THE BLOG

Happy Holidays -- Which Ones?

12/01/2013 10:28 am ET | Updated Jan 31, 2014

Last Tuesday I made a deposit at the bank. When I started to leave, the teller said to me: "Happy Holidays." I replied, "What holidays are you referring to?" He looked at me a few seconds and said, "I don't know what you mean." I responded, "You said 'Happy Holidays' (I emphasized the plural ending of holidays). I was just wondering what holidays you were referring to." He paused again, and finally sputtered, "I suppose I was referring to Thanksgiving. I guess I should have said, 'Happy Holiday.'" I smiled, and in leaving said, "And happy Thanksgiving to you."

I am guessing that next week, after Thanksgiving is laid to rest, he will again say to me, "Happy Holidays." And I, again, will wonder what holidays he is referring to.

This is the time of year so many people say, "Happy Holidays." I know this is politically correct, and many employers insist their employees say that. But what holidays are they referring to?

"Holiday" is a combination of two Old English words: "holy" and "day." When someone wishes you "Happy Holidays," they should be referring to days that have a religious significance -- days that are thought of as being "holy." And since they say "Happy Holidays" (plural), just what "holy" days are they referring to?

I can think of only two holy days or holy celebrations that occur in late November and early December: Hanukkah for Jews and Advent for Christians. There is the African American observance of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration that honors ancient African cultures, but it a cultural celebration, not a religious one. So let's concentrate on Hanukkah and Advent. And since the first day of Hanukkah was Wednesday of last week (November 27) and the first day of Advent is today (July 1), let's look at Hanukkah first.

Hanukkah

Using the Hebrew ceremonial calendar, Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. Since the Jewish calendar is primarily based on the lunar cycle instead of solar movements, dates of the Jewish calendar fluctuate with respect to the regularly-used secular calendar, and the start date for Hanukkah can fall anywhere between November 27 and December 26. This year Hanukkah began at sundown on November 27, the earliest possible date and earlier than usual, and concludes at sundown on December 5.

It is incredibly rare for the first day of Hanukkah (sundown on Wednesday to sundown on Thursday) and Thanksgiving to converge, as has been the case this year. The last time it happened was in the 1880s, but we are told that it will not happen again for thousands and thousands of years -- farther than the calendar has been calculated.

The name Hanukkah is derived from the Hebrew verb meaning "to dedicate." Hanukkah, sometimes called the Festival of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish Maccabean revolt and gorilla-warfare victory in 165 B.C. over the much-celebrated army of the Syrian-Greeks, which had seized the Temple in l68 B.C. and used it for pagan worship.

It was customary for menorah candles in the Temple to burn at all times, but when the Jews were ready to rededicate the Temple, they could only find enough pure, undefiled ritual oil for the candles to burn one day. Miraculously, however, the candles burned for eight days, until a fresh supply of undefiled oil was obtained.

A special menorah was designed to celebrate Hanukkah. It consists of eight candleholders of the same height (one for each of the eight days the candles burned in the ancient Jewish Temple) and one slightly higher for the helper candle that is used to light the others. During the eight evenings of Hanukkah, families celebrate with a series of rituals, including reading from the Torah, each evening lighting another candle of their special Hanukkah menorah from left to right, playing games, giving gifts, and eating a variety of foods that are deep-fried in oil to symbolize the oil from the early Temple menorah. Usually the gift-giving is reserved for younger children, and traditional gifts include Jewish "gelts," small amounts of real money, and chocolate coins. A seven-branched lampstand, the symbol of Judaism since ancient times--not the special Hanukkah menorah--is the emblem of the modern state of Israel.

Advent

Advent marks the beginning of the Christian Church year and consists of the four Sundays and their weekdays before Christmas, starting with the Sunday nearest to November 30. The word "Advent" has its origin in the Medieval Latin word adventus, meaning "arrival." Advent is the liturgical season that precedes and prepares for Christmas, which actually does not start until the evening of December 24 and ends twelve days later.

Advent is a season of hope and longing, of joyful expectation, and of peaceful preparation. Many symbols and traditions are associated with Advent, especially the Advent Wreath with its four candles, Advent calendars, special Advent music and food, and other traditions that may vary from one culture or region to the next.

Conclusion

I have spent the majority of time today concentrating on Hanukkah. Next week I will look in detail at Advent, and the following week at Christmas.

Most Jewish people are not going to celebrate Advent, and most Christians are not going to celebrate Hanukkah. The only people I can think of who may celebrate both holidays are families of Jewish-Christian interfaith marriages. And, of course, merchants and corporations that profit from the extra shopping done by Jews and Christians at this time of year appreciate what it does for their bottom line. So wishing most people "Happy Holidays" (plural) is a misnomer.

It may be politically correct to say "Happy Holidays," but it is historically, culturally, and religiously incorrect!