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Holiday snapshot: Christmas and Hanukkah

Christmas

In 1870, Christmas was declared a U.S. federal holiday joining over thirteen other secular holidays celebrated in December. For two millennia, Christmas had been celebrated worldwide around the sacred event of Christ’s birth and the commercialization of gift exchanges and holiday parties.   It wasn’t until the 19th century that most Americans began celebrating Christmas.

cmas In the middle ages, Christmas celebrations were boisterous and rambunctious, like today’s Mardi Gras celebrations.

In 1828, an American minister to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, brought back a red and green plant that became known as the poinsettia and it ultimately became the trademark plant for Christmas.

On June 26, 1870, Christmas was officially declared a federal holiday in the United States and began to take on more traditional family values.

Since the 1890s, the Salvation Army has been staging store-front collections around this season of giving.

In 1939, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer became the musical tradition of the commercial holiday season but was originally written as a marketing jingle for the Montgomery Ward Department Stores.  

Irving Berlin honed in on the family values of Christmas by writing “White Christmas” in 1942, which was made famous all over the world by Bing Crosby’s smooth vocals.

In the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is known as Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is believed to be the day that the three wise men found Jesus in the manger.  

Hanukkah

Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which places the celebration in November or December. Also, called the “Festival of Lights,” the holiday is celebrated with gifts, games, traditional celebrations, family gatherings and the lighting of the menorah.

Hanukkah, also called Chanukah, memorializes the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem when it was reported that the Jews had revolted against their Greek-Syrian oppressors during the second century B.C.

The nightly menorah lighting is at the heart of the Hanukkah celebration. The menorah holds nine flames, one of which is the shamash (“attendant”), which is used to kindle the other eight lights. On the first night, only one flame is lit. On the second night, an additional flame is lit. By the eighth night of Hanukkah, all eight lights are glowing.

During the Hanukkah season, it is customary to eat fried foods such as potato latke (pancake) garnished with applesauce or sour cream, and an Israeli favorite, the jelly-filled sufganya (doughnut).

Gold, foil-covered chocolate coins signify the tradition of giving monetary gifts (gelt) to children to reward their positive behavior, the study of the Torah and charitable giving.