People have been celebrating in the middle of winter probably since time began. Festive events often were planned to take the gloom off long winter nights, observe the winter solstice and prepare for the next planting season.
The first official Christmas was celebrated in Rome during the 4th century. Hanukkah began after Judah Maccabee reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. A more recent establishment is Kwanzaa, started in 1966 for black Americans to recall harvest celebrations in ancestral Africa.
Whatever the reason, most people around the world seem to be hardwired to take a break in their routines at this time of year to observe, festoon, party, sing, feast, give or pray. Here are a very few of the events going on this season:
Thanksgiving started the season, and that distinctively American holiday began in Plymouth, Mass.
On Thanksgiving Day the Pilgrim Progress reenacted the march of the Pilgrims to church, and an ecumenical church service took place at the First Parish Church on the site of the Pilgrim's original Fort-Meetinghouse.
The ''Day of Mourning'' on Cole's Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock recalls members the Wampanoag tribe, whose lives were altered by the coming of the colonists. Their descendants demonstrated their culture and spoke to bring awareness of their cause.
At the Winterthur Museum in Del-aware, they dressed up the rooms to look like the images of holiday customs from the 1800s to early 1900s for the annual display, ''Holiday Views and Visions,'' through Jan. 4.
Using period paintings, prints, illustrations and photographs as sources, the rooms evoke Clement Moore's ''A Visit from St. Nicholas;'' a scene with Queen Victoria and her family around the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle; and a sentimental holiday scene with a mother and daughter, from a painting by Louis Lang.
Winterthur was once home for the du Pont family, and one of the scenes is devoted to how they celebrated the season during the 1930s and 1940s, including the bridge parties they hosted in the Chinese Parlor.
On the Web: http://www.winterthur.org.
''Stille Nacht: A German Christmas'' will be presented Dec. 17 to 21 by the Folger Consort at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
The programs focus on ancient hymns and folk melodies from German-speaking lands during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, including pieces from the earliest German songbooks. Selections include works by Praetorius, Buxtehude and Schultz, as well as early baroque sonatas.
Performing in the library's Elizabethan Theatre, the company will play on period instruments such as viols, violins, medieval fiddles, lutes, harp and recorders.
On the Web: http://www.folger.edu.
When Frederic Law Olmsted laid out the gardens at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., he knew that the George W. Vanderbilt family would spend many winter days, including holidays, at the mansion. So he planted the gardens with evergreens, holly and ivy that would twine around the branches of deciduous trees.
The fruits of his vision are on display for the ''Christmas at Biltmore Estate'' celebration through Jan. 4, with the winter greenery providing decorations for the house.
The house also is open until Jan. 3 for a series of ''Candlelight Christmas Even-ings,'' when visitors are serenaded by musicians playing holiday music in candlelit rooms. Reservations required.
On the Web: http://www.biltmore.com.
Garden of Lights, Norfolk, Va., Botanical Garden, through Dec. 31. Light displays over a 2.5-mile range in the gardens can be viewed nightly by car, horse-and-carriage or the Polar Express.
On the Web: http://www.norfolk cvb.com.
New York City's best-known holiday event is the early-evening lighting of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, this year on Wednesday. This can be a bone-crusher in terms of crowds but fun if you're young and-or flexible. Otherwise, watch the live television broadcast and come admire the tree and other decorations afterward, through the holiday season.
On the Web: http://www.rockefeller center.com.
Another Manhattan tradition is George Balanchine's ''The Nutcracker,'' performed by the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. Performances run through Jan. 4. Early advance purchase of tickets advised.
On the Web: http://www.nycballet.com, or call (212) 870-5570. Also through Ticketmaster.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., the bright spot is the Rock City Gardens, where The Enchanted Garden of Lights shines atop Lookout Mountain through Jan. 3. Twenty-five fantasy scenes are created with 500,000 lights.
On the Web: http:www.seerockcity.com.
''Rites of Enchantment When the Creatures Come Out to Celebrate'' is the U.S. Botanic Garden's way of reminding you that not all places that observe the winter holidays are in wintry zones. The display, on view in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27-Jan. 4, will focus on cultures and landscapes of Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Caribbean nations and other regions between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. And in the Garden Court, visitors can consider the legend of how tree frogs, geckos and other jungle animals have carried out their own tradition of dressing in holiday finery.
On the Web: http://www.usbg.gov, or call (202) 225-8333.
If it's really possible to gild a lily, that might be the Tivoli Christmas Market at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, Nov. 18-Dec. 23. One of the world's oldest and most famous fantasy parks for its normal spring-summer season, Tivoli reopens for the winter holidays to present several Christmas markets, ice skating on the lake, a gnomes' dollhouse village and other treats, all with the glittering light shows.
On the Web: http:www.tivoligard ens.com.
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