HONOLULU (KHON2) — While Christmas is the biggest Christian gift-giving occasion in the United States, there are lots of religions that have holidays in which gifts are the reason for the season.
Of course, we had the Moon Festival on Sept. 29 and 30. This was a time to give out moon cakes with egg yolks in them to the ones you love. It’s a time to celebrate the closing of the harvest season for many Asian cultures.
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This is the kickoff event that leads to many others each holiday sason.
Since the winter, gift-giving, holiday season is knocking at our door, KHON2.com decided to explore some of the religions that practice gift giving during the holiday season.
Keep in mind, this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide. It’s more of an introduction to the many ways humans embrace the winter months.
Known as Kalikimaka in Hawaiʻi, Christmas is a holiday used to demark the birth of the Christian god, Jesus. While it is not when he was actually born, the Vatican ordained Dec. 25 as a means of co-opting the pagan rituals that had been practiced for millennia for the winter solstice around the 4th century CE.
In Rome, where Jesus’s story was created, the Saturnalia was one of the most important celebrations of the year. It marked the winter solstice; gifts were exchanged. And feasts were enjoyed.
So, for the last 1,600 years, Christians have used this date to celebrate. But it wasn’t until the 1800s in the United States that capitalist consumption became inextricably attached to the holiday.
It was during the 19th century that Christian groups in the U.S. began giving gifts to children rather than the poor and destitute on Dec. 25. Shifting this holiday from one of caring for those less fortunate to accumulating stockpiles of gifts has created the holiday the world knows in the 21st century.
In Hawaiʻi, there are numerous churches and events that celebrate the holiday. Check back with KHON2.com for more information as the season rolls out.
Another holiday for gift giving is Chanukkah (pronounced HAN-u-kah). This is a Jewish holiday that celebrates an event that took place long ago; it takes place over eight days sometime in December each year, depending on the date alignments with the Jewish and Julian (standard) calendars.
According to the legend, in the years around 160 BCE, there was tumult involving the Maccabees. The Maccabees were the family of Mattathias, the man who refused to eat the meat sacrificed to Greek gods.
In his rebellion, he killed the man who tried to make him eat the pagan meats. Mattiathias sought to fight the Hellenization of the Hebrews who lived in Judea. This led the Green ruler Antiochus IV to attempt to crush them.
In the siege of Jerusalem, the Hebrews ran out of oil for their lamps. But when they lit the menorah, the oil — that should’ve only lasted a few hours — lasted for eight nights. And this is what Chanukkah celebrates — the miracle of the oil burning is accredited to their god.
Once again, it was during the 19th century when gifts became a part of celebration in which gifts and money are given for each of the eight nights. Sometime in the 1800s, parents shifted from giving gifts and money to their children’s teachers to the children keeping the gifts and money for themselves.
Click here on resources regarding where and when to celebrate Chanukkah.
Kwanzaa begins on Dec. 26 and goes through Jan. 1 of the following year.
The holiday was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga after the Watts riots in Los Angeles. It is an African American and Pan-African holiday meant to celebrate history, values, family, community and culture. The Swahili language is used to express the sentiments of the celebration.
Unity and self-determination are the driving factors of this holiday as it seeks to mitigate the impacts racism and slavery on generations of black in the U.S. Gifts are exchanged during this holiday.
Mithras and No-Diso
A few centuries before the story of Jesus popped up, the Zoroastrians also co-opted the winter solstice date for the birth of their savior, Mithras, calling the festival Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda.
According to the story, Mithras was born both human and divine, of a virgin. His mission was to save humanity and fight a devil creature. Mithras was emblematic of the victory of light over dark.
His birth was witnessed by magi in Persia who saw the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, creating a massive star in the night sky. This happened six times in a very short period of time, leading the magi to the manger of Mithras where they gave him gifts.
Jesus’s story mimics Mithras’s story, nearly word for word. Mithras even died for the sins of his followers and rose three days later from the grave to show that he had conquered death. Mithras’s followers were bathed in his blood; so, their sins were forgiven.
The winter solstice period for Zoroastrians also is a time to honor the founder of their religion, Zartosht No-Diso, who died the day after winter solstice.
There are conflicting accounts on whether gifts are given for these two celebrations, but most accounts from U.S. perspectives do indicate that gifts are given.
Another Persian time of gift giving is Mehregan. It is the Persian harvest festival that celebrates the end of the harvest and the beginning of autumn. This is a celebration in which gifts of food and clothing are given.
During this time, there are feasts and all sorts of symbolic rituals that honor the harvest deity. One of the features of this celebration is the cleaning out of things one no longer uses and giving the items to people who need them.
The Dutch celebrate Christmas with the arrival of Sinterklaas on Dec. 5 each year. However, children must wait until Dec. 6 to open the gifts brought to them.
It is a celebration of Sint Niklaas who was a Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the first half of the fourth century — around the time the Vatican declared winter solstice to be the date the birth of Jesus would be celebrated by Christians.
It is believed that migrants from Hispania brought the legends of Sint Niklaas to The Netherlands where he took the place of Woden, the Germanic creator god, who rode a white horse and whose arrival was celebrated in early December.
Diwali is Hinduism’s celebration of lights. Like Chanukkah, Diwali is characterized by the lighting of candles for five nights. It is celebrated throughout India and the Indian diaspora.
Each day has its own demarcation and special significance with the fourth night being a time of exchanging gifts. The date for this celebration typically circles around mid-December each year.
Diwali is a national holiday in India. Click here to access resources on where to celebrate Diwali in Hawaiʻi.
Karwa Chauth is more of a regional holiday in India as it is mostly celebrated in the northern regions. This is a day that women fast and celebrate their relationships.
Women who are married prepare gifts to exchange while fasting through the day. Unmarried women fast as a way of instilling their hopes for a match with an ideal life partner.
There is conflicting information on why this celebration began and by whom, but it is a time to honor and celebrate the relationships in women’s lives and the communities that benefit from these relationships.
Many peoples around the world continue to celebrate Winter Solstice. This celebration has roots for thousands and thousands of years in most every culture around the world.
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So, when you hear Happy Holidays this season, remember that there are many different cultures and peoples around you that celebrate a multitude of holidays that are just as important as yours is to you. Spread the cheer to everyone in 2023!