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Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State. She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of
Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care. She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials. Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
Holiday History Highlighted
by Marge Knoth
Month after month they appear, demanding your immediate attention. Holidays are one
thing an activity director cannot get around. They are fun, sure, but have you ever given
much thought to the origin of holidays, or how they are commemorated in other lands?
Well if not, slip into some comfortable shoes and grab a clipboard for activity ideas. Get
set for some exciting sightseeing as we begin a brisk walk through the centuries. Open
your eyes wide, and as we pass by, observe carefully the holiday celebrations in full
Let’s first stop at the New Year gala. For centuries this holiday was celebrated on the
first day of spring. In the Middle Ages it was on Christmas Day. The rough Roman
calendar contained just ten months until Julius Caesar solicited the services of a Greek
scientist named Sosigenes to create a more accurate one. He added two months,
making the year 365 days long. Caesar then decided that each new year should begin
on January 14 to honor the Roman god of Janus. This god had two faces, one looking
forward and one looking back. In Roman times the new year was welcomed with bells.
Church bells would be muffled with cloth, but at midnight they would be uncovered and
would ring out loud and clear.
Greek children celebrated the new year somewhat like today’s kids celebrate
Halloween–going door to door. They carried apples and sang, hoping to get money. In
England people would open their doors at midnight to let out the old year and welcome
the new. The English, for good luck, would take a walk on New Year’s Day and silently
slip a coin to the first person they met. The Scottish people believe the first person to
enter their home on New Year’s should be a tall dark-haired man carrying a small piece
Moving on down the lane to Chinese New Year, we see that it can fall anywhere from
January 20 to February 19. It arrives at the second new moon following the winter
solstice. Their calendar is based on twelve lunar cycles, and their year is 354 days
long. Tradition has it that the years are counted from the time rice was first planted in
China about 5000 years ago. The Chinese New Year is celebrated with parades.
Since the dragon is a sign of good luck, the parade features a huge human dragon
made up of some 50 people. Fireworks are set off to scare away evil spirits. (Jot a
note: Have school kids dress as a dragon. Invite a Chinese person to dress in native
clothing and discuss the holiday. Serve a Chinese meal.)
Let’s move on. Oh, look! Epiphany or 12th day is in full swing. This January 6th
Christian holy day arrives 12 days after the feast of Jesus Christ’s birth. It recognizes
the Three Kings or Magi paying homage to the Christ Child. In Spain kids leave their
shoes, filled with straw, out for the king’s camels, expecting candy in return. The French
bake a coin inside a cake and the one who gets it is a king or queen for the day. ( Idea!
Grab your pen. Have residents set their shoes out and you fill them with treats. Read
scriptural account of the Three Kings. * Hide an edible coin (flat candy) inside a cake.
The winner becomes your facility king or queen.)
What are they doing with those animals? Oh, It’s Groundhog Day! For centuries
people have observed animals to predict weather. In Germany it was badgers, in
England hedgehogs. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have “groundhog watching clubs.”
The groundhog is called a prophet. If he sees his shadow, he rushes back into his
hole to sleep another six weeks. If he doesn’t, spring will be arriving soon. (Memo:
Show the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. It is about a man who kept living
the same day over and over again until he got it right.)
A romantic holiday! Let’s check it out. Valentine’s Day traces its roots to Lupercalia, a
Roman February holiday that once honored the god Pan Lupercalia or Luprcus. This
god was thought to protect Romans from wolves that roamed there. The festival
featured dancing and games. Names of young girls would be placed in a box (Does
this sound like Valentine’s Day?) Young men seeking a date for the festival could draw
one out. Britain and Europe also enjoyed this custom. When the church was
established in Rome the emphasis was taken off the Roman god and placed on St.
A pagan emperor, Claudius II, forbad his subjects to associate with Christians.
Valentinus was a follower of Christ and a priest who assisted Christians being
persecuted under Claudius. The emperor issued a degree: “Whoever refuses to
worship my 12 gods will be put to death.” Valentinus refused. Legend has it that while
in prison awaiting death, the jail keeper was so impressed with Valentinus’ faith that he
and his family became Christians. He enlisted Valentinus to tutor his blind daughter,
Julia. One day a light filled the cell and Julia screamed, “Valentinus, I can see! Praise
be to God!.” Just prior to his being beheaded he sent Julia a letter encouraging her to
stay close to God. He signed it, “From Your Valentinus.” The date was February 14, 27
Many foods are associated with love: oysters, champagne, chocolates, bananas,
asparagus, oranges, cucumbers, and apples. The Greek goddess Aphrodite
considered the apple sacred. Spices, especially allspice, are considered love foods. In
the 12th century, monks were forbidden to use it because it they felt it encouraged lust.
The Chinese people used it as a cure for impotence. (Make a note: Serve oyster soup,
mold chocolate, discuss famous lovers like Casanova, Don Juan, and Rudolf
Today it’s President’s Day, but here we see Lincoln’s birthday being celebrated
February 12 and Washington’s on the 22nd. But this is strange! The family records
page in George Washington’s own Bible say he was born the 11th day of February
1732 around 10 a.m. Why do we consider his birthday on the 22nd? Because of a
calendar change (see Leap Year, below).
Every four years we celebrate Leap Year on February 29. Why? The astronomical year–
the time it takes the earth to complete its orbit around the sun, is 365.242 days. Julius
Caesar, 45 years before Christ, established the solar calendar at 365 days and six
hours long. Every four years those extra hours add up to a full day. He revised his
calendar calling it the Julian calendar. Every fourth year on it featured an extra day,
added in February. It was then found that Caesar’s calendar was 11 minutes and 14
seconds too long. This is not much, but it added up, century by century, until the Spring
Equinox was constantly regressing into the winter season. It had fallen from March 21
to March 12. Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 updated the calendar. This one was called the
Gregorian calendar. Ten days were abruptly dropped from the Julian calendar, and leap
year was corrected by omitting three leap year days every 400 years. In other words,
leap year would not take place unless the centenary years were divisible by 400.
Roman Catholics began using the calendar in 1582, but Protestant countries refused
until 1752. This included England and her American colonies. (Thus George
Washington’ change in birthdays, from February 11 to February 22.)
Let’s swing over now to the St Patrick’s celebration. Everyone’s wearing green in
memory of Ireland, the Emerald Isle. St. Pat was born in Scotland in 389. At 16, he was
captured by pirates and sold as a slave where he cared for pigs. After years of slavery,
sailors helped him escape. He went to Italy and became a priest and later a bishop.
He taught about God, using a three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity. He founded
churches and schools. All Irish kings and citizens were subject to the High King Tara.
He issued an ordinance that all fires in Ireland were to be extinguished before Easter
and relit from his personal fire. St. Pat disobeyed and angered the king. Patrick argued
he had built his fire in honor of Christ as “the Light of the World” who had risen from the
dead. The king’s heart was touched, and one legend says the king became a
Christian. St. Patrick, who died in 493, is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland.
(Make a note: Serve traditional cabbage or split pea soup. Make green finger Jello.
Hang a rainbow on the wall, put a pot of gold (green gumdrops) at the end of it.)
And here’s the April Fool’s celebration. Gifts were once exchanged on April Fool’s Day.
This holiday may have started in France where it was called Poisson d’Avril meaning
“April fish.” The new year was once celebrated at this time of the year. In the 1500s
when it was changed, some Europeans refused to go along with the new date, so they
became known as “April fools.” Playing tricks and hoaxes on trusting people goes back
hundreds of years to the French, British, and Scots. In India the holiday is called Huli
and is celebrated March 31st. (Make a note!
Discuss tricks residents played or had played on them. Ask residents if they remember
“April Fool’s candy”--cotton stuffed chocolate drops, caramel-covered wood blocks, and
Let’s turn the corner here and view the Arbor Day celebration. Arbor Day began in
Nebraska about 1872. Since the soil there was dry and blowing away, Sterling Morton,
editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper crusaded to have trees planted to stop the
damage. With more than a million planted that first year, Nebraska became known as
the Tree Planter’s State. Other states followed. Today the holiday is celebrated with
school children planting trees. (Grab your pen.
Call nurseries and ask for a tree donation. Invite school kids to help residents plant it.
Read Joyce Kilmer ’s poem Trees. Display various leaves and barks for residents to
identify. Let residents put leaves between paper and color till veins appear.)
And here is Easter, the holiday whereby Christians recall Christ’s rising from the dead.
Easter was celebrated on various dates until the Nicean Council in 325 fixed it as the
first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. Anglo-Saxon people long before
Christianity held festivals in honor of Eastre their goddess of light and spring. Her
name in English is Easter. Coloring eggs is an ancient custom for celebrating Spring.
(Make a note: Have a city-wide egg hunt. Hold a sunrise church service and serve an
early breakfast to attendees.)
And next we come to May Day celebrated May 1st. It has its roots in Roman times when
the blossoming of flowers was celebrated. Flora, the goddess of flowers, was honored
with floral offerings. Women arose before dawn and washed their faces in the dew,
thinking it would make them beautiful forever after. In Europe, long ago, fearful people
built fires to frighten off evil spirits. Some cut down trees and brought them inside
hoping to win the favor of the tree God. Branches were hung over their doors for the
same reason. A maypole was fashioned by decorating a cut-down tree trunk with
ribbons and garlands of hawthorn. A lovely young girl would become the “Queen of
May” and reign over the grand event. Gifts were given to sweethearts. Today some still
celebrate by giving baskets filled with flowers.
And here is Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day. Beginning after the Civil
War, the holiday honors soldiers killed in wars. Some southern states celebrate a
Confederate Memorial Day. (Jot a note: Ask Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force
recruiters to visit in uniform. Honor veterans in your facility. Drive through a cemetery to
see the decorated graves.)
As we round the corner here, we see Labor Day festivities. Working people are
honored the first Monday in September. It began in 1882 when working conditions were
bad. Children and adults worked from sunup to sunset in factories and fields.
Accidents and death were rampant. New York workers formed a craft union
(bricklayers, carpenters, printers) to fight injustices. Later they united to form the
Central Labor Union called Knights of Labor. By the 1930s, every state was celebrating
the holiday. (Make a note: Hold a career fair. Invite people from many professions and
trades to talk to residents.)
What are those fires? Halloween dates back to the ancient Celts who lived in the British
Isles and Northern France. They honored the “lord of the dead” in a harvest festival
called Sanhain. The Celts believed spirits of people who died the previous year
gathered in one place. In great fear, the people donned masks and costumes to
frighten the spirits. Since they were sun worshipers, they dreaded Fall’s coming. They
believed the powers of darkness would steal the sun which was their god.
Consequently, a great ceremony was held. Huge fires were built and animal and crop
sacrifices were offered to appease evil spirits so they would give back the sun. The
Irish recall the jack-o-lantern story. Supposedly, Jack was a naughty soul character
who was trapped between heaven and hell. He was too bad for heaven because of his
greediness and unwanted in hell because he tricked the devil. Thus he roamed the
earth unable to rest. The devil consoled Jack by tossing him a souvenir from hell, a
lighted coal. Jack was eating a turnip when it arrived so he placed the coal inside his
turnip and made a lantern. Now he wanders about with his lantern searching for a final
Your feet are probably killing you by now, so let’s wind up our tour with one last stop–
Christmas. It became a legal holiday in the United States in 1870. Santa Claus has
his origin in St. Nicholas, an early Christian archbishop of Myra who freely gave gifts to
impoverished children. In Italy long ago, children received gifts January 5th, the eve of
Three Kings or Epiphany. The gifts came, not from Santa, but from an ugly old witch
called Befana. The Befana legend goes like this: Immediately following the birth of the
Christ Child in Bethlehem, the kings passed through Italy. They stopped by her house
to ask directions on the way to see the newborn King. She was invited to go with them
but refused. When they had gone, she changed her mind and went after them. She
never did find them, but throughout the centuries Befana continues to look for the Christ
Child. She seeks him at every home. Where there is a child, she leaves a gift. In
modern times Santa Claus has practically replaced Befana. He is also called Father
Christmas or Babbo Natale.
Long ago Germans believed evil spirits caused winter, and for trees to lose their
leaves. They admired the evergreen tree. It was their belief that it was untouchable by
the evil spirits so they began to bring it inside. The yule log was burned at Roman
solstice festivals to celebrate the sun’s returning. (Jot a note: Ask about Father
Christmas. Do residents remember him with a long beard, a long black coat, and
carrying switches? Invite immigrants to tell about their homeland customs and
celebrations. Ask if they will bring sample foods eaten in their country.)
Unfortunately we are out of time, so we are going to have to skip many fascinating
holidays and wind up our whirlwind tour. So kick off your shoes now, and put your feet
up. It has been a long journey and you deserve a rest. Thanks for coming along. God
bless you all. Marge.
* Matthew Chapter 2
For even more holiday trivia, see Marge Knoth’s book, Newsletters Simplified!