Over the years, I have been party to a variety of winter-based holiday celebrations. These include Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice. While I’ve taken part in many others, these are the four I feel qualified to talk about.
My family’s diverse background when it comes to religion has given me a great deal of insight into the nature of different holiday traditions. These include a Buddhist aunt, a rarely talked about Jewish heritage, a bunch of Mormon second-cousins, a slew of protestant aunts and uncles with the odd Catholic thrown in for flavor, a Neo-Pagan father, and of course myself, the lone atheist of the family. This has lead to all sorts of odd mishmashes of holiday tradition.
First up on the plate is the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. It also happens to be the holiday I have the least experience with. I didn’t learn of my Jewish heritage until later on in life, as such Hanukkah doesn’t really have as many fondly associated memories for me. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, especially considering Olympia’s less than friendly view of Jews. Nor is it a particularly major holiday within Judaism. However, it does have a unique and storied history.
Most everyone knows the mythology of the oil that lasted eight days, but Hanukkah’s true origins are a bit more complex. In approximately 200 BC the land of Judea (modern day Israel) changed hands from the Egyptian Ptolemaic empire to the Syrian Seleucid empire. The famed Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services were stopped, effectively outlawing Judaism. After several years of turmoil and rebellion, the Jews finally overthrew their Syrian monarchs and liberated themselves and the Second Temple. Hanukkah is a celebration of this, with most historians believing the myth of the oil being established much later.
Despite being a relatively minor holiday within the Jewish faith, Hanukkah is still a celebration of perseverance and liberation from oppression, which are understandably common themes in most Jewish holy rituals. The most relaxed and low-key of all winter holidays I have been a part of, it still holds a special place for me nonetheless. In the hubbub of the holiday season, eight nights of singing, reflection, and fried food are more than welcome.
Next up is Yule. While I can’t speak to its history or how Yule is usually celebrated, I can recount my memories of it being celebrated by my father. His standard practice for the past few years has been to celebrate it on Winter Solstice with a small group of friends and family.
Rituals include lighting candles and fires in a secluded spot in the woods, bringing out noise makers, and of course copious amounts of wine. While being surrounded by slightly tipsy people beating drums in the middle of a forest is, to say the least, profoundly awkward, it’s still a nice little tradition in its own right. There’s something wonderfully primal about making as much noise and light as you can to try to beat back the dark on the longest night of the year.
Of course, we can’t forget about Christmas. I mean literally, we cannot forget about Christmas. It is everywhere. But to be honest, I don’t really mind it that much. I’ve been a part of religious celebrations of Christmas and waking up before the sun is out to wander bleary-eyed into a church and sit for what feels like hours isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. But I’ve also embraced the idea of Christmas being a secular holiday. I love the smell of pine, the fun of baking cookies or decorating a tree. Considering the various traditions of trees, feasting, gift giving, wreaths, and almost everything else we associate with Christmas (including its date) are carry-overs from other, older winter celebrations, the idea of Christmas being something of a cultural catch-all isn’t really all that far-fetched. Which brings me to the final holiday I celebrate.
Winter Solstice. Arguably the be-all end-all of winter holidays. My own favorite. It has been celebrated since the neolithic era, and it’s understandable why. It’s the longest night of the year, a day when we have historically gathered together for food, company, and comfort. All across the northern hemisphere, dozens of cultures have formed their own rituals coinciding with this time. The East Asian Dongzhi Festival, the ancient Greek and Roman Saturnalia, the Indian Makara Sankranti, the Hopi Soyal, and many, many more all coincide with one another. Despite all their different traditions, this time of year has a way of bringing people together. It’s one of the largest shared cultural traditions humanity has to offer, and no matter how each celebration has evolved over the years, it all stems from the same basic needs that we all share. The need for comfort, for solace, for hope that our troubles will come to an end. The desire for kinship and company, for a sense of belonging.