A Brief History on the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Las Posadas, and Kwanza

Holly on wood 

Since time immemorial, the human race has sought to understand the rising of the sun, the falling of stars, and the cycle of life. The various cultures around the world responded to their environment. They created ways to understand and to pass on that understanding to their posterity. This included beliefs in one or in many gods. The religions and traditions we celebrate today in December and through the New Year are the culmination of many millennia of faithful believers. See how your knowledge stacks up with this brief history of five holiday traditions.


Winter Solstice: Celebrated December 21, 2019

One of the oldest winter celebrations in the world is Yule, also known as the Pagan observance of Winter Solstice when they celebrated the birth of a new solar year. The remnants of this ancient tradition began weaving itself into Christianity as early as 400 AD. The Christmas carol "Deck the Halls" is rife with yuletide tradition: 

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
'Tis the season to be jolly
Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
See the blazing yule before us
Strike the harp and join the chorus
Follow me in merry measure
While I tell of Yuletide treasure
Fast away, the old year passes
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses
Sing we joyous all together, oh
Heedless of the wind and weather


To celebrate, pagans would bless holly and decorate trees with them. The 'blazing yule' was begun by the Druids, who lit a log to banish evil spirits, light the darkness, and bring good luck for the year to come. With the harvest all gathered in Europe, winter became the perfect time for festivities. The wine and beer they had set aside to ferment were ready for drinking. Since most cattle were slaughtered to avoid winter feeding, there was plenty of meat available, too. The combination lent itself well to celebrating in “merry measure.”


HanukkahCelebrated on December 22-30, 2019

How exactly Hanukkah started is unknown. Most believe it began around 168 B.C. in the Land of Israel, during the occupation of a cruel Syrian king who sacrificed pigs in the Jew’s Second Temple and tried forcing his Israeli subjects into Paganism. By 165 B.C., the Israelites led a successful revolt, retaking their lands. Restoring their religious traditions was a priority. The temple was cleansed, the altar rebuilt, and the sacred menorah lit.

The oldest symbol of the Jewish faith is the menorah and represents knowledge and creation. Inside the holy sanctuary, it was to be kept lit from evening until morning. This candelabra is at the center of what is known as the “Hanukkah Miracle.” Those who participated in the rededication of the Second Temple believed they had witnessed a miracle.  They had enough untainted olive oil to burn for only a day, yet, the flames continued to flicker for eight nights, leaving them enough time to resupply. This event inspired a yearly eight-day celebration, also known as "The Festival of Lights." 


ChristmasCelebrated December 25

Before Christmas, Easter was the main holiday celebrated by Christians, and the birth of Jesus was not recognized. To reign in the influence of Paganism, early Church officials encouraged the faithful to remember Jesus during the Winter Solstice in the hope that the new holiday would become popular, and it did. By 800 A.D., the celebration of Christmas spread from Egypt in 432 A.D. to England in the 6th century and into Scandinavia by the end of the 8th century. 

By the Middle Ages, Paganism was a distant memory and Christmas was celebrated much like today's Mardi Gras, with Mass attendance, drinking, and carnivals. Modern-day festivities contain a mixture of all that came before: good food, family, friends, and a remembrance of their Savior's birth.


Las PosadasCelebrated December 16-25

Popular among many Hispanics, Las Posadas, meaning "lodging," is celebrated for nine days. Children reenact Mary and Joseph's journey in seeking shelter before the birth of Jesus. For over 400 years, the celebration, originating from Spain, is considered a necessary call to remembrance in the practice of their Christian faith. 

Each night, beginning on the 16th of December, individual families are designated to refuse the role-playing pilgrims. Finally, the weary travelers reach the assigned home set to accommodate them. At this dwelling, prayers are said, singing begins, and festive foods are shared, ending with a pinata shaped like a star. On the last night, Christmas Eve, everyone attends mass. 


KwanzaCelebrated December 26, 2019 – January 1, 2020

One of the newest December traditions was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at California State University. Dr. Karenga was profoundly saddened by the 1960 riots in Los Angeles and sought for a way to unite African Americans. Inspired by the traditions of several African tribes, he created Kwanza.

The origins of the word come from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," meaning "first fruits." For seven nights, families gather to sing songs, dance, listen to stories, eat a large traditional meal, and exchange gifts. Each evening, a candle is lit on the Kinara (a candle holder), and one of the seven principles (called the Nguzo Saba) is discussed. These are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.  



The rich diversity of these holiday traditions is a testament to the human desire to understand who they are and pass this knowledge to succeeding generations. Each celebration mentioned, and many that were not, are worthy of appreciation and respect for the good intentions for which they were created -to bring humanity into humankind. So, Happy Solstice, Hanukkah, Posada, Kwanza, and a Merry Christmas to all.

Contributed by Angelica Mecham