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Impress friends and family with fascinating holiday trivia tidbits

December 22, 2005

There's no need for being at a loss for words at the half-dozen or so holiday gatherings you'll be attending this season. As rich as the month of December is in traditions of celebration and libation, it's twice as loaded with fertile sources for entertaining conversation. No other season is as steeped in myths and trivia.

Candlelight

Item: For Jews, Catholics, and pagans, candlelight has long symbolized the lasting power of faith against religious persecution. December without candles would be like summer without sunshine -- candles have a distinguished place in winter's spiritual celebrations.

The Jewish "Festival of the Lights" -- or Chanukah -- marks a miracle said to have happened about a century after Alexander the Great conquered areas of the Middle East. One of Alexander's successors, Antiochus IV, forbade Judaism and tried to destroy the Jewish temple.

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The Jews fought and regained their temple, but found that its lamp held but one day's worth of oil. Yet it burned steadily for eight days, enough time to get more oil to keep the lamp continuously burning thereafter.

Jews have celebrated those eight days ever since, lighting Menorah candles every year and gathering with friends and family for food and celebration. This year, Chanukah begins Dec. 25 and ends Jan. 2.

Almost as soon as candles were invented, ancients engaged in a form of pagan worship by lighting candles in the dark of winter to help revive the sun. According to some historians, Christian leaders who tried to eliminate the practice soon realized the futility of their attempt and instead incorporated candle burning as part of Christmas celebrations of Christ's arrival as "the way and the light."

In 17th century England, the practice of Catholicism was a crime punishable by death. Undaunted, Catholics used candles to signal from their homes when the coast was clear for priests to come inside and conduct Mass. As with the Jews and the pagans, candlelight for Catholics was as spiritual as it was practical.

Celebrated as a holiday

Christmas was not declared a legal holiday in the United States until 1836, when the State of Alabama made it official. The last state to do so was Oklahoma, in 1907, according to the website santas.net.

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