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December Holiday Celebrations – Lights, Feasts and Memory

Poinsettias

Poinsettias named for Joel Robert Poinsett, botanist and ambassador to Mexico

Our December holiday celebrations originated far away from North America. The days grow shorter, the nights  are long and dark. Understandably the great religions celebrate with lights.

Hanukkah

Two of these holiday celebrations are days-long commemorations of ancient events. The Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. The Talmud tells the story of Judah Maccabee and other Jews who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a consecrated supply. This wondrous event inspired an annual eight-day festival.

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is a movable celebration, depending on the lunar cycle, so sometimes it falls early in December, and sometimes it coincides with Christmas.

Christmas

Christians of every sect and flavor celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. For four Sundays before December 25 the Advent candles are lit. Advent is a time of waiting that is marked by the lighting of four candles, symbols of faith, hope, joy and peace. With the birth of the Christ Child on December 25, the twelve days of Christmas begin, and end on January 6, the feast of Epiphany, when tradition says the three wise men arrived to honor the Baby.

Kwanzaa

Much more recently there is Kwanzaa, a celebration of seven principles that was created 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Kwanzaa, a celebration of family, community and culture, begins on December 26 and ends on January 1. This African American and Pan African celebration includes the lighting of seven candles marking each of the seven principles beginning with Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Each principle had its own candle lit in a given order.

All of these celebrations have lights to brighten the growing December dark, but they also celebrate with wonderful meals. The Jews have latkes and the Kwanzaa celebration includes foods from Africa but also foods from the south such as yams, squash and corn. I don’t know that Christmas has any special foods, although I’m sure each family has its own feasting traditions.

Feasting

My grandparents were Swedish and Italian. I can tell you there were lots of sweets from each side of the family that included chocolate, almonds, apples, and pomegranates. My Italian father loved telling stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. He told how Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility of the earth, was abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. She refused to eat while in that dark place. Demeter searched for her child and was struck with a powerful grief that caused all plants to begin to die. Zeus finally sent word to Hades that he had to send Persephone home, and he acquiesced, if she had eaten nothing. However Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds, which meant she would have to return to Hades for a time every year. That is how we got winter my father said. A sad story, but the reason we add the jewel-like pomegranate seeds to our family Christmas feast.

As I was thinking of the many vegetables that would be served at a Christmas dinner I thought of some of those Kwanzaan items like sweet potatoes, regular potatoes and squash that show up on my table, but I might add guacamole made with avocados and tomatoes. Apple pie is always a staple.

We are so fortunate to have so many wonderful vegetables and fruits in our supermarkets in these modern days, but the Pilgrims had a much more modest feast at the first Thanksgiving. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, squash, apples, pears, oranges, almonds, ginger and many others were not native to Europe or to New England. Of course this is only a small list of foods that were not native to our country. Many originated in South America and even the apple originated in Central Asia.

At this time of the year you can also find colorful poinsettias in many shades almost every time you go into the supermarket. They make great festive gifts. Poinsettias originated in Mexico and were given the name poinsettia in honor of Joel Robert Poinsett who the 1800s was a botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico. Of course, these brilliant plants are substantial shrubs in Mexico.

English holly

English holly in full winter berries

Even the holly wreaths and swags are made of English holly, beautiful with its red berries.

I am amazed when I think of the fruits, vegetables and flowers from every corner of the globe to feed us every day – and on our great December celebrations. I think of the candle lights that bring us hope in the dark days of winter. I think of the stories that accompany the religious traditions that have arrived in our country. None of these things were here before 1492. But over the centuries amazing gifts of faith, of abundance, and beauty have immigrated to our country. Immigrants from around the world continue to arrive in the U.S. and we should treasure and celebrate each one for the hope, passion, skills and energy they bring to our county.

Between the Rows   December 22, 2018

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