In two weeks it will be the winter solstice (literally means sun standing still) when we have the shortest day and the longest night. Because of the earth’s rotation there are two solstices, one in June and one in December. To us in the Northern Hemisphere who live above the equator, the winter solstice occurs either on the 20th, 21st or 22nd of December.
To those who live below the equator in the Southern Hemisphere, the sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn and it is summer time in Brazil and Australia. So while it’s snowing heavily and people are making snowballs and snowmen in America and Europe, Australians are happily surfing the sea and Santa Claus in Sydney is perhaps sweating it out in his fur trimmed suit.
Christmas and Eid
For this is the time of Christmas and Santa Claus and gifts and Xmas pudding wherever you are, in freezing Chicago or in sweaty Sydney.
The word “Christmas” literally means “Mass of Christ” and this was later shortened to “Christ-Mass and still later Christmas. It was shortened further to “Xmas”. The word is derived from Greek, for Christ in Greek is Xristos. So in Europe it became Xmas.
But it’s also the time of crisp hot jalebi sweets, seviyan (vermicelli pudding) and succulent kebabs in Delhi and Lahore. For Eid-ul-Fitr, the popular religious festival of the Muslims that falls in the month of Ramadan or Ramzan, is celebrated during this period, too.
The Jewish Festival of Lights
The Jews also celebrate a festival during this time. It’s called Hanukkah (a Hebrew word meaning dedication), which begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (corresponding to November-December). Hanukkah is a festival that celebrates the victory of Judah the Maccabee over the Syrian tyrant Antiochus nearly 2100 years ago.
In 165 B.C., Judah won his battle over the Syrians and returned to reclaim the Temple at Jerusalem. Legend has it that on their return to Jerusalem, the Maccabees found only a little bottle of oil to light the temple menorah (a lamp or candle stand) that was not even enough to last a few hours.
However, when they temple menorah was lit, a miracle occurred and the menorah burned for eight days. Since then, the Jewish people have been celebrating the success of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil.
During the Hanukkah festival, the family gathers around the menorah, a special candle stand to hold eight candles. On the first night the head of the family uses another candle – called a shamos – to help him light one candle of the menorah. On the second night, two candles are lit. This goes on until all the eight candles are lit.
Each night, gifts and presents are exchanged. Children play games with a small four-sided wooden top called a dreidel. On each side of the top is engraved a letter N-G-H-S that stands for Nes Godol Hoyoh Shom, which in Hebrew means ‘a great miracle happened here’.
Founded in 1966 by Dr Maulana Karenga, an African American leader, Kwanzaa is a cultural festival when African Americans (Americans of African origin) celebrate their heritage as the products of two worlds. It begins on December 26 and lasts for seven days.
Kwanzaa is a Kiswahili word meaning ‘the first fruits of the harvest’ and Dr Karenga who had spent years studying the history and origin of African tribes decided that a festival that celebrates their heritage should be equalled to the harvest of ‘first fruits’ as the original Africans were picked up while working in the field by traders and transported as slave labour.