Navigating the Holidays in 2020

by Christine Whyde, staff writer

November 2020 – As we move into the holiday season, we prepare to embrace the cold air of winter and gather with those most dear to us. While Christmas may be the first holiday that comes to mind, there are a plethora of holidays and festivals during this time of year. However, as many of us are aware, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing many of our traditions as we tackle celebrating this year in a more safe and socially-distanced way. A number of students at Bio-Med Science Academy will feel this impact directly. 

Eighth-grader Chloe Cook said, ”Some of my best memories with my family come from around the holidays, but I am willing to sacrifice them for the safety of everyone. I may love Black Friday shopping and running around stores, but in the end, it is just not worth it with all the crowds and high risk for getting the virus.“

Although COVID-19 may limit the festivities, there are still a number of ways that you can celebrate.

Diwali 

Candles burning for the festival of lights know as Diwali. Diwali is celebrated in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka although it is celebrated all around the world.

Starting November 12, millions worldwide celebrated a five-day Festival of Lights known as Diwali. Because it is a lunar holiday, based on the full moon, the date may change from year to year. While the holiday is primarily recognized by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains also partake in the festivities. 

Diwali is a truly joyous celebration, encouraging light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair as many prepare to enter the winter months. While celebrations may vary person to person, common activities include going to temples, lighting fireworks, and distributing treats. 

The most recognizable symbol of the holiday is the diya. Diyas are handmade clay cups that are then filled with oil and lit similar to a candle, extending the theme of light. 

Typically the large festival is focused on the gathering of communities and families. However, because of COVID-19 many were forced to keep their celebrations solely in the home, not even being able to visit temples. 

Thanksgiving

In late November, we just wrapped up observing Thanksgiving day. Given that this is such a popular holiday for many Americans, officials were largely concerned about compliance with COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines. Although there are no national statistics on how many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, 98.2% of 221 Bio-Med students who responded to a survey stated that their families typically recognize the day. 

Last year, the American Automobile Association (AAA) reported that 55 million Americans traveled over 50 miles for Thanksgiving. This trend, if followed this year, would have been in conflict with COVID-19 precautions and procedures for gatherings.

The CDC offered a number of recommendations for Thanksgiving gatherings. Low risk activities were small gatherings with only household members present, virtual dinners, preparing dishes for family and friends ahead of time, and shopping online. Activities with a moderate risk included: having small outdoor dinners, visiting orchards and pumpkin patches while following COVID-19 precautions, and attending small outdoor sporting events. Partaking in any larger, crowded activities was highly discouraged, although early estimates predicted that 38% of Americans would attend large gatherings.

On Thanksgiving day, the Transportation Security Association (TSA) reported that more than 560,000 people travelled via plane throughout the country. This is a significant decrease from last year, when nearly 1.6 million travellers were reported. However, this year, in the days leading up to the holiday, roughly one million people still traveled per day. Although in years previous there were over twice as many travellers, these numbers are still concerning given the current pandemic.

More than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported the day after Thanksgiving despite 20 states withholding data. In a Cable News Network (CNN) article, Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University stated, “In a week, more likely two weeks, we will see a surge upon a surge.”

Entering the winter months, there are still many holidays to come. Last year, AAA reported that an estimated 115.6 million people traveled between December 21 and January 1. To put the numbers into perspective, that is over a third of the United States population. With travel being discouraged amidst the pandemic, it is evident that many will need to rethink their plans and traditions surrounding this time. 

Christmas

The most widely observed winter holiday in the United States is Christmas. Annually on December 25th, many gather to exchange gifts under an indoor tree, eat a large meal, and celebrate the birth of Christ. While many of the festivities are standard from household to household, senior Blessing Mupinga’s family does something rather unique. 

She stated that, “Instead of going to sleep early on Christmas eve to wake up to all of the presents that Santa dropped off overnight, we stay up until about 2 a.m. When the clock strikes midnight, we start to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus and it’s followed by a series of praise and worship for all that he’s done for us.”

It is not uncommon for non-Christians to take part in the religious holiday as well. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that nine in 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, and less than half of those who do actually recognize the day as a solely religious festivity. A similar trend was also seen at Bio-Med, as 88% of 221 students reported that they celebrate the holiday.  

Because of the prominence of Christmas festivities in America, it is clear that some changes may need to take place in order to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. 

Yule 

In late December, neopagans, wiccans, and druids will celebrate Yule and the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. While the solstice itself is always on December 21, Yule festivities will continue on until January 1.

The festival is meant to celebrate the return of the sun and the welcome of warmth and light as the summer months approach. Given the wide array of people that recognize Yule, there are differing histories and traditions stemming from both Germanic and Ancient Nordic peoples. While pagans and druids typically focus solely on the return of life, many Wiccans associate the celebration with mythology. It is believed that on the day of the solstice the Holly King will give up his throne to the Oak King after they battle one another, signifying a transition from the cold and dark into the light and warm year to come.

Overall, the celebrations differ from person to person. However, it surprises some to learn that many Christmas traditions were actually influenced by Yule and pagan traditions. In the past, pagan communities would bring live trees into their homes to be decorated with candles, symbolizing the sun and stars. Druids were also known to cut down mistletoe as a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

Another common tradition is the burning of the Yule log. For this, a log may be decorated with natural items such as berries. Some also choose to write wishes for the new year onto paper, which can then be placed into the log. Then the log is burned in a fireplace or outdoors. 

Although celebrations are similar between the different pagan groups, there are some minor differences. Within the Germanic tradition it was more common to light candles throughout the home and on the tree. The Ancient Nordic people commonly had bonfires, burned Yule logs, and decorated their live trees with orbs to represent solar energy. Currently Wiccans may choose to draw on many traditions. It is common for them to decorate trees with natural objects such as orange slices, cinnamon sticks, popcorn, and cranberries, and other objects to represent stars. 

Hanukkah

Pictured are traditional Jewish items for the Holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is celebrated all around the world and lasts eight days.

Another popular winter holiday is Hanukkah, also commonly referred to as Chanukah, taking place from December 10 to December 18 this year. 

Traditionally, the eight-day festival is celebrated by Jewish communities through nightly lighting of the menorah, eating fried foods, and partaking in special prayers. Additionally, gifts are given on each night of the celebration. It is common to play many games during this time, one of the most popular involving the dreidel. 

While estimates of how many Americans partake in the holiday are unclear, one news site reports that for every 14 people that celebrate Christmas one person will celebrate Hanukkah. One of the main reasons for the confusion is that within the Jewish community Hanukkah is a rather minor holiday, because it holds more cultural value than religious meaning. Additionally, it is a common misconception that Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent to Christmas. Many blame this on commercialism in America, as stores sensationalize the holiday and advertise products.

Bio-Med senior Suzie Krauss says, “Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, which celebrates the miracles of God. Specifically, how the oil for the lantern lasted eight days instead of just one. It is a beautiful holiday and it means a lot to me and my family.”

Kwanzaa

A holiday celebration unique to only the United States is Kwanzaa. Started in 1966, the holiday takes place from December 26 to January 1 every year. 

Unlike the two winter holidays previously mentioned, Kwanzaa is a purely cultural holiday. According to the University Of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, the founder of the celebration, Dr. Maulana Karenga, ”created this festival for Afro-Americans as a response to the commercialism of Christmas.” Additionally, the festival was intended to unite African-Americans and to bring them closer to their African heritage. 

Each of the seven days focuses on different principles (the Nguzo Saba): Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work & Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Every day of the celebration, an additional candle is lit on the candelabra called the kinara. On the kinara there are three red candles, three green candles, and a black one in the center. 

Aside from the candles there are six additional symbols of Kwanzaa. The first is the mat or mkeka, symbolizing the tradition and history of the African-American community. Next are the crops or mazao, which represent African harvest celebrations. Another symbol is the corn or muhindi, that symbolize children within the community and their futures. The unity cup or kikombe cha umoja reflects the principle of unity. The last symbol is the gifts or zawadi, which are given on the last day as a representation of the fruits of the parents’ labor and rewards for their children. 

Lunar New Year

On February 12, roughly 1.5 billion will celebrate the Lunar New Year, commonly known as Chinese New Year. Despite the name, many other nations and people of Asian descent partake in the celebration, including Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, and Laos. 

While the Solar New Year is always on January 1, the Lunar New Year will begin on the first new moon that falls within the Solar New Year and February 20th of the given year. After this day, the celebration will extend 15 days, each day corresponding to a different element of the presentation. The length of the celebration makes it the longest national public holiday in the world.

Similar to Thanksgiving, this holiday is a time to spend with family and friends. In Asia the main celebrations will span several days to allow people to travel home. Nearly everyone in China is allowed seven to twelve days off of work, while children will get the whole month off of school. 

Traditional decorations for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet

A lot goes into celebrating a holiday of this scale. In preparation, many will deeply clean their homes and communities in hopes of washing away filth and sickness for the coming year. Once the day has arrived, towns and homes will be decorated with red lanterns. Additionally, children will receive red envelopes filled with money from their elders. Then the celebration will begin with large gatherings, many lights, and lightning fireworks, all in hopes of fending off evil spirits. Due to the number of people typically involved in the festival, changes will ultimately need to be made in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in many nations. 

In the United States, Lunar New Year looks a bit different as adults and children may not get nearly as much time away from work and school. However, there are still many large celebrations throughout the country, some extending for the entirety of the month. 

Moving Forward

While many holiday traditions have to be sacrificed or amended this year due to COVID-19, with talks of upcoming vaccinations, many are hopeful that some normalcy will return by next year’s holiday season.

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