November and December are special – bringing many traditions and cultures together to celebrate these holidays. Traditions all have a beginning at some point and are accepted and continued for generations. These holidays were originally such a good idea that they were continued, and represent occasions of heartfelt gratitude – and recognizing the basic values we cherish as humans – remembrance, love, peace, generosity, and gathering.
On November 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill officially establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day after he had tried to change the holiday to the third Thursday back in 1939. Considerable controversy surrounded this deviation and some Americans refused to honor Roosevelt’s declaration. For the next two years, Roosevelt repeated the unpopular proclamation, but on November 26, 1941, he admitted his mistake and signed a bill into law officially making the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.
Why Thursday? The tradition of celebrating the holiday on Thursday dates back to the early history of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, when post-harvest holidays were celebrated on the weekday regularly set aside as “Lecture Day,” a midweek church meeting where topical sermons were presented. A famous Thanksgiving observance occurred in the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth governor William Bradford invited local Indians, who had taught the colonists planting, hunting techniques and other survival skills, to join the Pilgrims in a three-day festival held in gratitude for the bounty of the season.
Thanksgiving became an annual custom throughout New England in the 17th century, and in 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving following the Patriot victory at Saratoga. In 1789, President George Washington became the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday, when, at the request of Congress, he proclaimed November 26, a Tuesday, as a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution. However, it was not until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November that the modern holiday was celebrated nationally.
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights (also called Chanuka and Hannakuh) holiday starts November 27 and celebrates victory from religious persecution. The Jewish victory was led by the Macabees in the year 167 B.C. Upon returning to the temple to rededicate it and relight the Menorah, the Macabees found only one small flask of oil, enough to light the Menorah for just one day. However, the flask of oil lasted eight days, hence the celebration lasts eight days. This is also why it is called the Festival of Lights. Chanukah is a happy and joyous festivity – no fasting, eulogies, or sacrifice. Small gifts are given to family and friends each of the eight days of Chanukah.
Christmas, in our culture, arguably is the biggest holiday of the year. Christmas has strong religious meaning and includes traditions that have developed over centuries of celebrations. There is a tradition of “Christmas Spirit,” a sense of kindness and concern for our fellow man. It’s a time symbolized by generosity. As with Thanksgiving there is gathering of family and friends. Christmas is celebrated in most countries around the world.
Boxing Day, December 26 is celebrated in England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and former British Commonwealth countries. St. Stephens Day, where Boxing Day gets some of its roots, was when churches opened their collection boxes to the poor. Boxing Day was an expression of appreciation and thanks, much like Christmas tips are today. Rooted in the Middle Ages when members of the merchant class would take boxes, fill them with food and fruits, and give them to servants, tradespeople and the less fortunate. Servants would work on Christmas Day, but were given the 26th off to celebrate.
Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday celebrating history, culture, family and community is 7 days long and begins December 26. Kwanzaa began in California in 1966 – created by scholar-activist Dr. Maulana Karenga. Kwanzaa is celebrated all over the world, but primarily in the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean. Focusing on values, culture and history, Kwanzaa encourages people to learn more about their roots and to focus upon their values.
These holidays have much in common; whether it is Kwanzaa, St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day, Christmas, Chanukah or Thanksgiving the emphasis on values, remembrance, charity and gratefulness connect them all.
New Year’s Eve, Watch Night here in the City, also has many traditions, they are all featured on our new website www.WatchNightFallsChurch.org. The beginning was Tricentennial Eve in 1998, then the name Watch Night was adopted by The Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation and used for the event in the new millennium.
In the community spirit tradition of our City – everyone is invited to gather in downtown business district, to enjoy free family friendly amusements and entertainment – our own tradition of thankfulness, generosity, and sharing.
Barbara Cram is the volunteer coordinator for F.C.’s Watch Night celebration.