There's no need for being at a loss for words at the half-dozen or so holiday gatherings you'll be attending this season. As rich as the month of December is in traditions of celebration and libation, it's twice as loaded with fertile sources for entertaining conversation. No other season is as steeped in myths and trivia.
Item: For Jews, Catholics, and pagans, candlelight has long symbolized the lasting power of faith against religious persecution. December without candles would be like summer without sunshine -- candles have a distinguished place in winter's spiritual celebrations.
The Jewish "Festival of the Lights" -- or Chanukah -- marks a miracle said to have happened about a century after Alexander the Great conquered areas of the Middle East. One of Alexander's successors, Antiochus IV, forbade Judaism and tried to destroy the Jewish temple.
The Jews fought and regained their temple, but found that its lamp held but one day's worth of oil. Yet it burned steadily for eight days, enough time to get more oil to keep the lamp continuously burning thereafter.
Jews have celebrated those eight days ever since, lighting Menorah candles every year and gathering with friends and family for food and celebration. This year, Chanukah begins Dec. 25 and ends Jan. 2.
Almost as soon as candles were invented, ancients engaged in a form of pagan worship by lighting candles in the dark of winter to help revive the sun. According to some historians, Christian leaders who tried to eliminate the practice soon realized the futility of their attempt and instead incorporated candle burning as part of Christmas celebrations of Christ's arrival as "the way and the light."
In 17th century England, the practice of Catholicism was a crime punishable by death. Undaunted, Catholics used candles to signal from their homes when the coast was clear for priests to come inside and conduct Mass. As with the Jews and the pagans, candlelight for Catholics was as spiritual as it was practical.
Celebrated as a holiday
Christmas was not declared a legal holiday in the United States until 1836, when the State of Alabama made it official. The last state to do so was Oklahoma, in 1907, according to the website santas.net.
In fact, celebrating Christmas with parties, cheer and merriment was distinctly frowned upon for a long time by Protestant Christians, who viewed such excess as "popish" and unbecoming to true followers of the faith. Leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony legally prohibited Christmas in 1659; the law wasn't repealed for another 25 years.
The actual date
Most people know that the date around which America's most festive and profitable season originally revolves is December 25, celebrated by Christians the world over as the birth date of Jesus Christ, the Son of God sent through the grace of the Almighty to save man from sin. The word "Christmas" comes from the Latin "Cristes maesse," or "Christ's Mass."
However, the Bible makes no mention as to the actual date of Christ's birth. Historians surmise that early Christian leaders working to spread Christianity did so in part by choosing a time of year already filled with pagan Winter Solstice rituals to celebrate Christ's arrival.
Religion aside, popular media frequently list famous folks born on December 25: Humphrey Bogart, Rod Serling, Jimmy Buffet, Sissy Spacek and Annie Lennox -- not to mention Ava Gardner, Howard Hughes and Ricky Martin, all born on Christmas Eve.
Christmas presents likely had their origins in Saturnalia, the Roman winter solstice festival at which gift-giving was a common custom. Druids are said to have hung gifts from the branches of trees, which they believed to be the sources of all great things. Both practices fitted in well with the celebration of Christ's birth; the bible notes that the Magi, or three wise men, brought the newborn child gifts of gold, incense, and spices.
Some linguists speculate that the word "Yule" has its roots in an ancient Scandinavian language, and meant, simply, the celebration of winter solstice. Others say that the word is directly linked to the Scandinavian "jol" or "jul," meaning "jolly." In any case, over the centuries the Yule Log and "Yuletide cheer" have become intrinsic parts of Christmas.
The general consensus regarding the Yule Log is that in the chilly midst of winter, ancients burned a large log not only for warmth, but as a tribute to the sun and the promise of Spring. Early Christians adopted the pagan practice, burning a Yule Log on Christmas Eve and keeping it going for at least 12 hours.
"Xmas" as an abbreviation for "Christmas" is entirely respectful. The symbol "X" is the letter Chi in the Greek alphabet, where it is also the first letter of Christ's name.
The first Christmas card was created in 1843 by Englishman Sir Henry Cole. Its cover consisted of a central picture of a family of adults and kids merrily partaking of plentiful food and drink, with smaller illustrations on the sides promoting providing for the poor. The card read: "Wishing a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you."
If the holiday season is the busiest in terms of shopping, the last night of December is the biggest in terms of partying: New Year's Eve is an all-purpose excuse to cut loose and celebrate.
December 31st was certainly worth celebrating in England in the year 1851. Have you ever wondered why you can see traces of bricked-over windows in many English buildings, and why older English houses are so stingy when it comes to windows? The answer is frightening: in 1695, the British government decided that relatively expensive glass windows were more likely to be found in abodes of the rich, thus a window tax would be a good source of income for government coffers.
The predictable results: most people had to eliminate windows in their homes to avoid heavy taxation. When the tax was finally repealed on December 31 after 156 years on the books, it was literally like the lifting of a cloud over the general populace.
December 31st is also cause for celebrating the birthdays of several celebrities, including Val Kilmer, Sir Anthony Hopkins, the late John Denver and the late Holocaust survivor and activist Simon Weisenthal.
Those sleeping-in or nursing hangovers on January 1 may -- or may not! -- find inspiration in the fact that that day has some meaning in American history apart from being the first day of any given year. On the first day of 1892, Ellis Island in New York opened its gates to immigrants from around the world; hundreds of thousands of Americans are the offspring of those who passed through Ellis Island on their way to American citizenship.
Locally, January 1 has such considerable significance that it is virtually impossible for any resident of Southern California, particularly the Foothills, to ignore: the first-ever Rose Bowl game was played in Pasadena on New Year's Day in 1902.
Perhaps the most anticlimactic New Year's Day in recorded history happened on January 1, 2000, when the much ballyhooed "Y-2K" computer data disaster failed to materialize and the world as we know it continued on its happy way.
May it always be so, and may you and yours be blessed with very happy holidays and a prosperous New Year.
-- J. ANDERSON