions of the holiday was Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem originally entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now known universally as “The Night Before Christmas.” Alabama (1836), and Louisiana and Arkansas (1838) were the first states to make Christmas a legal holiday. In 1841 a Philadelphia merchant, J. W. Parkinson, hired a man to dress in a “Criscringle” outfit and climb the chimney of his store. Thomas Nast’s illustrations for “The Night Before Christmas,” drawn in the mid-1860s, created the image of Santa Claus that has endured to the present day. There are many variations of Christmas observances depending upon one’s specific country of origin. Two web sites will provide you with information about how the holiday season is celebrated around the world. Holiday Traditions, by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, explains how fifty-one countries observe Christmas. Zuzu, a website that offers young people a place to publish stories and other creative efforts, includes brief essays by children on holiday experiences in their respective countries.

Kwanzaa is the newest winter celebration, occurring at approximately the same time as Hanukkah and Christmas. It was begun in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. His goal was to bring African-Americans together as a community following the 1965 Watts’ riots. Although each family may celebrate the holiday in a different way, the basic festival concept is derived from African “first fruit” celebrations, blending many different African harvest celebrations into one observance. The family is the focal point of Kwanzaa, with members participating in dancing or  storytelling in addition to a traditional meal. Kwanzaa lasts for seven nights and children light a candle each of the seven nights. Family members discuss a  different African culture-based principal (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith) each night. Nuts, fruits and vegetables symbolize Kwanzaa’s harvest festival-based origins. Other symbols of Kwanzaa include the place mat (history, culture and tradition), an ear of corn (fertility and, through one’s children, the future hopes of a family), seven candles (the sun’s power and the provision of light), the candleholder (our shared ancestry), the unity cup (promoting unity among family members and guests and honoring one’s ancestors) and gifts (encouraging growth, achievement, and success).

Our holiday traditions can evidence strong ties between ourselves and the previous generations of our families. During this holiday season, take an opportunity to talk with your family about your family’s traditions and where or with whom they might have originated. These traditions may include special foods, antique ornaments, holiday music or stories. You may want to write down stories told by the older members of your family – and your stories too – as well a list of the traditions you have identified together. A cookbook with special family recipes is a wonderful way to share traditions and can provide the perfect opportunity to include family stories and pictures among the recipes. You may also want to consider creating a scrapbook with pictures of past holidays, along with journal entries about the people and events shown in the pictures. Keeping the scrapbook updated each year will continue this tradition for future generations.

These holidays, often the only time during the year when an entire family is together, are also a time to establish new traditions. When my grandchildren were born, my husband began a tradition of reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” every Christmas Eve before their bedtime. Although the girls now claim that they’re getting “too old,” on Christmas Eve, they still enjoy this quiet time with our family while the story is told. I hope it is a tradition they will continue when they have families of their own.

The winter holidays are indeed a time for families to come together and honor the traditions of the past while they create new ones for the future. During all our celebrations, we will experience a direct link to our ancestors and their holiday traditions. Happy holidays to you all!

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