Though Christmas is a Christian holiday (holy day), there is so much secular Christmas that surrounds us from mid-Novemer until the New Year that the religious aspects are often lost.

Did you know that there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible? There is no mention of when Jesus was born at all.

There was much debate amongst early Christians and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD in the Roman Empire that Jesus’ birthday was celebrated on December 25th. The most popular theory as to why this date was settled upon is that it was borrowed from pagan traditions that already occurred on that day.

Because of those pagan festival roots, Christmas was not accepted by the religious quickly. It might surprise you to know that from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston.

Image: Pixy.org CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Many of the popular Christmas traditions today found their roots in Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of the god Saturn. Branches from evergreen trees were used during winter solstice as a reminder of the green plants that would grow in spring when the Sun gods grew stronger. These evergreen branches became the foundation of the Christmas tree, so it has no religious connection to Jesus. Germans are thought to be the first to bring “Christmas trees” into their homes during the holidays and decorate them with cookies and lights.

Other purely secular aspects connected to this time include:

St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop living in the fourth century A.D., gave away most of his inherited wealth to the needy and became the protector of children. (Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch or Sinter Klaas.) He evolved into Santa Claus – although the modern image of Santa owes a lot to advertising, such as those by Coca-Cola.

The idea that Santa Claus delivers presents comes from Holland’s celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day. Children would leave shoes out the night before and, in the morning, would find little gifts that St. Nicholas would leave them. I emphasize “little” gifts.

The image of Santa flying in a sleigh seems to have started in 1819. It was the creation of author Washington Irving – the same author who created the Headless Horseman.

Santa’s Rudolph the reindeer was conceived by the department store Montgomery Ward as a marketing idea to get kids to buy holiday coloring books. They didn’t give him a red nose because that was a sign of chronic alcoholism and the company didn’t want that association. A poem introduced us to the other eight reindeer. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Duner and Blixem became Donner and Blitzen, the names coming from German words for thunder and lightning.

“Jingle Bells” was originally written to be a Thanksgiving song. Nothing Christmas about it. It is just about sleighing with the first days of the snow season.

My mother got angry when people abbreviated Christmas as Xmas because she said they were “taking Christ out of Christmas.” I didn’t learn until a college religion course that the “X” comes from the Greek letter “chi” which happens to be the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός), and Greek was the original language of the New Testament. The word was simply created as an abbreviation and was first used in the mid-1500s. I told my mother that, but she never believed me or changed her mind about it.

To me, Xmas has come to represent everything about this day that has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday. All the gifts, wrapping paper, commercials, movies, and decorations all over stores and towns tend to depress me. I don’t object to all of the secular aspects of this season. If it means you donate food and money to charities, help those less fortunate, and act nicer to people around you, I am all for it.

Sinter Klaas

The feast of Sinterklaas celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, and it is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas’ Eve the night before in the Netherlands. (And on the morning of Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium.) Will you be putting any candy in a child’s shoe tonight?

Sinterklaas arriving in Groningen, Netherlands

Is Saint Nicholas the early Santa Clauss? Yes and no. Sinter Klaas certainly sounds like a name you could Anglicise as Santa Claus.

I have written before about these legends of Sinterklaas, and Saint Nick or Nicholas, and the mythical Santa Claus, and about Christmas itself in Decembers past. I’ve probably written too much about it.

I grew up with Christmas as a religious holiday and also as the ridiculous secular holiday that starts in November and continues until the new year, I have grown tired of almost all of it. But when I had my children, I fell back into the holiday hole.

I think if I had small children now I would not make Santa Claus anything but a storybook character. For Saint Nicholas, I would emphasize what the legendary figure is thought to have done and try to stay with that spirit of giving in all its forms. I would downplay the onslaught of toys and gifts for oneself and put more emphasis on giving to others. I have made December 6 one of the days that I sit down and make some donations to charities I support.

Santa places his gifts around the Christmas tree and fills stockings hanging above the fireplace. Sinterklaas places the gifts in front of the fireplace, and, instead of stockings, he fills shoes that children placed before the fireplace the night before. In the shoes is only candy. My mother, who was raised in an Austrian household, also did that with us in our early days.

So, Sinterklaas comes first in places like the Netherlands and then comes Christmas Eve and Day. The Dutch separate Sinterklaas and gifts from Christmas which is meant to be more religious and is celebrated just on the Eve and day.

It is understandable why the two holidays merged in some ways over the centuries. After all, the saint was a religious figure and holiday. Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343). He was not from Holland. He was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. He is depicted as an elderly, stately, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and a sometimes-red stole, wears a red mitre on his head, and a ruby ring (lots of red), and holds a gold-colored crosier, which is a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top.

No reindeer. He traditionally rides a white horse.

Sinterklaas carries a big, red book in which he records whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. That is one of the elements that stretches a child’s credulity at some point. With Santa, credulity is stretched very far: flying reindeer and sleigh, toys for every child in the world, and the ability to get to every house and get down some chimneys all in one night?

I’m no expert on Sinter Klaas but from what I read there are some Santa-like games with St. Nick too. On the evening of 5 December, parents, family, friends or acquaintances pretend to act on behalf of “Sinterklaas” and try to fool the children into thinking that “Sinterklaas” has really given them presents. The fireplace or living room is decorated with them in a similar way that Christmas Day appears in English-speaking countries. But on 6 December, “Sinterklaas” departs without any ado, and all festivities are over.

Oh, if that was only true in America.

Moon Festival for Autumn

Illustration by Grace Lin
from her book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

The “Moon Festival,” also known as the “Mid-Autumn Festival,” or “Mooncake Festival,” is the second most important festival in China after the Chinese New Year. Celebrations include worshiping the moon, lighting paper lanterns, and eating mooncakes. The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar around the autumn equinox, but the date varies in different parts of the world and on different calendars. Chinese people will enjoy a 3-day break from September 10 to 12. Here it will be celebrated by most people on September 10, which is also the September Full Moon. Our Harvest Moon is a similar marking of this time of the seasons.

I will attend one of tea expert Selina Law‘s festival celebrations locally. She shares customs and stories about the holiday and provides samples of different types of tea and mooncake.

The Mid-Autumn Festival originated from the Chinese attention to and worship of celestial phenomena. It evolved from the worship of the Moon in autumn in ancient times when ancient Chinese emperors offered sacrifices to the Moon in autumn to pray for a good harvest in the coming year.

This is a traditional festival celebrated in Chinese culture and similar holidays are celebrated in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia.

There are numerous varieties of mooncakes consumed within China and beyond. The type I knew when I was younger is the Cantonese mooncake which my Chinese friend would give me. is the most famous variety. Typically, a Cantonese mooncake is a round pastry with a rich thick filling usually made from red bean paste or lotus seed paste. It has a thin, salty, egg crust. It is cut into small wedges, accompanied by tea.

Some of the other festival traditions are certainly things anyone can participate in this weekend. Traditions include: reuniting with the family over a meal, paying closer attention to the Moon, making and lighting colorful lanterns, giving small gifts, and sometimes drinking a special liquor, such as cassia or Osmanthus wine. I have yet to try that drink though I looked again this week for it, unsuccessfully, in stores.

Thanking the Moon, written and illustrated by the award-winning and prolific author Grace Lin. It would be a good read-aloud book to let children know about the holiday and possibly about another culture. It is the story of a Chinese-American family celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. They have a picnic in the moonlight with mooncakes, pomelos (the largest citrus fruit and an ancestor of the grapefruit), cups of tea, and colorful lanterns. Everyone sends thanks and a secret wish up to the Moon. A moonlight picnic sounds like an excellent family (or couples) activity for this weekend.

Memorial Day Weekend

Decorated graves at Arlington Cemetery

It is Memorial Day weekend. The holiday that was originally known as Decoration Day is a U.S. federal holiday intended to memorialize and mourn those who died while serving in the United States armed forces. It is observed on the last Monday of May but it had been observed on May 30 when I was a boy. That was also my parents’ wedding anniversary. It was Decoration Day from 1868 to 1970 and the idea was that we would decorate the graves of soldiers, memorials to fallen soldiers, and perhaps our homes with flags and flowers.

Growing up it was a day off from school, a time to visit cemeteries, a parade in town, and some official laying of memorials on graves and at statues. As a boy, I liked the parade which had bands and all kinds of military vehicles. Veterans would do a 21-gun salute at a memorial staue in town and that was thrilling to see and hear. Every kid on my block had military toys and some kinds of military hats and clothing and playing soldiers was a common summer game. That all changed as the Vietnam War heated up and friends and neighbors went to fight and we approached our own military draft year.

Memorial Day also became the unofficial beginning of summer in the United States. Even though in New Jersey we still had school till at least the middle of June, people made their first trips down the shore. The Atlantic Ocean was cold but the boardwalks were open and if you lucked out with the weather it would be 80-90 degrees and feel like summer.

There were thunderstorms Friday night and today is on and off rain but Sunday and Monday look to be hot and summerish. We are staying home this weekend. We will see friends on Monday, probably do some barbequing, might watch a parade, but no cemetery visits. My father served in the Navy in WWII but he made a point of telling me that this day was to remember those who died as soldiers. That wasn’t him. It was those he served with who didn’t come home and have post-war lives. Armed Forces Day (which is earlier in May) is an unofficial holiday honoring those currently serving in the armed forces, and Veterans Day (November 11), which honors all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces.

Like many holidays, Memorial Day has lost some of its focus for many Americans. Turning some holidays, such as Labor Day, into three-day weekends has softened that focus. Labor Day, for example, is now more often thought of as the unofficial end of summer rather than something about workers, unions and labor.

On Monday, we have the National Moment of Remembrance. This short, simple annual event asks Americans, wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, to pause for a duration of one minute to remember those who have died in military service to the United States. That certainly is (as the expression states) the least you can do to mark the true holiday.

The Many Associations with May First

May Day (May first) is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and is celebrated unofficially in many other countries.

Vulcan & Maia
Vulcan and Maia (1585) by Bartholomäus Spranger

The month of May goes back to the Greek goddess Maia for its name. She is the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes (Mercury). Some form of this goddess’s name was known to people from Ireland and as far away as India. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia, a family festival for the purification and protection of farmland.

My holiday cactuses usually bloom for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter but this year they somehow knew it was May Day.

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries

In the Celtic cultures, May was called Mai or Maj, a month of sexual freedom. Green was worn during this month to honor the Earth Mother.

May 1 was the Celtic festival of Beltane, a festival celebrating the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and was often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance are a remnant of these old festivities.

Bona Dea, the Roman Good Goddess, had her festival on the night between May 2 and 3. No men were allowed to attend.

The Greeks had a special festival for the god Pan during May. Pan was a wild-looking deity that was half-man, half-goat. Pan invented the syrinx, or pan-pipes, made out of reeds.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan whose twigs and branches were used as protection against witches and evil in that part of the world.

In more modern tradition, May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver and if they catch the person, a kiss is exchanged.

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. include the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.

International Workers’ Day (AKA May Day) is a celebration of the international labor movement and left-wing movements. It commonly sees organized street demonstrations and marches by working people and their labor unions throughout most of the world. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement called for a General Strike that year on May Day.

NPR reports that May Day is “the opposite of capitalism.”

On May 1, 1886, anarchists and labor activists in Chicago began a multi-day strike in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. The protests turned violent when police attacked workers. Meeting in the city’s Haymarket Square, things turned bloodier and a bomb even exploded and police and civilians were killed.

Fat Tuesday

King Cake
King Cake

Today is Fat Tuesday. If you want to be more French, it is Mardi Gras. It began as a preface to the religious holy day of Ash Wednesday. It is the last day to eat up the fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent which is a penitential season.

I’m taking Fat Tuesday quite literally this year. On this Tuesday, I am feeling fat and my scale tells me it’s more than a feeling. I hit my all-time heaviest this past weekend. I’ve done it before and I have shed 25 pounds before and then eventually gained it all back.

On Fat Tuesday, people would indulge one last time in foods that they might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days. Being brought up Catholic, my mother and the church made a big deal about giving up something you enjoyed for Lent. Chocolate, candies, desserts were typical choices. I recall people giving up (or trying to give up) television, cursing, and other bad habits. Our local church held an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast on this day, perhaps as a way to illustrate the sin of gluttony.

Church bells seemed to ring more often as another reminder of what sinners we had become and remind us to now repent. The church didn’t formally endorse Fat Tuesday but since a season of fasting was ahead you had to get rid of all the forbidden foods. You weren’t going to thrown away good food away, so this idea of partying and eating all remaining foods began. The non-religious party that is Mardi Gras begins two weeks before the day that carries the name.

At one time, the fasting was more serious. Forbidden foods included meat, eggs, and dairy products. Shrove Tuesday is the name given to today by many Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Roman Catholics. For those who mark the day in a religious manner, it is about self-examination, considering the wrongs you need to repent, and what life changes you need to make. It does seem an appropriate day to start a diet.

This moveable feast is determined by when Easter occurs. The name “Shrove Tuesday” comes from the word shrive, an archaic verb meaning “absolve” from the Old English scrīfan which meant “to impose as a penance.”

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. (Lent is a 40-day season because the Sundays aren’t counted. ) The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent symbolically, if not literally, asks believers to set aside time for similar fasting before Christ’s resurrection.

This first day of Lent is about confession and absolution. The symbolic ritual of burning of the previous year’s Holy Week palms happens on this day. On Ash Wednesday, the repentance ashes on put on the foreheads of churchgoers. As a child, I found this frightening as the priest would say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” And since it was a school day, if you went to the early morning mass, you wore those ashes to school. It identified you. Maybe in a good way or a bad way depending on your neighborhood and classmates.

Foods that are traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday (or during Mardi Gras) can be sweet. In the UK, Fat Tuesday is Pancake Day, and in Poland, it’s Paczki Day named for those jelly-filled doughnuts. In the U.S., places like New Orleans that celebrate Mardi Gras often serve the colorful King Cake with its rich, brioche dough and filled with cinnamon, chocolate, and cream cheese. But the food can also be fatty and savory, such as fried Po’Boys.

I’m treating that day as a second chance New Year’s resolution. Eat up the remaining ice cream, donuts, chips and dip, and then try to give up all that bad food for 40 days. Maybe prayers would help.

A detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’, 1559