February 08, 2005

Stuff The Holiday Shams

There are so many lies and mixed signals in holidays that I just wanted to clear them out and then put it in perspective. The one that gets the most trash is the least-known, least-publicized and most recent: Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, supposedly created by a Black Panther, a Marxist and/or a convicted terrorist, dates from the 1960s but seeks to celebrate much older traditions. There's plenty of stuff going around about who created it and why and just what horrible things he did in life, but I don't really care. I just want to point out three things.

First: the word Kwanzaa and the 'African' translations of the seven Kwanzaa principles are all Swahili, which is East African. Pretty much all former slaves and the vast majority of black Americans come from West African. The two are not interchangeable and have distinct customs, religions, languages and of course totally different tribes.

Second: nobody celebrates a harvest festival in the last week of December in any hemisphere - it's either winter or summer everywhere in the world. It's pretty obvious that the placement was to put it directly after Christmas (December 26 to January 1), which makes sense if you wanted to make a 'black Christmas' of sorts.

Third: using corn in an African heritage celebration is sort of silly, since corn is a mesoamerican crop. It was domesticated by the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America and only in about the 1500s or 1600s did it get to Africa - taken there by European colonizers since Africa had few options for crop plants. This is somewhat akin to celebrating Native American heritage using pictures of horses, which are Eurasian animals brought to this hemisphere by Europeans.

Does it matter if the founder of Kwanzaa was any of the horrible things that Freepers and Stormfronters like to say he is? No, that's called the genetic fallacy - assuming that because X started out a certain way that it must still retain the same aspects today. As long as the people celebrating the holiday aren't celebrating black segregation, Marxism or terrorism it's just an academic point who created it.

Now, do these other inconsistencies and gaffes mean the holiday should be ignored or shunned? Wait, don't answer that. First, let's get some perspective.

Hanukkah, supposedly the 'Jewish Christmas' is nowhere near as important to Judaic culture as Christmas is to Christian culture. The Days of Awe ('high holidays' in a vulgarized, awkward translation) of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are far more important to Judaism than Hanukkah - the former two celebrate a spiritual new year and days of repentance and atonement, while the latter only celebrates a historical victory related to the Seleucids and the Temple. Passover, Purim and other holidays hold more religious significance in Judaism. Before the rise of Christmas and Jewish integration into the American obsession with that holiday, Hanukkah wasn't that big of a deal. Its only religious connection at all is political - defeating a ruler who prevented Israelites from practicing their religion.

There's a good chance that the only reason it's celebrated for eight days is because it was a belated Sukkot celebration. Sukkot is celebrated as eight days (though sometimes, and back then, nine days) and involves lamps and lights as well, but the Israelites had trouble celebrating it under the Seleucid tyrant. It's possible there's a good deal of crossover there and they turned Hanukkah into a Sukkot make-up holiday.

Of course, Christmas has a lot of problems with its exact origin of customs, as does Easter. After all, both Christmas and Easter occur directly over earlier pagan holidays. The term Yule actually refers to a Germanic pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice (the point at which the days got longer and warmer). Not surprisingly to those who know about modern-day Christmas in Anglo-Saxon countries, Yule involved burning a Yule log, bringing in Christmas trees, eating ham, hanging mistletoe, boughs of holly and so forth. These are all how Christmas is celebrated in modern-day America and elsewhere, and they come to us from Germanic and Scandinavian celebrations of Yule. The Christian missionaries way back in the day had to convert the wild, barbaric Nordic peoples and found it was easier to simply rename and rededicate their existing practices.

The same is true for Easter as celebrated in Anglo-Saxon countries, which was a fertility festival celebrating the goddess Eostre (which is why we call it 'Easter' in English and 'Ostern' in German) and the vernal equinox. It celebrates spring, the end of winter. Rabbits are used, obviously for their ability to reproduce rapidly, and the eggs are colored to represent the sun's rays in spring.

To be fair, other parts of Europe and Christendom don't have these Germanic traditions for Christmas and Easter, and most Christians call Easter by a name derived from the Hebrew word for Passover. So it's not as though these holidays are entirely fake or something. Clearly in the Anglo-Saxon countries, however, people celebrated seasonal holidays that were simply folded into Christian theology when missionaries came.

So now, does any of this matter? Well, yeah; it's fun history and it teaches us about the nature of language, culture and society to see how customs start and change over time. But does it mean that Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, Easter and the rest shouldn't be celebrated at all? No, because their purpose is to celebrate whatever we say we're celebrating. If we say we're celebrating family or unity or bunnies, then it is so. After all, Christmas is a largely secular holiday today, carols aside. It's about giving gifts and seeing family and watching cheesy TV specials because nothing else is on. We can't expect holidays to come out of nowhere; people like to celebrate and they're apparently going to do it whatever else happens.

It's not where the holiday started but what the holiday means now that actually matters.

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