Anna Grossnickle Hines                                                                                     Home    Guide
Winter Lights
About the Holidays

I found the information on the winter holidays and traditions fascinating. The following paragraphs summarize some of what I found in my research. A great deal more is available in books and on the Internet.

Whistling cover

The word yule may come from the Anglo-Saxon word hweol, or “wheel.” To the Norsemen of Europe the sun was a wheel of fire rolling toward them, then away. Yuletide marks the turning of the sun, or solstice, and was celebrated as a time of renewal of light and life. A Yule log was kindled to promote the return of the sun, burn away the misdeeds of the past year, and ward off evil in the household for the year to come. The custom spread from Scandinavia throughout Europe.

Huge logs were dragged from the woods and burned on great open hearths. Some families decorated a log with greenery and ribbons and sang as they dragged it home. They blessed the log with prayers and sprinkled it with wine. Each person might sit on it and make a wish. Then the great log was lit with a splinter saved from last year’s Yule log and burned through the merrymaking of the evening and into the night. Finally, the last bit would be removed from the hearth and saved. These remains were thought to have magical powers that could protect the home from lightning and other misfortunes as well as bring good luck when they kindled next year’s log.

Santa Lucia

Lucia is a fourth Century Sicilian saint said to have carried food to the persecuted Christians hiding in dark tunnels. To light her way she wore a wreath of candles. Some say she visited Scandinavia, others that missionaries brought stories of her life which entranced the Northern people. In Sweden and Norway, with their long dark winters, Christmas celebrations begin on December 13th, Saint Lucia’s Feast Day, once the shortest day of the year. As the queen of light, Lucia leads the way for the sun to bring longer days.

Celebrations begin with the eldest daughter in each house dressing in a long white gown, tied with a red sash. Wearing a wreath of evergreens and seven lighted candles on her head, she carries a tray of coffee and saffron buns to each member of her family. In evening candlelight parades, Lucia may be accompanied by other girls in white gowns and star boys in pointed hats who carry wands with stars on them. People sing carols to thank Lucia for bringing light and hope during the darkest time of the year.


The winter solstice in late December marks the longest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere. As winter days grew shorter many ancient people believed the sun god needed their help to rekindle the light. Some thought the old sun died and a new one was born. At the winter solstice they kindled lights and fires to help bring back the life-giving light. Some believed the fires would burn away the misdeeds and misfortunes of the old year as well as encourage the return of the sun. Solstice festivals involved decorating with evergreens, putting lights, fruit, and other ornaments in trees, feasting, gift giving, singing, and dancing.

At the solstice, Persians celebrated the birth of Mithras, sent by the God of Light. Romans worshipped the sun god Sol and celebrated renewal in Saturnalia and Kalends festivals. Egyptian festivals honored Isis, the mother of the sun god, Horus, while Balder, sun god to the Druids, was honored by decorating trees with candles and golden apples. The Yule log of the Germanic people was thought to be the Fire Mother of the Sun God and the Chinese believed solstice brought the victory of light and celebrated with feasting. Native Americans also had ceremonies to mark this time and the importance of the sun, including the Prayer-Offering Ceremony of the Hopi, and Chumash ceremonies presided over by the paha, a high chief considered to be the “Image of the Sun”.


In the second century B.C., the Syrian-Greek ruler, Antiochus IV forbade Jewish worship and tried to force the Jews to offer sacrifices to Greek gods, bow to idols, and eat pork—all actions that were against their beliefs. Some Jews adopted the Greek and Syrian customs, but many resisted and were oppressed and even massacred. A group of Jews called the Maccabees, who remained faithful to their beliefs, fled to the hills of Judea. With bravery and cunning they managed to defeat the armies Antiochus sent to fight them. When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, they built a new altar to replace the one that had been defiled, and rededicated the Temple. They found only enough pure oil to burn in their menorah for one night, but it miraculously burned for eight.

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededication of the Temple, the triumph of freedom over persecution, and the miracle of the light burning for eight days. Each evening at nightfall, beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, prayers are recited as candles are placed in a menorah and lit; one the first night and an additional one each night for eight nights. The menorah also holds the shamash, or helper candle which is used to light the eight Hanukkah candles.

A traditional food eaten at Hanukkah is latkes, small potato pancakes fried in oil, symbolic of the oil that burned for eight days. Children often receive gifts and money, called Hanukkah gelt, which they can use to play driedl games. The driedl is a small four sided top, each side marked with a Hebrew letter. The letters, nun, gimel, hey and shin, together stand for “A Great Miracle Happened There”.


For centuries before the birth of Christ people of many cultures celebrated the return of the sun and renewal of life on or around the December 25th solstice. In the 4th Century Christians also chose that date to celebrate Christ’s Mass, or feast day. Though no one could be certain of the actual date of Jesus’ birth, it seemed appropriate to honor the one believed to be the Son of God and “spiritual light of the world” on the date traditionally used to celebrate the rebirth of the sun and of light. Many customs of the earlier holidays have become part of Christmas celebrations, including decorating with evergreens and mistletoe, candles and hearth fires, gift giving, feasting and general merry-making.


Since ancient times, trees have been regarded as a symbol of life. Evergreens in particular have been part of winter celebrations. In Egypt palm fronds were brought into the house on the shortest day of the year as a sign of life’s triumph over death. In Rome evergreen branches and trees were used to decorate during Saturnalia and Kalends festivals. The Druids decorated oak trees with golden apples for the winter solstice and Norse Yule celebrations involved tees lit with candles and hung with gifts.

Several legends tell of the origin of the Christmas tree. One says the tradition began when St. Boniface, an English missionary in Germany and France in the seventh century, came upon a group about to make a sacrifice at a great oak tree. Boniface felled the oak with his fist and a small fir grew in its place. Another legend says after seeing the stars in the tall evergreens one Christmas Eve in the early 1500s, Martin Luther put lighted candles in the branches of a small fir tree. Others say the Christmas Tree began in Europe during the Middle Ages as the Paradise Tree, an evergreen hung with apples and used as part of a “Miracle Play” to tell the story of Adam and Eve on their Feast Day, December 24th.

Decorated trees have been a part of Christmas since the 16th century and by the 19th century had spread throughout Germany, Austria, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. By the end of the 19th century the custom was growing in popularity in America, and with the invention of strings of colored lights in 1882 trees could glow for hours on end.


Farolitos means “small lanterns.” On Christmas Eve in the sixteenth century small bonfires called luminarias were built along roads and in churchyards to celebrate the birth of Christ and light the way for people to attend the Midnight Mass. In America, European Missionaries introduced the celebration of Las Posadas, (a Spanish word meaning lodging or inn) to the Mexican Indians as a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. The festivities began each year on December 16th and lasted for nine nights, with carolers carrying candles going from door to door singing Spanish songs, begging for food and lodging. Some homes turned them away but others invited travelers in and fed them posole, red and green chile stews, Christmas Eve tamales, and biscoshitos.

By the nineteenth century, U.S. settlers in the southwest were decorating their doors for Las Posadas with Chinese paper lanterns instead of small bonfires. Then, because of the expense, people began making their own paper lanterns out of small paper bags. Now in the southwestern United States, Las Posadas is celebrated only on Christmas Eve. In places like Albuquerque and Sante Fe, New Mexico, the roadsides, courtyards, and rooftops are lined with farolitos to light the way for the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.


In the Christian tradition a bright star guided shepherds and wisemen to the stable where Christ was born. In many cultures stars play a role in Christmas celebrations. Often the holiday begins with the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve. In Poland the village priest dressed as Star Man comes around on Christmas Eve and tests the children on their religious knowledge. In some Russian Orthodox communities Star Carolers dressed as angels and shepherds, led by an angel carrying a large star on a pole, go from house to house. In Sweden Star Boys, carrying stars on poles, accompany Lucia and people hang lighted stars in their windows to help people find their way in the dark. In Hungary a star pattern carved into half an apple is supposed to bring good luck.

In many cultures stars are thought to have a special connection with souls, bringing a soul to earth when one is born, or as a home for the soul after one dies. Stars are often a symbol for our highest goals and achievements, for reaching above ourselves. They are also symbols of our unity and connection, for whatever our beliefs, wherever we live on earth, we all share the heavens.


Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage, pride, community, family, and culture. Begun in the 1960s and based on ancient African first-fruits celebrations, the seven-day festival begins the day after Christmas and ends on New Year’s Day.

Each day a candle is lit in honor of one of the seven principles or beliefs of Kwanzaa. The candles, three green on the left for freedom, one black in the center for unity, three red on the right for bloodshed, stand in a holder called a kinara. The ritual begins with the call, “Habari gani?”, meaning “What’s the news?” People respond with the belief of the day, which may then be discussed and explored through stories, songs, and readings. The center black candle is lit first and stands for unity or umoja. On the following days the green and red candles are added alternately as each of the other principles is celebrated; kujichagulia, self-determination, ujima, to work together, ujamaa, to support each other in business, nia, purpose, kuumba, creativity, and imani, faith. The ceremony ends by drinking from the unity cup, which each person raises, saying “Harambee!”, which means “Let’s all pull together!”

Karamu is the last night of Kwanzaa celebrated with a great feast, featuring African and African-American foods, music, dancing, art, and stories. Children are central to the Kwanzaa celebration because they represent the hope for the future.

Definition and Pronunciation Guide for the Swahili Words:

Kwanzaa ( KWAHN-zah) * first fruits

kinara (kee-NAH-rah * the candleholder

karamu (kah-Rah-moo) * the feast

Habari gani? (hah-BAH-ree-Gah-nee) * “What’s the news?”

Harambee!” (hah-rahm-BEH) * “Let’s all pull together!”

Nguzo Saba (nn-GOO-zoh SAH-bah) * the seven principals of Kwanzaa

1. umoja (oo-MOE-jah) * unity.
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

2. kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) * self-determination.
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

ujima (oo-JEE-mah) * collective work and responsibility
To build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.

ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) * cooperative economics
To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit together from them.

nia (nee-AH) * purpose
To make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

kuumba (CREATIVITY) (koo-OOM-bah) * creativity
To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

imani (FAITH) (ee-MAH-nee) * faith
To believe with all our hearts in our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our people and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Shout Harambee!
This poem about Kwanzaa didn't belong in the book, but I want to share it.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year, Xin Nian, takes place every year in January or February and is a time of renewal, of clearing out old debts and grudges, and beginning with hopes of peace, good health, and good fortune in the coming year. Xin means new. Nian means year, but is also the name of an animal, or big monster. The beast was believed to appear at the end of the year, attacking the people and their livestock. Legends tell how the people discovered that the monster was afraid of sunshine, noise (such as the popping made by burning bamboo), and the color red. So at New Year people light the sky with fireworks and lanterns, set off firecrackers, paint their doors red, and decorate with red paper to frighten away the Nian and other bad spirits.

On the eve of the New Year families gather to feast on traditional foods and play games. They keep the lights on all night to welcome in good fortune. Streets are decorated with lights and at midnight firecrackers and fireworks are set off. In the morning children receive packets of money wrapped in red paper and the visiting with friends and neighbors begins. Festivities continue until the Lantern Celebrations on the first full moon of the New Year.

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