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Facts and History: Happy Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas

Several other holidays—some religious, some secular—make December a special month for non-Christians, too. And that doesn't even count today's predicted apocalypse.

Jesus is the reason for the season, the old saying goes, but that’s only partially true. December is also a special time for people from other faith traditions, and those with none at all.

Did you know today is the shortest day of the year? It's also, supposedly, the day of the apocalypse.

For instance:

Hanukkah
In the spectrum of Jewish observances, Hanukkah is a relatively minor event, says Rabbi Lynn Liberman of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights. The holiday has grown in prominence largely because of its proximity to that other big religious holiday that comes along at about the same time.

Hanukkah celebrates a military victory and the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem during the 2nd century BCE.

During this eight-day festival of lights, a special candelabrum, called a hanukiah, is used and a new candle is lit on the evening of each of those days.

Although gift giving is not part of the original tradition, Liberman says Hanukkah has been infused with some of the customs of the larger community. She says that while it’s lovely to receive gifts, as the director of congregational learning, she also tries inspiring people to give from their hearts.

Hanukkah, Chanukah, and other alternate spellings have evolved because the Hebrew word cannot be directly translated in to English.

Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is an African American celebration of family, community, and culture. Beginning Dec. 26, this seven-day festival celebrates and reinforces a different value-based principle each day:
·   Unity
·   Self-Determination
·   Collective Work and Responsibility
·   Cooperative Economics
·   Purpose
·   Creativity
·   Faith

According to a representative of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, involvement in Kwanzaa activities is left up to the discretion of individual churches.

Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight hours, occurs Dec. 21.

According to August Berkshire, president of Minnesota Atheists, solstice celebrations were originally pagan rituals and “all the fun things about Christmas”—gifts, lights, feasts, etc.—were taken from pagan origins.

This year, as in previous years, Minnesota Atheists, in collaboration with the Humanists of Minnesota, sponsored the 13th Annual Freethinkers Winter Solstice Celebration, on Dec. 16.

Berkshire, who says it’s really just an excuse to have a big party, added that the public was invited, and included cocktails, dinner, and a “rather irreligious” program of music and skits called the Freethought Follies.

Festivus
Fans of the old “Jerry Seinfeld” TV show will recall that Dec. 23 is the date of Festivus, a secular celebration “for the rest of us.”

According to Wikipedia, Festivus was created in 1996 by screenwriter Dan O’Keefe to combat the commercialization surrounding Christmas. In a case of life imitating art, the occasion has grown in popularity since the 1997 Seinfeld episode. Festivus traditions include an unadorned Festivus Pole, a Festivus dinner consisting of either meatloaf or spaghetti, an airing of grievances, and feats of strength (such as arm wrestling).

Locally, the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis is hosting a Festivus celebration a day early, on Dec. 22.

End of the world
With the "long count" calendar of the Ancient Mayans coming to an end on Dec. 21, some people are a little pessimistic about any calendar continuing past that date.

Seriously though, even NASA is getting in on the action. The agency created a page on its website devoted to debunking the Mayan apocalypse idea—not least because the Mayans never predicted any such thing. The date is simply the end of one time period that simply starts over. Or so they think.

“Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012,” NASA wrote.

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