The Spirit of the Season!

December is here, so here comes the holiday season! Yes, it’s the most loved time of the year, when everything is painted red and green and sparkling with lights! It’s the season of joy, and what brings more joy than giving and receiving gifts? Especially for children, the best part about Christmas is getting gifts, so you can imagine how difficult it must be for those less fortunate little ones whose parents can’t afford gifts. We may not often stop to think about this, but one priest born circa 270 in Myra, which is present-day Turkey, certainly did. In fact, this priest, who went on to become a bishop, did more than just think – he acted.       --- Tanya

Nicholas of Bari, having lost both of his parents at a young age, spent his inheritance by helping the poor and secretly leaving gifts for children who otherwise wouldn’t get any on the eve of Christmas. Yes, this is where the legend of Santa Claus came from. Saint Nicholas, or Santa Nicholas, slowly became Santa Claus!

There are several stories about how the legend came about. One of the most famous is that of the man who couldn’t afford to pay the dowry for his three daughters, so Saint Nicholas dropped a bag of gold coins down the man’s chimney to stay anonymous. It just so happened that there were stockings hanging by the fireplace to dry and the bag of coins fell into them! The saint did this three times so that all three daughters could get married. Saint Nicholas continued to drop gifts through chimneys for those who needed them – especially during Christmas time – and the stories gradually spread far and wide. As they were told and retold, the saint’s name underwent several changes, slowly turning into ‘Santa Claus’, having completly lost ‘Nicholas’ in translation.

But it wasn’t until 1823 that the famous poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ was written, that the eight reindeer came into the picture, and were later popularised on the 1949 song, ‘Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer’. Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, and several other versions of Santa Claus eventually, over time, merged into the red and white suit wearing, white beard-sporting figure that we all know and love.

Most kids are heartbroken when they find out that Santa isn’t real but the truth is that he is! This Christmas, tell your kids the story of Saint Nicholas and how being generous and caring is magical in itself! We’re glad that the legend of Santa Claus became what it is today because, honestly, can you imagine Christmas without that deep ‘Ho Ho Ho’?

Another thing that we absolutely cannot imagine Christmas without is the decorated, sparkling Christmas tree in every home. We see Christmas trees everywhere now – in homes, stores, hotels, and churches; decorating the Christmas tree has gradually become a bonding tradition that families do together. However, it wasn’t always the same.

Evergreen trees have long been considered special and sacred. Long before the advent of Christianity, people in many European countries would hang evergreen boughs over their doors and windows, as they were believed to ward away evil. Centuries ago, the Winter Solstice was celebrated as people believed that it marked the day the sun god would start to regain his strength and summer would return. Evergreen trees were looked upon as a symbol of everlasting life and as a reminder that the fields would be green again and life would triumph over sickness and death. Decorating homes with boughs and branches from these trees gave hope and livened up the dullness of mid-winter.

The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today originally began around the 16th century in Germany, when some Christians decided to make the festival of Christmas even more special by bringing these trees into their homes and decorating them. One of the stories is that the well-known 16th century reformer Martin Luther was walking home one evening when he found himself awed by the sight of the twinkling stars amidst the evergreen trees. When he got home, he wanted to recreate this scene, so he decorated the tree in his living room with lighted candles.

Much later, it was the inventor Thomas Edison’s assistant who came up with the idea of Christmas lights, and we dare say that he recaptured the scene of the stars among the evergreens that Martin Luther was so taken up by pretty perfectly!

Selecting a Christmas tree and decorating it is a popular tradition for many families around the world. There are several types of evergreen trees to choose from, including the Balsam Fir, the Fraser Fir, the Douglas Fir, Grand Fir, Noble Fir, and Eastern White Pine. Here in India, however, most homes have artificial Christmas trees. It’s convenient because they come in all shapes and sizes, don’t damage the environment, and you can also use the same trees year after year! So if you haven’t done so already, now that December is here, we urge you to get your Christmas tree up and spend a lovely evening decorating it with your family!
Christmas is the most popular festival in December, and the holiday season is mostly considered to be the celebration of Thanksgiving (in the U.S.), Christmas, and New Year’s. But there are several other holidays that occur during this time. Hanukkah is often mistakenly known as the Jewish Christmas but is actually the festival that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish victory over the Greek-Syrian ruler, Antiochus in 165 BCE. The festival is celebrated for eight days and eight nights, and on each night a new candle is added to the menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum) and on the last night, all the candles are lit. In fact, it is similar to Diwali in the sence that it is called the Festival of Lights! Jewish families eat latkes, which are essentially potato pancakes, and play with the four-sided top known as a dreidel. Today, the oil laps have been replaced with candles.

Kwanzaa is another festival that is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 by African Americans. It is a secular festival that celebrates African culture. Created by Dr Maulana Karega in 1966, the festival was aimed at uniting and empowering the African American community, and has gained immense popularity ever since. Kwanzaa centres around seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The ‘seven’ theme is a big deal with this festival, as it also has seven symbols: crops, mat, candleholder, corn, unity cup, gifts, and the (you guessed it!) seven candles. It’s also celebrated for seven days and is spelled with seven letters!

Though not celebrated as much as some other festivals, Winter Solstice is the holiday of Yule, and marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. Las Posadas is a uniquely Hispanic festival that is celebrated from December 16 to 24 as way of bringing in Christmas. The festivities include a procession with candles and songs, as the day ends with parties, songs, piñatas, tamales, gifts, and prayer. The Chinese New Year is also celebrated during this time, and marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The 15-day celebration ends with the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated at night with a parade. This year, when you wish someone “Happy Holidays!”, you’ll know exactly what you’re saying!