Thanksgiving is the most unifying of American holidays: almost everyone, from Christians to Sikhs to Muslims to Jews, observes this feast. And that was precisely the idea. Although Thanksgiving has its origins in the much-touted legend of the Pilgrims sitting down at table with the Wampanoag tribe in 1621, it wasn't a bona-fide national holiday until the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln elevated it from a New England regional feast day to a national harvest celebration in order to unite the divided country. Turkey, a bird indigenous to North America, is the star of the Thanksgiving table; other staples include yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
Recommended reading: When the tryptophan-induced Thanksgiving stupor has set in, readers should explore Francine Prose's Gluttony (2003), a marvelous title in Oxford's Seven Deadly Sins series. Prose argues that the current obsession with thinness, diets and food is not just a cultural fad, but a larger "metaphysical discussion" about abstinence, self-control and overcoming temptation.
Advent (Western Christianity)
The word "advent" is derived from the Latin term adventus, which means "arrival." Advent is the time when Christians prepare for Christ's coming, which they celebrate at Christmas. Liturgical Christians, especially Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, are most likely to observe all the trappings of the season (candles, wreaths, special hymns, and vestments), but many low-church evangelicals have begun to adopt Advent rituals as well. Like Lent—another somber, roughly month-long season that precedes a joyous church feast—Advent is a time of penitence and introspection.
Recommended Reading: For evangelicals, there's Just 25 Days 'Til Christmas: An Advent Celebration for the Entire Family (Strang, Sept.) by Rebecca Bauer. Filled with activities, games and crafts, it's sure to help kids understand the season better. Adults who crave some spiritual depth during the season shouldn't miss Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, a re-released 2002 collection of daily readings from the likes of Thomas Merton, Philip Yancey, Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard (Orbis, Sept.).
December 8 — 15
25 Kislev to 3 Tevet
Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is rooted in a particular historical experience. It commemorates the miracle of successful Jewish resistance to Hellenic oppression in the second century B.C., when a small Jewish army set about to reclaim the Jerusalem temple and purge it of all Greek defilement. They found that only one small flask of consecrated oil—enough for one day—remained in the temple after the Greeks' pillaging. But, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. Hanukkah is a time for Jews to proclaim that miracle by lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of the holiday. Hanukkah is a joyous holiday filled with games, parties, gifts for children and special fried foods like doughnuts and latkes.
Recommended reading: Scott-Martin Kosofsky's The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook to the Jewish Year uses vernacular "books of customs" from the 16th to 19th centuries to help readers understand popular Jewish observance of the Sabbath and holidays. It's helpful both as a history lesson and a guide to modern Jewish practice (Harper San Francisco, Oct.). Also, museum curator Susan Braunstein offers Luminous Art: Hanukkah Menorahs of the Jewish Museum, a coffee-table art book about Hanukkah lamps from around the world (Yale, Nov.).
This grand winter solstice ceremony celebrates the sun goddess Amaterasu. In Shinto, the ancient indigenous faith of Japan, Amaterasu is the most important deity. Shinto legend states that after the storm god angered her, she retreated into a cave and had to be lured out by the other gods and goddesses playing special music. In the winter solstice festival, people celebrate the fact that Amaterasu has emerged from her cave and that the days will begin to get longer.
Recommended reading: Sokyo Ono, and Sadao Sakamoto's Shinto: The Kami Way is a fine source for basic information about Shinto traditions, beliefs, festivals and practices (Tuttle, Mar.).
Christmas (Western Christianity)
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus the Christ in Bethlehem, Judea, around the year 4 BCE. It has taken the coveted position as the premier holiday of the Western Christian world, replacing Easter as the most important feast day of the Christian year. Legends abound concerning the origins of many of the holiday's traditions; evergreens are said to be preferred as Christmas trees because their perennial green color symbolizes Christ's everlasting life, and decorations of lights reflect beliefs in Christ as the light of the world. Gifts are given to commemorate the gifts that the Magi brought to the infant Jesus.
Recommended reading: For a respite during the Christmas season, pop in an audio recording of Charles Dickens's beloved classic A Christmas Carol. The unabridged Listening Library version features British actor Jim Dale, the memorable voice behind the audiobooks of all five Harry Potter recordings (2003). Also for fun, check out Brendan Powell Smith's irreverent The Brick Testament: The Story of Christmas, which retells the story of the Holy Family using Legos (Quirk, Dec.).