During this holiday season, we seek respite from the cold days and short nights of winter time as we direct our minds to celebration, goodwill, and the promise of light to come. While most people are familiar with the various traditions of Christmas, there are many other holidays celebrated in December around the world. As you celebrate your own traditions, embrace the whole of humanity by learning more about how others celebrate in this season of wonder. Below is a sampling of December holiday traditions from around the world:
Chanukah is an eight-day Jewish holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees, a small Jewish group, over the Greco-Syrian King more than 2,000 years ago. Jewish tradition dictates that the temple menorah should be kept constantly burning. However, when they were rededicating the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees only found one small jar of oil, enough to keep the menorah burning for one day. The oil burned for eight days, however, until more oil could be prepared. Today, Chanukah is celebrated by lighting a special menorah. One candle is lit for each night of Chanukah. Families exchange presents and gelt (coins) and play dreidel. Latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (doughnuts), and other foods made in oil are served, to remember the miracle of the oil. The dates of Chanukah change from year to year. In 2010, Chanukah was celebrated December 1-9.
Bodhi Day is celebrated by Buddhists on December 8, to honor the day of the Buddha's enlightenment. Buddhists will spend the day meditating. Multicolored lights will decorate the home, to symbolize the many paths to enlightenment, and a candle will be lit. Some families will decorate a ficus tree with multicolored lights, beads (to symbolize the unity of all things) and three shiny bulb ornaments (to symbolize the Three Jewels of Buddhism).
St Lucia is the Swedish festival of light, celebrated on December 13. In Sweden, where the winter nights are very long, St. Lucia is a symbol of light. St. Lucia is seen as the one who brings light into the darkness. On St. Lucia Day, early in the day, the oldest girl in the family dresses in a white robe with a red ribbon around the waist. On her head she wears an evergreen wreathe crown with a circle of 5 candles. She sings a song and brings breakfast to her family – serving special St. Lucia buns, ginger snaps, and coffee or hot chocolate. Outside the home, communities celebrate St. Lucia with processions of children. Girls dress as St. Lucia and boys dress as Star Boys. The children carry candles and sing songs, to help bring in the light.
Dong Zhi, winter solstice, is the second most important festival in China and other East Asian countries. This is a time for family reunion and for stocking up food for the coming winter. The Chinese believe that as the days get longer after Dong Zhi, the Yang (positive things) will also get stronger. Families get together and make and eat Tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice, a symbol of reunion. In North China, dumplings are eaten, and in Taiwan, a special nine-layer cake is made in the shape of an animal. New clothes are worn and gifts are exchanged. People burn ceremonial paper as offerings to the ancestors.
Yalda is the Persian winter solstice celebration, on December 21. Originating in the Zoroastrian tradition, Yalda celebrated the birth of Mithra, the Persian god of light and truth. Under Islam, Yalda lost its religious significance, but it is still celebrated in Iran and other Persian countries as a social holiday. Families gather together and stay up all night, reading poetry, telling stories, playing traditional games, and socializing. Fruit and nuts, particularly watermelon and pomegranates, are set out on a special low table with a wool cover.
Pancha Ganapati is a 5-day Hindu festival, held Dec 21-25, honoring Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed lord of beginnings and obstacles, patron of the arts, sciences, intellect, and wisdom. A shrine to Ganesh is set up in the main room of the house, and decorated with pine boughs or banana leafs, tinsel, lights, ornaments, and flowers. Each morning, children dress or decorate Ganesh in a new color: first yellow, then blue, red, green, and finally orange. The children will also prepare a tray of sweets, fruit, and incense and present it to Ganesh, while singing. Gifts are given to the children, who place them before the shrine and open them on the fifth day.
Kwanzaa is a week-long African American holiday, celebrated December 26-31, honoring African heritage and culture. Kwanzaa means “first fruits” in Swahili. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a different principle: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. A special candle holder, called a kinara, holds seven candles, one of which is lit each night. The kinara is placed on a straw mat, along with an ear of corn for each child in the family, a basket of fruit, and a unity cup. Gifts are exchanged on the last day of Kwanzaa. The gifts are usually homemade or educational in nature.
Jonkkunu is celebrated in the Caribbean between Christmas and New Years. Traditionally, this was the only time of year that slaves were allowed time to celebrate, so they used the opportunity to celebrate the masquerade traditions brought with them from Africa. Through the years, the celebration took on local characteristics and showed some European influences. Jonkkunu is celebrated with costumed dancers, music, and parades. The biggest celebration is held in the Bahamas, where large Jonkkunu (spelled Junkanoo there) parades, similar to Brazilian Carnivale, are held on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and New Years.