Midwinter is a great time for a celebration so, Happy Christmas to all our readers…Or should we say, “Season’s Greetings”, or perhaps “Happy Holidays”? After all, midwinter is also the time for other celebrations: the Jewish festival of Hanukkah; the African-American celebrations of Kwanzaa; and the pagan Winter Solstice. And for many of those who do celebrate Christmas, it has become an entirely secular festival, centred on family, food and gifts.
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Even the traditions of Santa and Christmas trees, which seem so Christmassy, aren’t really. Santa (Claus) is a corruption of the name Saint Nicholas. This 4th-century bishop and his gift-giving tradition originally had nothing to do with Christmas but were celebrated on Saint Nicholas’ day, December 6th. The Christmas tree comes from the Germanic tradition of the Yule tree, one hundred per cent pure pagan in origin.
But never mind! Whatever the inconsistent roots and reasons behind our celebrations, we do keep on celebrating, year after year. So, here’s some essential vocabulary to help you survive an English festive season.
“Bah humbug!”: An irritable response made by people who are tired of Christmas celebrations. It was first said by the character Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol.
Boxing Day: December 26th. A public holiday in the UK. Poor people used to receive a box of gifts or money from their masters on this day. Rich people used to go fox-hunting. Now everybody goes to the Boxing Day sales*.
Boxing Day sales: Millions of people queue outside shops from 5am on December 26th and then fight (sometimes literally) to grab cut-price products.
Christmas card list: Kept by people aged over sixty, this list includes the names of distant relatives and acquaintances who should receive a Christmas card. People are only taken off the Christmas card list when: a) they die; b) they offend the list-holder; c) the cost of postage goes up significantly.
Christmas Eve: 24th December. Children hang up a stocking* ready for Father Christmas. They also leave him a glass of sherry, Guinness, whisky or alcohol-free beer. Parents should advise which.
Christmas pudding: Extraordinarily heavy, black dessert made of raisins and eaten for Christmas dinner. Pudding should be covered with brandy and set on fire before eating.
“Ho ho ho!”: Santa Claus/Father Christmas traditionally laughs a lot. This is how you spell his laugh.
New Year’s Eve: December 31st. Young people get drunk in town squares, embrace strangers at midnight and then jump into fountains. Some older people stay at home watching TV until ten past midnight. Others say “Bah humbug!”* and go to bed at 10.30pm.
New Year’s Day: January 1st. May be missed entirely because of the hangover induced by New Year’s Eve* celebrations.
New Year’s resolutions: The promises you make to yourself at the start of a new year. For example: “I will stop smoking.” “I will be more sympathetic to my sister-in-law.” Most New Year’s resolutions will be broken by the end of New Year’s Day*.
Sprouts: Love them or hate them, these tiny cabbages are high in fibre and they’re still the traditional vegetable for Christmas dinner.
Stocking: A large sock that children hang up for Father Christmas to fill with presents. Although the traditional gifts from Father Christmas (a small orange, some nuts, a pencil) fitted easily into a sock, an Xbox does not. Christmas stockings have therefore become much larger over the years.
Tinsel: Long, shiny decoration wrapped around Christmas trees. Shop workers may be forced to wear a piece in their hair to help customers feel Christmassy.
Turkey: Tasteless white bird traditionally eaten for Christmas dinner. Sometimes too big to fit in the oven and always too big to eat in one meal.
Turkey curry: A dish to use up the left-overs from the turkey. What to do with the left-overs of the turkey curry is a more complex problem.
Yule: An alternative or ironic way to say ‘Christmas’. Rhymes with cool, as in “Have a Cool Yule!”
So, if you’re celebrating Christmas, we wish you a very happy one. For those celebrating Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, families and food, or just going shopping at the sales … Season’s Greetings!
The Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah for eight days, usually in December, by lighting candles saying special prayers and eating food cooked in oil, especially potato latkes (pancakes). The festival remembers how, in the 2nd century BC, Jews took back control of the Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks. They relit the Temple menorah (seven-branched candlestick) but there was only enough purified oil to last for one day. Miraculously, however, the oil lasted for eight days.
Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, started in 1966, that celebrates African heritage and identity worldwide. It lasts seven days (26th December to January 1st) and celebrates family, community and culture. It’s not a religious festival but focuses on seven principles (Nguzo Saba), including unity, creative and determination. Kwanzaa customs include lighting candles and placing symbolic items around the home.
The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, falls on either 21st or 22nd of December in the northern hemisphere. After the winter solstice the days gradually get longer, so many cultures, both past and present, have associated it with a time of rebirth. For example, the historic pagan people of Northern Germany and Scandinavia celebrated the festival of Yule around the winter solstice. Today, the Hopi Indians of North Arizona hold a ritual at winter solstice to bring the sun back from its winter sleep.