December

The month of December is the last month in the year and the first month of winter. The winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, occurs between December 20th and 23rd every year in the northern hemisphere. This year, winter begins on December 21.

The first holiday one generally thinks of when one thinks of December is Christmas. Although it has been secularized and nationalized, Christmas actually celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe came to redeem humankind. Over the years, and largely through the efforts of the Emperor Constantine to make Christianity palatable to pagans of his day, the holiday became a mixture of Christian celebration and non-Christian traditions of Christmas trees, mistletoe, and Santa Claus. In the United States, 96% of the population celebrates Christmas in one way or another, and the economy has been dependent upon it, as retail sales, grocery sales, and tourism and vacation sales have their biggest boost at this time of year.

Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is a Jewish holiday known as The Festival of Lights, the Feast of Dedication, or the Feast of the Maccabees. Celebrated over a period of eight days, it commemorates the Maccabean Revolt of the second century and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem when the Jews had only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, affording them time prepare and consecrate fresh oil. Traditionally, Hanukkah is observed by lighting one candle each night until all eight candles in the menorah are afire.

And for those who prefer non-religious celebrations, there is the holiday of Kwanzaa, which was created in 1966 by an African-American social activist named Maulana Karenga, who said that he wanted to "give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration, from December 26 through January 1, which embraces activities which, according to its founder, are designed to unite the study of African traditions and common humanist principles.

The naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by Japan at 7:48 in the morning on Sunday, December 7, 1941. The attack killed 2,402 and wounded 1,282, and sank or damaged numerous ships and aircraft. It is commonly said that the attack took place before the declaration of war was delivered. That is not exactly true, as what was sent to the U.S. was not a declaration of war, but notification that the ongoing peace negotiations were at an end. Admiral Yamamoto had planned for the attack to occur 30 minutes after that declaration was delivered to the White House, but that notification was sent via the Japanese embassy, which took longer than expected transcribing and then delivering the message. The bombing ultimately took place before the message was delivered and some nine hours after the American code breakers had decoded it and passed it on. The formal declaration of war was not seen until it was printed on the front page of Japanese newspapers on the evening of December 8.

On December 8, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his "Infamy Speech," widely regarded as one of the most famous political speeches in the 20th century. In that speech, he informed the American people that Japanese forces had, in the previous 24 hours, also torpedoed American ships on the high seas, attacked Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island, and Midway Island. His speech reversed years of public opinion which dictated isolationism for the country. One-half hour after he delivered the speech, Congress declared war on Japan.

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, December 15 would be observed as Bill of Rights Day. Written by James Madison, the Bill of Rights limits the powers given to the federal government and protects freedom of speech, press, and religion, freedom of assembly and to redress the government as well as the right to keep and bear arms. It also prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, self-incrimination, unreasonable search and seizure, and guarantees due process of law. It also specifies that any powers not granted to the federal government belong to the citizens or the individual states. In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, fourteen copies were made: one for each of the 13 states, and one for the government. The New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia copies are all missing. The North Carolina copy was stolen by a Union soldier as the Civil War was wrapping up in April, 1865. It was finally returned to North Carolina 140 years later, in 2005.

December 31 known as, New Year's Eve, is the last day of the calendar before New Year's Day. It is a separate observance entirely, celebrated with fireworks, music, and social gatherings, with New York City being a very popular destination for that night, presumably because so many people want to be in Times Square for the large celebration there. At that location, a 1,070-pound Waterford crystal ball is lowered during the last minute of the year. Other cities and towns throughout the United States lower other objects, in a good-natured mocking of the Times Square celebration. In Atlanta, Georgia, they lower a peach; in Miami, Florida, an orange; in Eastport, Maine, a sardine; in Brasstown, North Carolina, an opossum; and in Steelton, Pennsylvania, they lower a steamroller.

Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26, originated in England, where it is also known as St. Stephen's Day. It is the day when people give gifts to those less fortunate than themselves, and is celebrated primarily in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and the British Commonwealth of Nations. It has caught on in the United States only in recent years. There are numerous tales as to how it came to be a tradition, but the observation can be traced back to the Middle Ages when the lords were obligated to give the serfs boxes of cloth, tools, and food, and Christmas time was convenient as the time when people were gathered with their families and thus easy to assemble. One of the earliest mentions of the practice is from the Christmas carol Good Kind Wenceslas, which is based on the true story of St. Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia (907-935). The carol begins, "Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen," and goes on to tell of how he saw a poor man in the snow, gathering wood for winter fuel. He asks his page about the man, and then directs the page, "Bring me flesh, and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I will see him dine when we bear them thither."

December is designated as Bingo Month. The game is played using printed cards with 25 squares in 5 rows and 5 columns, with random numbers in each square. Numbers are picked, again at random, and called out, and as they are, the appropriate numbers are blocked out on the players' cards. The first person to achieve the blacking out of a line (or other configuration, as agreed to), shouts "Bingo!" and wins the game. Although most Bingo games are geared toward those who want to make money, or for fundraising reasons, there are many people who play simply for fun. While the game has been around the United States since 1929, a similar game was played in Italy in the early 16th century. It was first introduced in the United States as the game "beano," which was adapted from a game played at a traveling carnival.

Popular icons and historical figures with birthdays in December are Little Richard, Jim Morrison, George Armstrong Custer, Martin Van Buren, Britney Spears, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Frank Sinatra, Nostradamus, and Josef Stalin.

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