Read about holiday traditions at the library

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 16, 2011

By Gretchen Beilfuss Witt
Rowan Public Library
This time of year can be hectic for everyone but special, as well. We each have our own unique traditions to observe, either communitywide or family specific, religious or cultural. I am always curious as to how these observances got started. Some customs began eons ago ó our custom of giving gifts dates back to early Roman winter solstice celebrations ó and some are much more contemporary.
Valerie Menardsí ěThe Latino Holiday Bookî describes two Hispanic-American contributions to main stream Christmas celebrations. Cuetlaxochitl is the Aztec name for the beautiful la flor de nochebuena or the flower of Christmas Eve. One story claims that a poor girl in Mexico wishing to take flowers to church was instructed by an angel to gather weeds and take them as an offering. These weeds were miraculously transformed into poinsettias. The U.S. name comes from the first U.S. minister to Mexico, who brought the plant to the United States in 1829, Joel R. Poinsett.
Luminaria are an even more complex amalgam of traditions. Native Americans in New Mexico, adapting their bonfire custom, made little fires outside churches and houses. In the 19th century when Chinese paper lanterns came into the picture, luminaria were placed in paper bags. These little fires symbolically light the way for the journey to Bethlehem.
Kwanzaa began in the 1966 by Maulana Karenga as an effort to establish a cultural observance, specifically for African-American and others of African descent; a way to celebrate heritage. Using Swahili, a common language among much of East Africa, and synthesizing elements from African harvest festivals, Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 to New Year’s Day. In ěKwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking,î Eric Copage shares recipes as well as cultural and historical samples to illustrate Kwanzaa principles and experiences.
There are many older practices commemorating the Christmas season. The practice of sending Christmas cards began in England with Sir Henry Cole, a founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum. By the mid-1840s, the custom was adopted by the royal family; as postage became less expensive, more people participated. Cards in the United States were too expensive until a lithographer, Louis Prang, around 1875, mass-produced them.
Other customs signify the ending of the holiday season. Historically, Christmas Day was the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas, ending on Twelfth Night or Epiphany when the Magi came to visit the Christ child. Special cakes were made and gifts exchanged. In Shakespeareís time, Twelfth Night was one of masquerades and revelry. An almond in a sliver of cake brought good luck to the finder.
Another tradition has the Christmas season ending on the day of the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of Christ. The custom of blessing candles on this day gave it the name Candlemas. Decorations would be taken down, the last piece of the Yule log put away for next year and the Christmas plants burned and spread over the gardens. Candlemas day was a good day for weathercasting. If a sunny day, folks could expect 40 more days of cold and snow; in America, Feb. 2 is more commonly known as Groundhog Day.
These and other interesting facts can be found at your library. However itís observed, enjoy your holiday season.
December library hours ó Dec. 24-27, all locations closed for Christmas holiday. Dec. 31-Jan. 2, all locations closed.
Displays: Headquarters, Kwanzaa by Eleanor Qadirah, Sacred Heart; South, Christmas theme by Lizbeth Murph; East, holiday by Mary Earnhardt.
Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.