The holiday season, and when we celebrate it, is constantly changing
By Jan Siegel
As we get ready to embark on the holiday season…oh wait. When did the holiday season begin? Not too many years ago, the season referred to the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But throughout the decades, the season has started earlier and earlier. Most sources agree that today, the holiday season is the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But for many retailers, the festivities are merged into the period right after Halloween—unless you shop at Walmart, where Christmas decorations first started showing in August.
Fall is the best season for holidays—there’s Halloween, All Saints’ Day, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), All Souls’ Day, and Armistice Day. Autumn also brings the five-day Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali, which is also celebrated by Buddhists and Sikhs. Diwali is often called the festival of lights because it celebrates the victory of light over darkness, and good over evil, with firecrackers and lamps, in addition to gift giving and family dinners.
Later in the fall comes Thanksgiving, a truly American holiday that encompasses the family. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, is celebrated with the lighting of menorahs for eight days, as well as gift giving and holiday dinners. Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s Day round out the two-month holiday season.
The word “holiday” is an old English word that is actually a combination of two words—“halig,” meaning holy, and “daeg,” meaning day. Around 950, the word “haligdaeg” was used. In 1200, the recorded word was “haliday.” Finally by 1500, the word transitioned into the spelling and the usage that we know today. In the year 1400, the definition of “haligdaeg” was a religious festival and a day of recreation. Today, the British still refer to vacations as holidays.
To understand the dates of the holidays, one needs a calendar. But calendars are complicated also. In ancient times, calendars were based on the cycle of the sun to determine planting and harvesting times. Many religious observances were based on a lunar cycle. The Jewish, Islamic and Chinese calendars are all based on those cycles.
The Julian calendar was created by the Romans in 46 B.C. under the rule of Julius Caesar. To make the calendar successful, Caesar took bits and parts of known calendars of the period. The division of hours into 60 minutes, and minutes into 60 seconds, came from the Mesopotamians; the concept of a 24-hour day was Egyptian, and the division of the week into seven days came from the Jewish calendar. The word “month” came from the word “moon.”
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Gregorian calendar because Easter, which was supposed to be the start of the spring equinox on March 21, was getting further and further away from that date. The Julian calendar had miscalculated the length of the solar year by 11 minutes, and so with the passage of time, the calendar no longer had the significance of being useful for agricultural use. As careful as Pope Gregory was in recalculating the calendar, his system is still off by 26 seconds a year. By 4909, the Gregorian calendar will be off one full day.
In the beginning, it was only Catholic countries that adopted the Gregorian calendar. While most countries have now adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar. England did not use the calendar until 1752, and Russia did not conform to the Gregorian calendar until 1918. To compensate for the difference in dates, 11 days were added to the new calendar when the old one was changed.
George Washington was born Feb. 11 by the old calendar, but once England and the colonies accepted the Gregorian calendar, Washington’s birthday was changed to Feb. 22. Benjamin Franklin welcomed the change, writing, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able go to bed on Sept. 2 and not have to get up until Sept. 14.”
Take a “Moment in Time” and enjoy the holiday season with family and friends. It is a wonderful time of the year for all celebrations. Have a very happy and healthy New Year.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.