1 Misconception About 9 Major Holidays

Forget everything you think you know about the holidays you celebrate.
There’s hope for your New Year’s resolution past January.
There’s hope for your New Year’s resolution past January. / Jena Ardell/Moment/Getty Images
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January 1st. A new year means it’s time for a new you. You’re 100 percent going to go to the gym at 5 in the morning every single day, stop spending money on that morning coffee, and call your mom more often … right?

A 2020 survey found that 55 percent of American adult respondents maintained their New Year’s resolutions for under one year, with 11 percent lasting less than a month—which means it’s more than likely that all those plans for the new year will eventually get dropped. Sorry, mom.

But several studies actually suggest that declaring a goal as a New Year’s resolution makes it more likely to be achieved than just keeping it as a vague idea in your head. Let’s look at one misconception for each of nine major holidays celebrated worldwide, from the doomed fate of lovers on Valentine’s Day to the less-than demonic nature of Halloween, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: New Year’s resolutions never work.

The “fresh start effect” [PDF] suggests that “temporal landmark” events like holidays, birthdays, and even the beginning of a new month or week encourage people to alter their self-perception. These landmarks allow people to differentiate between their “past” self—for example, the December 31st version—and their future self, which is whatever comes at 12:01 a.m. on January 1st. Granted, you’re still the same person day-to-day, but these “before” and “after” perceptions help to reframe your mindset. The “before” you may not be the type to give up ice cream for breakfast, but the “after” you might try something like a whole-grain cereal.

One way to increase the likelihood of your New Year’s resolutions is to make them more action-oriented. A study showed that goals that focus on adding something to your life or changing your approach to an objective show more success than goals that focus on removing things from your life. You’re more likely to achieve your resolution to call your mom twice a week than you are to achieve your resolution of never buying your favorite latte again.

2. Misconception: Valentine’s Day is the most common day of the year for breakups.

Roses are red, violets are blue, and a lot of people get dumped around Valentine’s Day. (Not a poem, just stating facts.) Approximately one in 14 adults report having broken up with a significant other on Valentine’s Day, which is significant, but it’s also only about 7 percent.

While it’s true that February can be a rough time for couples, it’s not necessarily the worst month. Some sources will tell you that the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day is the most common breakup day, called Red Tuesday. Except that was from one survey of users of a British adultery site and all we know about methodology is from the press release. 

One trend cited by data journalist David McCandless shows that rather than Valentine’s Day, peak breakup times “[rise] twice a year, once in Easter and then two weeks before Christmas; [have] a mini peak every Monday, and then [flatten] out over the summer.” But that was based on Facebook status updates back in the day when Facebook was mostly college students. So it’s hard to pin down whether those trends are trends in breakups or just trends in posting about breakups among college kids. Real, actual studies are difficult to come by, but there’s little evidence Valentine’s Day is particularly special.

3. Misconception: Everyone must fast during Ramadan.

The holy month of Ramadan is characterized by strict fasting from every Muslim, where no food or drink is allowed under any condition. Except … not really. Rather than going a full month with no sustenance, people observing Ramadan are allowed suhoor, a meal before sunrise, and iftar, a meal after sundown. Snacks and hydration are allowed at night between the two meals, before the fast continues in the morning.

But aside from suhoor and iftar, is everyone required to fast the whole time? There are actually a number of exceptions. Only healthy adults are required to fast, but other groups can be exempt. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with medical conditions, and children who have yet to reach the age of maturity are all included in the list of those who aren’t obligated to fast. These people may still have meals during the day, though in some cases they have to make it up by either postponing the fast or by donating food or money to those less fortunate.

But the holy month isn’t just about fasting from food and drink—people are also supposed to refrain from immoral behavior like lying and gossiping. Indeed, for certain groups these other types of fasting are the predominant focus. Many Ismailis take a view that fasting should be predominately about avoiding bad thoughts and the like, while the forgoing food part of fasting is more optional. And, according to the BBC, the Baye Fall sect that lives predominately in Senegal also don’t fast, and instead spend Ramadan cooking and delivering food to Muslims who are fasting. 

4. Misconception: Easter eggs have nothing to do with the Easter story.

Christians celebrate Easter as the anniversary of Jesus’s crucifixion. So what do colorfully dyed eggs in a fancy basket have to do with a public execution?

One legend states that Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s friends and followers, brought a basket of eggs to feed the mourners at Jesus’s tomb after his crucifixion. When she got there and saw his tomb was empty and he had been resurrected, the eggs suddenly turned red. Another legend mentions a different Mary, this one the mother of Jesus, bringing eggs to her son’s crucifixion as a means of begging to soldiers not to be cruel. According to legend, the blood from Jesus’s wounds dripped onto the eggs, staining them red.

Granted, egg-dyeing could have been a later incorporation into the Easter holiday that Christians adopted from ancient pagans, who colored eggs before giving them as gifts. But to say the tradition has nothing to do with the Christian story isn’t fully accurate.

5. Misconception: Juneteenth is the day all enslaved people in the U.S. were freed.

Juneteenth celebrates the day when all enslaved Black Americans were declared to be free from bondage, right? Not exactly. First, what Juneteenth is: The 30-second version is that during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As states were brought back under the control of the United States, enslaved people were freed throughout the former Confederacy until Texas was basically all that was left. On June 19th, 1865, U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3, which said, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

In Texas. Because there were still tens of thousands of people being legally enslaved after Juneteenth.

If you pull out your copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, it says in slightly oversimplified, old-timey speech that “in states that are still rebelling on January 1st, 1863, the enslaved people in that state are free.” But not all slave states rebelled. Of the four Union slave states—Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland—Missouri and Maryland had abolished slavery on their own by Juneteenth. But Delaware still had in the range of several hundred enslaved people, and Kentucky still had maybe 65,000 enslaved people that weren’t covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Juneteenth Proclamation, or anything. They wouldn’t be freed until around the time of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. As historian Gregory Downs told UC Davis, “the day of June 19, 1865, was an important day in the end of slavery, but in a spectrum of other important days, some of which came months later.” That’s not to diminish the importance of Juneteenth, but a lot gets lost when we put so much emphasis on one moment. 

6. Misconception: Halloween is Satanic.

For a holiday characterized by ghosts, ghouls, and goblins, it’s almost ironic that the meaning behind Halloween isn’t scary or evil in nature at all. While some Christians choose not to celebrate Halloween because of its association with “demonic” spirits, the original holiday had nothing to do with devils, demons, or hell. It’s not universal, but the general consensus is that Halloween is based on the Celtic holiday Samhain. Samhain was one of four annual festivals that ancient Celtic people held. And there are stories of unclear age that they believed that ghosts came back down to Earth on the night of October 31st, and may have worn costumes to ward off evil spirits.

So why do people believe that Halloween has Satanic origins? Probably because, in the 18th century, surveyor Charles Vallancey went to Ireland and was more enthusiastic than rigorous in what he recorded (one 1818 review said he “wrote more nonsense than any man of his time”). Vallancey decided that Samhain didn’t mean “summer’s end” like the mainstream etymologists were saying, but it was instead an alternate name for a Celtic death deity named Balsab who, according to Halloween expert Lisa Morton, doesn’t appear anywhere else outside of Vallancey. But, then as now, really lurid history is much more popular than factually accurate history, so this idea of a demonic Halloween started to become more widespread.

7. Misconception: Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving.

As much as we would like to think the first Thanksgiving was a wholesome harvest celebration with Pilgrims and Native people gathering together and feasting at the same table, that misconstrued narrative of the holiday erases a lot of history.

There’s no evidence that the Wampanoag people were even invited to the feast. According to Kate Sheehan, Plimoth Plantation's associate director of marketing, “The English-written record does not mention an invitation, and Wampanoag oral tradition does not seem to reach back to this event.” Ousamequin, the Wampanoag people’s leader, did show up at the feast, alongside 90 men from his tribe. They may have arrived just because they heard the sound of gunshots, which were likely just part of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Though, to be fair, Stephen Winick of the Library of Congress counters that whether or not they were initially invited, that 90 people showed up for three days of entertaining and feasting implies they were at least invited to stay once they showed up.

While it is recorded that the Wampanoag people formed a shaky alliance with the Pilgrims, it was more out of self-preservation than anything else. The alliance didn’t last, though. Over the years, the Pilgrims brutalized the Native population, seizing their land, spreading disease, and even displaying the head of Ousamequin’s son in their town for over 20 years, following King Philip’s War, the son being the titular King Philip, also known as Metacom.

Additionally, the first “Thanksgiving” may not have involved Pilgrims at all. Some Texans believe that there was a Thanksgiving-like celebration in 1598, over two decades before the Pilgrims held their harvest festival. They believe that when Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate arrived in the vicinity of present-day El Paso, he and his crew had a meal with the Native Manso people in the area. And some point to an event in modern Florida in 1565 as the first.

While we may never be sure which Thanksgiving was truly the first, we do know that the peaceful cross-cultural narrative that early Thanksgivings are associated with isn’t the full story.

8. Misconception: Hanukkah is a major Jewish holiday.

Perhaps due to its place in the end-of-year holiday gauntlet and people misconstruing it as “Jewish Christmas,” Hanukkah is considered by many non-Jewish people to be a major Jewish holiday. The fact is Hanukkah isn’t a Jewish equivalent of Christmas, and it’s actually considered to be one of the more minor Jewish holidays.

Unlike the holidays that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible to require a day of rest, like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Hanukkah isn’t mentioned in the Hebrew Bible at all. Additionally, unlike the major Jewish holidays that require a day of rest, Jewish people still go to work and school during the holiday’s eight-day duration.

However, some Jewish people consider Hanukkah to be a very important holiday. Apart from the Passover seder, Hanukkah is one of the most recognized and observed Jewish holidays today. While no rituals for it were included in the original Hebrew Bible, people have created Hanukkah traditions over time that they take great joy in celebrating every year. 

9. Misconception: Jesus was born on December 25th.

While everyone who celebrates Christmas does so in their own way, most Christians believe it to be the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. We know the classic nativity story that Christmas is based on: Mary and Joseph go to a fully booked inn on a cold December night, and have no choice but to sleep in a barn where Mary gives birth to Jesus. Riveting story. Not entirely biblical, but riveting.

This famous story is mostly a fill-in-the-gaps situation. The Bible doesn’t really mention any celebrations of Jesus’s birth, nor does it give a time of year for when he was born. In fact, some early Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays at all, as they considered that to be a pagan tradition.

In Egypt, around 200 CE, Clement of Alexandria referenced some potential birthdays for Jesus, saying that “there are those who have calculated not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day. They say that it took place in the 25th year of Augustus, on the 25th day of Pachon [May 20] … Others say that he was born on the 24th or 25th day of Pharmouthi [April 19 or 20].” According to Clement of Alexandria, Jesus may have been a Taurus, not a Capricorn.

So how did December 25th become Christmas Day? There are a few theories. Over a century after Clement of Alexandria’s calculation, a Roman almanac labeled December 25th with “natus Christus in Betleem Judeae,” or “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” A different explanation argues that Jesus’s conception took place on March 25th, which was believed to be the day God created the world. Seeing as December 25th is exactly nine months after, it seemed fitting. Others believe that since the December 25th date coincided with pagan celebrations, the church designated it as a day to celebrate Christ to discourage participation in a non-Christian custom. But that theory is generally dismissed by English-language scholars today.

While we don’t fully know why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, we do know that Jesus probably wasn’t actually born in a manger. Scholars believe that Mary and Joseph actually stayed with family rather than going to a random inn and welcoming their son in a barn out back.