It’s the most wonderful time of the year: and one of the most agricultural, as well!
Almost every winter holiday tradition has roots in agriculture.
The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “harvest” or “first fruits.” Two of the seven symbols of the Kwanzaa display are directly agriculturally-related: crops, which include fruits, vegetables, and nuts to connect to African harvest festivals and the community working together, and corn, which symbolizes fertility. Ears of corn represent the offspring of the stalk, or the children of the parents.
Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates the successful revolt led by the Maccabees against King Antiochus IV, who forbade Jews to practice their religion in the second century B.C. The holiday Hanukkah celebrates the lighting of the Jewish Temple’s menorah for eight nights, even though there was only enough oil for one night. According to the
Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the only source of fuel that was allowed to be used to light the lamps was fresh olive oil. In ancient Israel, the candles used in the menorah were made from animal fat. Today’s menorah candles are made from paraffin, beeswax, or vegetable wax.
Christian Christmas traditions tied to agriculture include Jesus’ stable and manger (a manger is a long trough that horses or cattle eat from), peppermint candy canes (shaped after shepherd’s hooks), Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, reindeer, ugly Christmas sweaters, sugar cookies, hot cocoa, eggnog, poinsettias, mistletoe, gift wrap, and more.
Agriculture is at the center of so many winter holidays because of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the day with the least amount of daylight and the longest night in the northern hemisphere, which is either December 21 or 22.
The winter solstice is historically agricultural. Ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun god Ra by decorating their homes with plants such as palm leaves and branches. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which honored the agricultural god Saturn, by decorating their homes with wreaths and other greenery, lighting candles, feasting, and giving one another gifts. Celtic Druids celebrated Alban Arthan by throwing a large Yule log on the fire and by gathering mistletoe from oak trees.
Christmas was always the holiday with the biggest celebration when I was growing up. My mom put a Christmas tree in every room, lights and decorations outside the house, a Christmas village on our fireplace, and animatronic dolls and ice-skating scenes in the front windows.
As a child, I always looked forward to Christmas because I was excited to see family, eat lots of good food, and open gifts from Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, we looked out our glass patio door to see if we could differentiate the twinkling stars from Santa’s sleigh as it crossed the night sky. Instead of believing that St. Nicholas or Santa Claus brought presents, Viking children believed that the Norse god Odin would fly across the sky on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, and deliver gifts. Odin would leave the gifts in the children’s boots, which were left out by the fireplace.
My family starts decorating for Christmas on December 1 (November is for celebrating Thanksgiving), and Christmas Eve is the most important night of the year. On Christmas Eve, my family celebrates Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve supper, consisting of 12 meatless dishes. We break opłatek, a thin unleavened wafer, and share good wishes to one another before the start of the meal. We also celebrate the Epiphany, when the three wise men visited Jesus after his birth, on Jan. 6, and our Christmas decorations remain up until Candlemas on Feb. 2.
Every family and every culture has their own unique way of celebrating the holidays and their own traditions. German families hide a pickle ornament in their Christmas trees to find. Italian families have the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. Ukrainians add spider web designs to their Christmas trees. South Africans eat fried Emperor Moth caterpillars.
However you spend your holiday season this year, I hope it is spent surrounded by family, friends, and the ones you love. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I’d love to hear your family’s holiday traditions. Tell me all about them by emailing me at [email protected].