From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Myths and Legends Behind Christmas


Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights) is another December holiday whose celebration commemorates a much earlier series of events, this time recorded in the two Apocryphal books of the Maccabees. According to the story, when Judah Maccabee, leader of the Jewish revolt against Seleucid (Syrian) occupation, and his brothers drove the Seleucid king Antiochus IV out of Israel in 165 BCE, they also reclaimed and cleansed the Temple of Solomon. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil left to light the menorah for one day. During the eight days that it took to press and consecrate more oil, the menorah miraculously continued to burn.

Hanukkah may also represent the martyrdom of a woman named Hannah and her sons for refusing to abandon their faith under Seleucid rule. Some historians also believe that it may have been the delayed celebration of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days after the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (late November or early December), while Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret were celebrated in late September or early October.

2 Maccabees doesn’t specifically mention the festival, though the Talmud does. However, the festival was definitely being celebrated by the first century CE, as it is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus.


Kwanzaa, an African-American festival celebrating the harvest, is the youngest of the formally recognized festivals in the Christmas season. Celebrated from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African-American activist author. Intended as a cultural rather than a religious festival, Kwanzaa exists to celebrate African-American traditions via harvest festivals from northeastern Africa.

Kwanzaa has attracted controversy as a “made-up” festival connected to Pan-Africanism. The festival does reflect the rather odd tendency to see all African culture as East African and Swahili-based (most African-Americans originally came from West Africa, which has quite different traditions). Also, the placing of the festival at the end of December is incongruous–this would put it near the beginning of the Dry Season in SubSaharan Africa, not a time when anyone would be harvesting things.

That said, it’s hardly the first time someone has syncretized winter traditions from somewhere else for their own usage. And considering that the embarrassing Companions of St Nicholas have only recently been reconsidered as a Christmas tradition, one could say that there just might be a need for something like Kwanzaa to counteract something like Zarte Piet.

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