Celebrating December

When the Sun Stands Still: Celebrating December

The nativity scene under the Christmas treeat New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Welcome (:39)

Jim Metzner introduction (:53)

December brings waning light, short days, and the long shadow of what’s likely the world’s most famous birthday celebration. This month, we offer some sound memories of global holidays past, which coincide with the start of the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere.

Festival of Lights

We’re told that Hanukkah commemorates a miracle which took place in the land of Israel some 2,200 years ago, just after a historic military victory by the Maccabees. The victory capped a long period of dissent between Jews who accepted assimilation of ideas and icons from the Greek religion into their faith, and those (including the Maccabees) who did not. Legend has it that when the Maccabees won the decisive battle, they discovered there was only enough sanctified oil for a temple lamp to last one day. Nevertheless, it burned for eight days, giving us the eight days of Hanukkah.

Jews around the world remember this event by lighting a different candle on each day of the holiday. The centerpiece of the event is the menorah—a candelabra which has come to symbolize Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. According to religious scholars, Hanukkah evolved from a low-key harvesttime event to a more popular winter celebration, in part to draw some attention from the Christian holiday of Christmas. For me, the act of lighting the candles of the menorah symbolizes what people of all religions hunger for at this time of year—the bringing of light into our lives during winter’s darkest days.

Cantor Laura Croen, cantor of Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., sings a blessing over the Hanukkah lights. Recording by Adam Phillips (:29)

Chasing Saint Nick

In the Swiss village of Küssnacht am Rigi, they usher in the holiday season with bells and whips. On the evening of December 5, the lights of Küssnacht are switched off and a remarkable procession enters the town: hundreds of people ringing bells in unision, another group cracking whips, and a third group wearing oversize paper bishop’s hats lit from within by candles.

The event is Klausjagen, which means “chasing the Klaus,” a reference to St. Nicholas, whom we also know as Santa Claus. December 6 is St. Nicholas’s Day, but Klausjagen is a blending of a Catholic holiday with what may be a much older celebration.

According to Regina Bendix, assistant professor of folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, the whip cracking may be a remnant of an ancient festival, which tended to get pretty rowdy. The imposition of St. Nicholas’s Day at the same time of year led to the unofficial custom of some local youths chasing a figure representing St. Nick. In the 1920s a group of villagers in Küssnacht decided to bring some order to the chaos, and created a modern, tamer version of Klausjagen.

A chorus of whips calls forth the memory of an older, rowdier celebration. Recording courtesy Brigitte Bachmann-Geiser (:14)

The Sun Stands Still

December 21—the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the first day of the winter season—has long been held sacred by many cultures. The Saxons held a solstice celebration in honor of Thor that they called Yule or Jule. The word is thought to have meant either “festival” or “turning wheel,” implying a reference to the return of the sun. The yule log is just one of the many remnants of pre-Christian solstice rituals evident at Christmastime. The Roman Saturnalia, a weeklong solstice celebration, was a prototype of organized anarchy. Masters and slaves exchanged roles, and social rules, laws, and most forms of business were suspended—society was turned on its head, intentionally.

Christmas may have been first observed during the week after solstice to absorb and transform Saturnalia, yet echoes of the earlier ceremony remain. During Saturnalia, Romans decorated their abodes with candlelit trees.

For the past 21 years, New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine has played host to a winter solstice celebration, with appearances by the Paul Winter Consort and various musicians and dancers from around the world. My favorite sonic moment of this event is the ringing of an enormous gong as it rises up to the cathedral’s ceiling, looking for all the world like a glowing celestial orb. The word “solstice,” by the way, derives from a Latin expression which means “sun stands still,” referring to the two times of the year where the sun appears to rise from the same position on the horizon each day, for a period of about a week.

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Ceremonial Search

In Mexico and in many Hispanic-American communities, the eight days before Christmas are celebrated with posadas.

“Posada” means “inn,” and the event recreates Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging before the birth of Jesus. In Mexican cities and villages, processions of people carrying candles and singing hymns weave through the streets. Near the head of the group, perhaps even riding a burro, are people dressed up as Mary and Joseph.

The group is turned away from many houses, but finally, at a prearranged spot, they’re welcomed in, and a celebration begins. There’s often music, food, and best of all—a piñata with treats for the children.

Our posada song was recorded during a procession in the streets of Oakland, California, near St. Elizabeth’s Church, where the celebration was held. (1:26)

Fires on the Levee

Bonfires have long been associated with solstice rituals. The name “bonfire” comes from “bone-fire,” which refers to the venerable practice of fueling fires with animal and human bones.

On Christmas Eve, along the Mississippi River just outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, a line of bonfires lights the way for Papa Noel. Teams of builders buy a $10 permit from the local parish and construct huge pyramids out of willow trees and cane reed, laced with fireworks. Then, on the night before Christmas, the bonfires are lit in a fiery spectacle that lines both sides of the Mississippi River.

According to local historian Charlie Duhe, bonfires have been a Christmas tradition for about 150 years in St. James and St. John’s parishes in Louisiana. Duhe says, according to local lore, the pyres light the way for Papa Noel (Santa Claus), as he brings children their presents.

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Listen and you’ll hear steamboats blaring their horns in the distance as they sail up “Bonfire Alley.” Recording by Jenni Lawson (:43)

First Fruits

Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday initiated in California in 1966, celebrates family, community, and culture. It takes its name from the Swahili phrase “Matunda Ya Kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” The name implies a harvest celebration, yet its timing may suggest the originators of Kwanzaa wanted to share their moment of glory in the winter solstice sun.

Each day of the weeklong event is devoted to one of seven guiding principles known as the Nguzo Saba: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

Many families observe Kwanzaa at home, and some communities hold public events, such as the one we attended last year in Santa Cruz, California. That ceremony included a libation poured by the oldest person present, some spirited drumming, and a chant of “Harambe” (“Working Together”). Families and communities are encouraged to develop their own Kwanzaa traditions—it’s a living example of culture growing, transforming, and evolving before our eyes.

A montage of singing, drumming, and a “Harambe” chant, recorded at a Kwanzaa celebration in San Diego, California. Recording by Joan Schuman (:42)

The Tree

A Christmas tree has become one of our family’s holiday rituals, initiated by my wife. It engenders mixed feelings—remorse for the soon-to-be-deceased-tree, mingled with appreciation of the beauty it brings into our household and the wonderful smell of fresh pine. Each year, my wife brings out a stupendous collection of tree ornaments, many of which hold a memory—of the person who gave us the ornament, the place from which it came, or the time in our lives when we first saw it.

One of my favorite sound memories of Christmas was at the annual lighting of Boston’s tree at the Prudential Center, back in the mid-seventies. I was learning the craft of sound recording while producing my first radio series, “You’re Hearing Boston.” There were crowds of school kids singing carols, waiting on pins and needles for Santa Claus. Their screams and the unexpected musical harbinger of Santa’s arrival still bring back the giddy energy of the event. Recording by Jim Metzner (1:40)

I don’t think I ever really truly understood in my bones what a Christmas tree represented until I saw the holiday spruce at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. They put it on display every year from late November through December. The ornaments are Neapolitan and date from the 18th century. Beneath the tree is an elaborate crèche with dozens of figurines representing a cross section of humanity and animals. In the branches above the Nativity are beautifully detailed angels, and atop the tree is a star signifying that which is above angels and men. Somehow, the tree transcends being solely a Christmas icon and becomes a universal symbol—a metaphysical map of an infinite realm, limited only by the scale of one’s imagination.

Jim Metzner

Credits: Picture Research: Naomi Starobin

Our thanks to: Regina Bendix, assistant professor of folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, Naomi Takafuchi of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria Hellweg for translating the posadas verses, cantor Laura Croen of Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., and Pulse of the Planet listener Ana Marden for bringing us her Kwanzaa story.

For an enlightening view of the history of Hanukkah, check out Larry Josephson’s conversation with Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as part of the radio series “What is a Jew?”

Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on NationalGeographic.com and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2007 Jim Metzner Productions All rights reserved.