Wisdom from Polonius

A Holiday Primer from History.com


In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.

After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution. Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

Christmas as we know it today is a Victorian invention of the 1860s. Probably the most celebrated holiday in the world, our modern Christmas is a product of hundreds of years of both secular and religious traditions from around the globe.

Click here to link to the full article on History.com.


Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar (which is November-December on the Gregorian calendar). In Hebrew, the word "Hanukkah" means "dedication."

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews' 165 B.C.E. victory over the Hellenist Syrians. Antiochus, the Greek King of Syria, outlawed Jewish rituals and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods.

Judah Maccabee and his soldiers went to the holy Temple, and were saddened that many things were missing or broken, including the golden menorah. They cleaned and repaired the Temple, and when they were finished, they decided to have a big dedication ceremony. For the celebration, the Maccabees wanted to light the menorah. They looked everywhere for oil, and found a small flask that contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. This gave them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit. Today Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days by lighting candles in a menorah every night, thus commemorating the eight-day miracle.

  • Menorahs come in all shapes and sizes. The only requirement is that the flames are separated enough so that they will not look too big and resemble a pagan bonfire.

  • Ancient menorahs were made of clay. They consisted of small, pearl shaped vessels, each with its own wick, which were arranged side-by-side.

  • Today's menorah, which stands on a base from which the branches sprout, resembles the holy Temple's menorah and started to appear towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Click here to link to the full article on History.com.


Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year, the holy month of fasting ordained by the Koran for all adult Muslims of the Islamic faith. According to the Koran, the fast of Ramadan has been instituted so that believers "may cultivate piety"; this particular month was designated because it was the month during which Muhammad received the first of the Koran's revelations.

The fast during Ramadan begins each day at dawn, when the "white thread becomes distinct from the black thread," and ends immediately at sunset. During the fast Muslims are forbidden to eat, drink, or smoke. Before retirement each night, special congregational prayers are offered in which long passages of the Koran are recited. The night between the 26th and 27th days of Ramadan, on which the first revelation occurred, is called the Night of Determination, during which, according to the Koran, God determines the course of the world for the following year.

The day after the end of Ramadan is called the Fast-Breaking and is celebrated with special prayers and festivities.

Click here to link to the full article on History.com.


Kwanzaa is a non-religious African American holiday which celebrates family, community, and culture. It is celebrated for seven days: December 26 - January 1. Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first fruits" in Swahili.

The Seven Principles:

  • Unity (Umoja) - (oo-MO-jah) - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

  • Self-determination (Kujichagulia) - (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

  • Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) - (oo-GEE-mah) - To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.

  • Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa)- (oo-JAH-mah) - To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

  • Purpose (Nia) - (nee-YAH) - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

  • Creativity (Kuumba)- (koo-OOM-bah) - To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

  • Faith (Imani) - (ee-MAH-nee) - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Click here to link to the full article on History.com.



Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts


Harvard Square Commentary, December 25, 2006