However we say it—and there are many different ways—the idea of “happy” combined with “holidays” is a very, very old one.
But in our consumer-driven culture, the holidays come at us so early, fast and hard that by the time they actually arrive, it can feel like déjà vu. Hasn’t it been Christmas since Halloween? And on top of the stresses caused by the relentless juggernaut of advertising, the pressure to get just the right present for the third cousin whose name you can never remember, the juggling of family, work and school schedules, and the crowding together in one room of relatives who only see each other once a year, we can now add a relative newcomer to the holiday stress sweepstakes: political conflict. More families now worry about arguments breaking out over the cranberry sauce. “Did David actually bring home that Libertarian he’s been dating?”
The stresses can be tough on anyone, but are sometimes felt especially by those in recovery, who are already working with their personal difficulties and trying to stay on their sober path while surrounded by a society that’s letting its hair down.
Why do we have holidays, anyway?
We might be tempted to ask, “Why do we have holidays, anyway?” Where did this custom of setting aside certain days of the year as different and special come from?
Holidays have been a part of all human societies for about as long as civilization has existed. The word “holiday” means exactly what it seems. It dates back to the 1500s and is based on the earlier haliday, from the Old English haligdaeg—halig meaning “holy” and “daeg” being the word for “day.” And the idea of holy days, of course, originated in the various religions of the world.
The notion of a holy day held two ideas, originally: the first being the observance of a religious celebration or festival; the second being time off from work so that the festival could be observed, and relaxation and recreation enjoyed. Gradually, the recognition that people need time-outs from their everyday activities so they can remember what’s most important to them transferred from religious and spiritual observances into secular ones.
This December is chockfull of holidays. While Christmas and Hanukkah are obviously the best-known in this country, there are many others, including Mormon, Buddhist, Pagan and Zoroastrian ones.
In Japan and other places, December 8th is Bodhi Day, when many Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, in approximately the 6th century B.C.E. And December 17th marks an important day in Amitabha Buddhism, when they observe the birth of the Buddha of Infinite Light, Amitabha.
In this country, those who don’t participate in any of the religious holidays may wish to note December 15th, “Bill of Rights Day,” marking the signing into law of the original ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1791—including the First Amendment, protecting free speech and religious expression.
And while Jainism is a religion you may not know about, December 19 is a major holiday for Jains, called Maunajiyaras. It’s a day of fasting and silent meditation that celebrates five types of holy beings.
December 21st is an important holiday in many traditions, including the Woodland Native American tribes, who celebrate a Winter Feast on this date, sharing food with the spirits of winter; and Wiccans and Pagans, who observe Yule, a celebration of the rebirth of light on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. This is also observed in Shinto, an ancient Japanese tradition, which sees the returning sun as an expression of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess whose spirit guides the people of Japan. And for Zoroastrians, one of the world’s oldest religions, it is Yalda, the “night of birth” which celebrates the victory of light over darkness, symbolizing good over evil.
December also features an Iranian solstice festival, a pre-Christian Scandinavian holiday, and is the month in which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, celebrates the birth of their prophet, Joseph Smith.
Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa
Of course, most familiar in the U.S. are the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the Christian one of Christmas. You may have noticed there’s a common motif that runs through a lot of these otherwise very different holidays from around the world. In a word: Let there be light. In fact, Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is all about light.
In fact, another name for Hanukkah is the “Festival of Lights.” It is an eight-day celebration of an ancient revolt that won Jews their freedom and the right to practice their religion as they saw fit, after a time when the Temple in Jerusalem, their holiest site, had been desecrated by an invading power. This year, it was observed from December 2 to 10.
Faithful Jews reclaimed the Temple after a prolonged struggle. To cleanse the Temple, the light of the Temple lamp, the menorah, needed to burn for consecutive nights; but they discovered there was only enough oil left in the Temple to light it for one night, because enemy soldiers had poured out the rest. Yet miraculously the lamp remained lit for a full eight nights, growing brighter as time went on. Today, Jews light eight candles on menorahs at home, one on each night of the holiday, from a ninth candle, the shamash, or “servant candle,” in remembrance of this event in 165 B.C.E. Many Jews today also exchange gifts during Hanukkah, and eat oil-based foods such as potato latkes, as part of the celebration.
Christmas, which developed out of its Jewish origins, has become one of the most familiar and popular holidays in the world. Yet its history is complicated.
Christmas has added customs from many places where it took root. The practice of gift-giving, while it starts in the gospel accounts of the three “Wise Men” said to have visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, who gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, also owes a lot to the legend of St. Nicholas—“Old Saint Nick”–a fourth-century bishop of Myra, a Greek province in Asia Minor. This saint’s day is celebrated on December 6th. It’s thought his saintliness may have inspired the legend of Santa Claus—“Santa Claus” being a version of “Saint Claus” and “Claus” a shortening of Nicholas. The tradition of leaving gifts for children on St. Nicholas Day began in Northwestern Europe and spread to North America with Dutch immigrants. And the whole business of “hanging stockings by the fire” to receive small gifts seems to have begun with the legend of St. Nicholas saving a poor man’s daughters from prostitution by throwing bags of gold into their stockings or shoes. Some stories also have him scouring the countryside to find children who have been good, a notion that transferred to Santa Claus, whose image is based on the art of cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, beginning in 1863.
There are also Pagan influences, including one of the most popular Christmas decorations, the Christmas tree, which started life as a Pagan Winter Solstice tradition of decorating a tree with foods like nuts and fruit, although the tree now gets decked with ornaments, bows, tinsel and lights. There’s even an Italian tradition in which a good witch, the Befana, comes down the chimney to deliver presents to children!
Despite its mixed background, Christmas still has many core elements in common with its Jewish roots, including the focus on a divine light entering the ordinary world, the giving of gifts, and sharing a feast. And both traditions share these aspects with one of the newest holidays, Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor of African-American studies, who wanted to establish a custom that would help people reconnect with their African heritage and culture. The word “Kwanzaa” derives from a Swahili term for “first fruits of the harvest”; and the ritual greeting, Habari Gani, means “What’s the news?” Kwanzaa emphasizes a celebration of family, community and culture through seven principles, marked by seven symbols and observed over seven days, from December 26th through January 1st.
The principles Karenga identified are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
As with Hanukkah, each day of the holiday involves the lighting of candles, as celebrants share their ideas about the principle of each day. Gatherings include discussions of the five fundamental concepts of Kwanzaa: the unity of family, friends and community; a reverence for the Creator and the creation; commemorating the past and one’s ancestors; committing to African cultural ideals, including truth, justice and mutual respect; and a celebration of the good in life and life’s blessings.
The culmination comes on December 31st, when the feast of Karamu is held. Everyone gathers to eat, drink, and share writings that honor their cultural heritage. All sip from a unity cup and gifts are exchanged. Benne cakes that originated in West Africa are eaten for good luck.
The aspect of gratitude for the gifts of this life is something Kwanzaa has in common with Hanukkah and Christmas. Its rich mix of cultural elements has made Kwanzaa the world’s fastest-growing holiday.
Such a variety of traditions and customs can seem bewildering, at first. But Alan Watts, an interpreter of Eastern spiritual traditions, observed that if you stopped focusing on the words in the various religions—texts, ideas, and beliefs—and paid attention to actions, it looks surprisingly similar: they light fires and candles, ring bells, walk in ritual processions and make ritual gestures, wear special costumes, sing songs that uplift, and get quiet and go within to discover their interior landscape and strengthen their sense of who they are.
If we look at human behavior on holidays, we see the same things repeated in slightly different forms: The lighting of lights, the sharing of food, the giving of gifts. The first two—fire and light, the cooking and sharing of food—go back before recorded history. They’re a part of our primordial memory, the discoveries that enhanced our ancestors’ survival. But gifts are something extra, beyond physical survival.
Holidays take the basic stuff of our lives and fill them with deeper meanings. They pick moments out of our long species memory and define them as standing for what we want to stand for: more than staying alive and stuffing our bellies. Holidays are stories that encode in simple symbols what our ancestors learned about navigating not only safely but wisely through life.
A candle stands for overcoming injustice, or for new hope entering the world in the face of a child. Bread and wine become an acknowledgment that we are in this together, even if the loaf appears broken. And gifts are a reminder of the most obvious yet unnoticed thing of all: that life itself is a given, a miracle, something we cannot account for, yet constantly take for granted, because we never experience its absence.
They are also stories about home: where home is, what it is, and how we get back there. Holidays remind us that we belong there, where our true family is (whether family of origin or not), where we are nourished, physically and spiritually; where someone’s left a light on in the window, so we can find our way home even in the darkest night.
For those in recovery, it’s important to remember not only what we value most, and where we belong, but also simply to take extra care of ourselves at a time of year meant to offer relaxation and a deepening of spirit, but too often generates stress instead. We need to be vigilant in maintaining our boundaries; not getting swept up in behaviors because everybody around us is doing it; choosing holiday activities that align with our values and intentions and support clean, healthy living; and having an “escape plan” from places where we think we might be at risk, and the support of sober friends, sponsors, or meetings at hand if needed.
And remember: your sobriety is definitely worth celebrating! So have a happy, merry, fulfilling, enlightening and fun holiday, whichever you choose to observe. If we do that, that’s what we become in the world: walking holy days.