In the fourth century, Pope Julius I recognized there was no holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Since it is not stated when Jesus was born in the Bible, he declared Dec. 25 to be the day of the celebration.
Christmas was held at the same time as other winter solstice festivals and church leaders hoped it would increase the popularity of the holiday. During these times, Christmas was celebrated with a large party often resembling that of modern times Mardi Gras.
When the Puritans came to America, they abolished the Christmas practice and even fined people for celebrating. It was not until June 26, 1870 that Christmas became an official holiday in the United States.
In the 19th century Americans started to embrace the holiday. They changed the celebration into more of a peaceful family day. Parents started to spoil their children and the traditions of tree decorating, gift giving and sending out holiday cards ensued.
Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev which falls in either November or December on the American calendar and is often called the Festival of Lights.
Around 168 B.C. Judea, or the Land of Israel, came under power of a malicious leader who demanded the practice of the Jewish religion be stopped. He invaded the land, killing thousands of people and ruining the city’s holy Second Temple.
Juddah Maccabee led the revolution and overthrew the Syrians. Maccabee ordered that the Second Temple be reestablished and the Menorah lit. The Menorah is a gold candelabrum, with seven branches that represent knowledge and creation.
Those involved in the lighting were believed to have witnessed a miracle. There was only enough untainted oil to keep the candles burning for one day, but miraculously they burned for eight nights. This event inspired the eight day festival.
Today people celebrate Hanukkah by adding another candle to the Menorah for eight nights while blessings are recited. Foods cooked in oil, playing with dreidels and exchanging gifts have become part of the traditions as well.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of black studies at California State University, Long Beach. It takes place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.
Kwanzaa is based on African fruit harvest celebrations. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers to light one of the candles on the Kinara and discuss one of the seven principles.
The seven principles, called “Nguzo Saba,” reinforce community among African Americans and include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
There are also seven symbols. The Mkeka, or placemat, is the historical foundation the culture comes from. Nuts, fruits and vegetables are placed on the mat to symbolize work. An ear of corn represents the hopes for a family, so an ear of corn for each member of the family is placed on the mat as well.
Each candle is representative of the principle being discussed that particular evening, and the candleholder represents ancestry. Gifts are exchanged to encourage each of the seven principles. A unity cup is used for the libation process when ancestors are honored.