A Festivus for the Rest of Us: Midwinter Holiday Traditions in America

By: Bill Walker

December 03, 2018

Category: History

For many Minnesotans, the holidays are a time of deeply-rooted traditions. But if pressed, how many of us could really explain how or why these traditions came to be?

Have you ever wondered why we “deck the halls with boughs of holly” each December? What does it mean to “go a-wassailing” and why do we sing songs demanding someone “bring us a figgy pudding?”

Why do some families light Hanukkah menorahs on midwinter nights, while others hang socks “by the chimney with care?” And what’s the deal with the big guy with the white beard and the red suit who spends the year hanging out with a group of magical toy-making elves?
 
Like many seemingly common-place things, the unknown stories behind our most popular holiday traditions are as fascinating and diverse as the varied people who have come to call Minnesota home.

Hanukkah: A Story Symbolized by Light and Oil

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of rededication, born out of the successful overthrow of King Antiochus by the Jews in the second century B.C. 

Antiochus made it illegal to practice the Jewish religion. He even went so far as to set up an altar to Zeus in the Jewish Temple. After rising up and defeating the king, the Jews had to quickly ready the Temple for rededication. 

Because much of the oil used to light the menorah had been defiled, the Jews had to press more. They were only able to find enough purified oil to burn for one day, but by a miracle, the oil lasted for eight nights – enough time to make more pure.

For this reason, Hanukkah traditions revolve around the symbols of light and oil. The Hanukkah menorah (or hannukiah) holds nine candles or containers for oil: one for each night of Hanukkah plus a shamus (servant) to light the other candles. 

During Hanukkah, it is custom to perform acts of charity. Gelt, whether actual money or candies wrapped to look like coins, is given to children to reinforce doing positive acts throughout the year. 

Other Hanukkah traditions include eating food fried in oil and food containing cheese, and playing dreidel, a four-sided top that displays four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin, which make an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, Hebrew for “a great miracle happened here.” 

The Long Dark Winter: Celebrating the Solstice

Before the dawn of recorded history, people throughout the Northern Hemisphere have marked time by the rhythm of nature’s changing seasons. As the Earth makes its annual journey around the sun, warm summer days are gradually replaced by cold winter nights. For many northern cultures, the winter solstice, which marks the longest night of the year (December 21), became particularly significant.
 
As communities gathered together in midwinter for survival, the winter solstice emerged as a time for reflection – both on the death of the previous year, and the hope for nature’s renewal with the return of the life-giving sun.

In Minnesota, the Ojibwe people to the north reserved the long nights for traditional storytelling, while certain groups of Dakota people to the south and west made “winter counts” – pictographic histories highlighting the most memorable events of previous years. 

Similarly, across pre-Christian Europe, pagan tribes used rituals like the lighting of bonfires and the cutting and keeping of evergreen boughs to mark the solstice.

the setting of an 1800s house decorated in greenery for the December holiday season

While Scandinavian and Germanic peoples celebrated the Yuletide, ancient Romans held feasts in honor of “Sol Invictus” — the “unconquerable sun” — all in an effort to remind midwinter revelers of the annual victory of warmth and light over cold and darkness.

A New "Light" Enters the World

inside of an church with empty wooden pews facing a Christmas tree at the front

In the early 4th century, a new “light” was taking center-stage in Europe. By the year 380, the Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity (a faith once outlawed by Roman authorities) the official state religion of the Empire. This left early church leaders with the daunting task of converting thousands of sun-worshiping pagans to the newly-adopted faith.
 
In a bout of, “I see what you did there” genius, clever church leaders began reformatting the annual Christian worship calendar to include aspects of familiar pagan festivals. Each festival was updated with a Christian twist that would help new converts understand and relate to key messages of the new faith.

Suddenly feasts in honor of “Sol Invictus" – the “unconquerable sun" – became festivals in honor of the birth of Jesus, the “light of the world” and the “unconquerable Son of God,” whose victory over death and promises of eternal life paralleled familiar themes of renewal that were common among existing solstice celebrations.
 
Since the Bible makes no specific mention of the date of Christ’s birth, December 25th — a date associated with the Roman festivals of Sol Invictus and Saturnalia — was widely adopted as Jesus’ “official” birthday.

As Christianity spread beyond the Roman frontier, similar cultural interchanges occurred throughout Northern Europe. Pre-Christian Yule traditions, like ritual bonfires and evergreen boughs, morphed into Advent Wreaths and Christmas Trees. Each corner of Europe added its own regional twist to the holiday festivities, and many of these traditions still survive in some form today.

"Trick-or-Treat" — An Authentic Old-time Christmas?

While Christmas Trees, Yule Logs and Advent Wreaths are still part of many modern holiday celebrations, other traditions have not aged as well. Some celebrations have been dropped entirely, while other traditions have been moved to different parts of the calendar to “purify” the winter holiday season.
 
For example, in Medieval England, people celebrated Christmas by wassailing – an adult form of Trick-or-Treating where costumed mobs travel from door to door, offering rowdy songs in exchange for food and wine.
 
In the popular carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the line, “now bring us a figgy-pudding” is not a request. Homeowners who refused to pay tribute to the roving songsters could expect to have their house pelted with rocks.

In the 1500s, as the reformation took Europe by storm, newly minted Protestants, who rejected many other church traditions, turned their backs on festivals like Christmas because the Bible makes no mention of them.

These shifting ideas about the holiday season were transferred across the ocean as Europeans colonized America. Remembering the “blasphemous revelry” of wassailers in England, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony went so far as to outlaw the celebration of Christmas. Between 1659 and 1681, anyone caught “keeping Christmas” in the Boston area was fined five shillings and publicly rebuked.

A Nation of Immigrants

a family talking with Santa Claus outside a decorated porch

However, just as the English Puritans brought their disdain for the holiday season with them to New England, other immigrant groups would bring their own holiday traditions with them to other parts of America.
 
Some protestant groups — like the Moravians, who first settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — promoted a heavily religious Christmas season, celebrated with elaborate Nativity scenes or “putzes.”

Other groups, like the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (modern New York), brought their legends of Saint Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” — the gift-giving patron-saint of children who’s feast day is celebrated on December 6.
 
Still others brought holiday traditions from completely outside the Christian tradition, as European, and later Russian Jews immigrated to America in large numbers. As these varied groups intermingled in America, so did their holiday traditions.

In New York, traditional visions of St. Nicholas began to evolve into our modern version of Santa Claus, thanks in part to the writings of Washington Irving (Knickerbocker’s History of New York, 1809) and Clement Moore (“A Visit from St. Nicholas/Twas the Night Before Christmas,” 1823).
 
Other immigrant groups added to the Santa Claus story, as traditional Swedish “Jultomten” and Norwegian “Julenissen” — Scandinavia’s mischievous, gift giving gnomes — joined Santa as his yuletide workforce of toymakers.

a man dressed as Santa Claus sitting on a front stairway


As new immigrants continue to make their homes in Minnesota, new holiday traditions will undoubtedly be added, becoming part of the “traditional” American holiday season.

About the Author

bill walker

Bill Walker is the Cultural Resources Program Manager at Three Rivers. He has been with Three Rivers for 10 years and has more than 20 years of experience in the field of cultural history, including working for the National Park Service and a variety of local historical societies and museums. Bill loves that all 27,000 + acres of Three Rivers parklands have a human story to tell – some reaching back over 10,000 years! Knowing the stories of how people have connected with the land in the past helps us construct a sense of place for enjoying these spaces today.

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