10 Offbeat Holidays Celebrated in U.S., Canada
Today is Groundhog Day, that time of the year made famous by that excellent Bill Murray film, when a rodent either pops up out of the ground or doesn’t, and brings the world good luck or misery for the coming year. At least I think that’s how it goes. Let’s walk through 10 fffbeat American holidays and see if we can learn something new.
10. Groundhog Day. So Groundhog Day is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition that first appears, in writing, in 1840. Apparently, German-speaking peoples (“Pennsylvania Dutch” is, confusingly, a term for Germanic peoples who settled the New World) had a tradition of weather-predicting by a rodent (usually badger or fox) or large mammal (bear) and this was continued in the New World by German settlers using the groundhog. The world’s most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil, who lives in, yes, Punxsutawney, Penn. and has a three-day festival feting him every year. Here is how the tradition officially goes: if a groundhog emerges from his burrow to see his shadow, due to it being a clear day, spring will arrive early. If he doesn’t see his shadow, winter lasts for another six weeks.
9. St Patrick’s Day. Ah, yes, March 17th. The one time of the year that it’s acceptable to start drinking at 9 a.m. (I still look back fondly on my first visit to Chico, California - an infamous college town - to visit friends for St. Patrick’s Day.) St. Patrick’s Day is amazing, and not just because of the cheap green beer and shamrock milkshakes. St. Patrick’s Day is an official (as of the 17th century) religious holiday celebrated by Christians around the world to mark the ascendance of Christianity to Ireland. The reason there is so much booze involved with this holiday is because Lent’s restrictions on eating and drinking were lifted for the day. Thanks, Saint Patrick!
8. Boxing Day. Let’s go to Canada. Relax, folks, Canada is basically the 51st state, so it’s not like I’m cutting any major corners here. Boxing Day is celebrated in Canada, Mother England, and other settler colonies like Australia and New Zealand on December 26, the day after Christmas. It’s basically like a second Christmas, and it’s so popular in the British Commonwealth that there’s now an unofficial “Boxing Week” that’s dedicated to shopping for gifts. It’s like Black Friday, but all week long. Another legend has it that Boxing Day is in remembrance of the “Christmas Boxes” masters gave their servants to take home on Dec. 26. After waiting on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants had a day off with their family on the 26th. Boxing Day is also celebrated by other Protestant countries and some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ones as well, but it’s powered mainly by commerce in the Commonwealth.
7. Kwanzaa. You knew this was coming. Kwanzaa, aside from being mocked by Ice Cube in the film Friday After Next, was created by a college professor, Ron Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Everett), in the mid-60s to give African-Americans something to celebrate other than Jesus and Santa Claus: family, community, and culture. It begins on December 26 and lasts for seven days (seven is a symbolic number for pan-Africanists). It was originally intended to be an alternative to white power structures that Karenga faced at the time. Today, though, Kwanzaa is celebrated by most of its revellers alongside Christmas.
6. Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a strange holiday: You get together with family and friends, eat a bunch of food, drink a bunch of beverages, and watch football or get into political or religious arguments with those you love. Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1621 by pilgrims who were celebrating their survival in the New World, though this is subject to an academic debate. Apparently, Thanksgiving was celebrated in Virginia earlier than it was in Massachusetts. (John F. Kennedy had to get involved in this debate to settle the issue in 1963.) Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863.
5. Arbor Day. Easily the dorkiest holiday on this list, it is nevertheless worth noting. Arbor Day is the day where you and your friends or family or co-workers are supposed to go out into the sunshine and plant a tree. It is celebrated on the last Friday of April, and was made an official holiday by the state of Nebraska way back in 1872. President Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation of Arbor Day for school children in 1907, so it’s not like this is some new holiday being pushed on Americans by radical environmentalists. Do yourself a favor and celebrate Arbor Day this year.
4. Chinese New Year. Usually celebrated in January or February, and is based on the Lunar calendar, this year it starts on February 16, so be sure to take a trip to your nearest large urban area and catch a Chinese New Year’s Parade. These parades are the ones with the lion and dragon dancers and the crazy fireworks. Chinese families may also celebrate with a dumpling-making party and giving children cash in a red envelope emblazoned with Chinese characters.Traditionally celebrated as a Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year has grown into a global celebration thanks to the mass migration of Chinese people into every part of the world.
3. Hanukkah. We all know what Hanukkah is, but at the same time we don’t. It’s the holiday our Jewish friends celebrate during Christmas season. Instead of having a tree, they light a bunch of candles and read aloud stories about faith and freedom. Hanukkah is a celebration of the rededication of the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which is in turn a story about the ancient Jews throwing an oppressive regime out of their lands and gaining their freedom back. Hanukkah lasts eight days, and the candles, which are held in a Menorah, are lit one at a time until all are glowing with freedom-y goodness. Hanukkah has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas!
2. April Fool’s Day. This is your correspondent’s favorite holiday, and it’s pretty self-explanatory: You fool people. It’s been celebrated since the 19th century, and probably earlier, but nobody seems to know exactly when it became an officially unofficial holiday. What’s your most memorable April Fool’s story?
1. Holi. The Festival of Colors! This is a Hindu holiday celebrated in the springtime and it’s crazy cool. Holi is an ancient festival and has been adopted by many non-Hindu cultures throughout the world. The Hindu explanation for this holiday is excellent: the day before Holi you gather with friends and family in front of a bonfire and perform a bunch of rituals while you pray that your internal evils with be destroyed by the bonfire. For Hindus, the sister of the demon king Hiranyakashipu was destroyed by a fire, and this ended up being a great thing for mankind. The sister’s name? Holika. On the day of Holi, which is when it is celebrated by most non-Hindus, colored powder is thrown about to signify the arrival of spring. For practicing Hindus, this colored powder-throwing exercise has the added dimension of signifying a purifying rite. Holi begins on March 1 this year, so Google your nearest Holi site and grab some friends.