Holy Days

Posted on December 16, 2007. Filed under: Culture, Musings, Spirituality |

When I was a child, my elementary school’s philosophy was to celebrate all the holidays its students did. Most of us in the United States think of “THE HOLIDAYS” as starting at the end of November with Thanksgiving, and stretching to New Year’s Day on January 1st. We, of course, celebrate many other holidays besides “THE HOLIDAYS“, (in Capital Letters), but this five-week period is an intense time of celebration and reflection for many of us.

I must admit that Thanksgiving is my favorite uniquely American holiday, because it is one we created ourselves, and has become all-inclusive, in spite of all the pilgrim’s feast mythology. Anyone, from any culture, is invited to celebrate Thanksgiving. Even if we do not recognize a particular deity or deities to give thanks TO, we can acknowledge a sense of gratitude for the life we have and the people who share it with us.

The question becomes-What happens between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day? At my school, we celebrated at least five festivals during those weeks, and that experience has colored my perspective on “THE HOLIDAYS” ever since. As an adult, I discovered even more spiritual or cultural events taking place in December, and over the past few years I have made it my practice to celebrate, or at least recognize, as many as possible.

I’ll admit that when I first started doing this my motives sprang from annoyance that my USA culture tended to emphasize one particular religious observation much, much more than any other. The reason this annoyed me is that I felt that a country that championed the separation of church and state was being hypocritical in declaring a particular holiday from a particular religious tradition a legal holiday here.

While this may be a valid point of view, it is also an emotionally charged one, and, in an early New Year’s resolution, this year I am more interested in celebrating what unites us, than in picking on what divides us!

In that spirit, I’d like to discuss several cultural holidays going on in this month of December, and explore the common elements they share:


Dec. 4-12–Hanukkah (Hebrew word for dedication) is a relatively minor holiday beginning on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. It has taken on more importance than it warrants in post-World War II western cultures because of its proximity to Christmas. It lasts for eight days beginning at sunset the previous day. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the victory (165 BCE) of the Maccabees over the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV and the subsequent reclamation of Jerusalem. If you missed Hanukkah, there’s still time to celebrate Asara B’Tevet on December 19 (10th of Tevet in the Hebrew calendar). In the State of Israel, Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the deceased) is recited on this day for people whose date or place of death is unknown. Consequently, many rabbis have designated it as a day of remembrance.

December 6–Saint Nicholas Day is a festival for children in much of Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American and British Santa Claus derives from this festival, the name ‘Santa Claus’ being a degeneration of the Dutch word Sinterklaas.

December 8–Bodhi Day celebrates the Buddha’s enlightenment in 596 BCE.

Dec. 13–Santa Lucia Day (Queen of Lights) Throughout Sweden and Norway the feast day of Lucia, or Lucy, is celebrated as a festival of lights. In the early hours of the morning of December 13 a young woman, dressed in a white gown, would go from one farm to the next carrying a torch to light her way, bringing baked goods, stopping to visit at each house and returning home by break of day. Lucia symbolizes light and growth for human and beast as she emerges out of the darkness.

Dec. 16-25–Las Posadas (Spanish for “the lodgings”) is a traditional Mexican festival which re-enacts Joseph’s search for room at the inn.

Dec. 18-23–Hajj Muslims have several late-year celebrations. Eid Al-Fitr, or the Celebration of Breaking the Fast, marks the end of Ramadan. Ramadan is the month of fasting. Eid Al-Fitr is all about celebrating the good things that we have received, God’s (Allah’s) bounty and our family and friends. Hajj is the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. During Hajj, Eid al-Adha is a religious festival celebrated by Muslims worldwide as a commemoration of Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice. This year, many will celebrate on December 20 or 21. The date can vary in different communities.


December 22, 06:08 UT–Winter Solstice, also known as the Southern Solstice, Dongzhi (in Asia), or the first day of winter, occurs on or around December 22. This is the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and is a major festival in pagan religion worldwide. It is an important feast day for many Native Americans. Many of the symbols and motifs associated with the modern holiday of Christmas are derived from traditional pagan northern European Yule celebrations.

Dec. 25–Christmas The birth of Jesus of Nazareth has been celebrated by Christians for more than 1600 years. Christmas (from Old English Cristes maesse or “Mass of Christ”) is observed annually on December 25 although the exact date of Christ’s birth is not known. Christmas is also a popular secular holiday, which focuses upon the many interpretations of St. Nicholas and some pagan traditions such as Christmas Trees, Christmas carols, mistletoe, Christmas cards, and gift giving. Many people celebrate Christmas with elements of both the religious observances and the secular rituals. Regardless of whether the celebration is religious or secular, the spirit of the season remains one of peace and goodwill.

Dec. 26-Jan. 1–Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural festival that was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga. Dr. Karenga’s goal was to establish a holiday that would facilitate African-American goals of building a strong family, learning about African-American history, and developing unity.


These are very brief descriptions of just a few of the holidays celebrated in December around the world. I feel fortunate to live in a culture whose citizens contribute their rich traditions to our understanding. Most of these holidays have in common light, gladness, joy, gratitude, and acknowledging the importance of family and friends. This year, when we greet each other with “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas”, or “Shub Diwali” (Hindu Festival of Lights) we can truly celebrate our unity and our diversity.

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13 Responses to “Holy Days”

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“Many of the symbols and motifs associated with the modern holiday of Christmas are derived from traditional pagan northern European Yule celebrations.”

Pagan indeed. Here’s an excerpt from a wordpress blog on this topic. “To adopt and absorb the tradtions” … Precious traditions. Native Americans and “pagans” who loved and honored our precious planet, they didn’t seem to stand a chance against those who had no honor… But I believe that all things that are based on lies, a faulty and truly wicked foundation, are destined to crumble.



In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration).
Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion…



Thanks for the contribution to the history, dove. Certainly religious leaders enhance their conversion rates if they incorporate local tradition into the ones they’re introducing. It’s been that way for centuries. I think Winter Solstice is a wonderful time to light candles and celebrate all the traditions that have positive emotional associations. Because it’s nature-based, even the scientists recognize it as a unique day!

I love this post! I have really struggled over the years with how or whether to celebrate the end of year holidays. Just this year my husband and I decided that we would make our late December holiday a recognition and celebration of all the world’s great religious teachers, not just Jesus. With the inspiration of this post I think we’ll try to add some of the other world holidays too.

Let’s hear it for pluralism! Happy holidays!

”Winter Solstice is a wonderful time to light candles and celebrate all the traditions that have positive emotional associations. Because it’s nature-based, even the scientists recognize it as a unique day!”

So, I did recognize it as a special day in my own ways….

Thanks for this ”Holy Days” reminder…

I think it’s right for everyone to know about, and respect, other people’s Holy Days and celebrations. But I’d always add a proviso. It is also right to be proud of your own particular culture. So often, nowadays, we forget this. But being proud of your culture does not mean you cannot be engaged and tolerant of others’.

joyfulseeker, I appreciate your visit & love your name. Thanks for letting me know you found some inspiration in my post. It’s easy to get short-sighted around this time of year, and I enjoy expanding my vision. A very good holiday to you and your husband.

CV, We each have our own personal ways of making this time of year special. I’m glad you have found yours! I will be thinking of you this holiday season.

Hello, Anthony. I agree. One can always have pride in cultural roots. Mine are a bit milti-dimensional, so I like to diversify. I do enjoy the holiday lights, the songs, and the joy that are the prominent displays of my fellows. Good holiday wishes to you and your family!

About Dec. 13 – Lucia.

This is a strange – and recent – celebration, with origins from long ago in various strange places. The current celebration was invented (or “cleaned up” and made popular) by a magazine in the 1970’s. AFAIK, it’s never been quite the way you describe.

Test… This is odd. I made a comment on Lucia. When it didn’t show up, I figured you had started moderating comments and didn’t think that to be strange. But when my comment on another topic showed up instantly I suspected something had gone wrong, so I tried re-posting the Lucia thing, but then the blog software tells me that I’ve already posted that comment. Maybe there’s a natural explaination for this, but I figured you might want to know about it in case there’s some kind of bug involved that eats comments.

Hi Rikard! Re: Lucia–Thanks for the real scoop from the source. So much for Internet research! We do have a few groups of immigrants, or decedents of such, who attempt to put on St. Lucia festivals here in the States, but I didn’t know the holiday had been reconfigured in recent decades. It’s actually no surprise that it was “never” as I described it–few mythologies can be contained in a few words. “Lucia” or “Lucy” does translate to some form of “Light” though, does it not?

Re: moderated comment–I appreciate the heads up. I don’t know what happened. I have my comments set to “must have a previously approved comment”, but you had visited several times before, so you should have sailed right through. Also, as you said, your comment on the “blog staring at me” post posted. The only thing I can think that happened is that comments that have links or trackbacks in them sometimes get sent to moderation for some reason, in spite of the commenter having been here before. You didn’t put a link in, but you did modify your user name to include the text “I’m Swedish”. I’ll bet that’s what did it, even though that’s odd. Thanks, I appreciate you telling me, and I’ll keep a lookout for such things in the future. 🙂

Maybe I should elaborate a bit on Lucia.

One old (extinct) source for the Lucia-celebration consisted of (male) students – home for their Christmas break and without money or things to do – would walk from place to place shouting “If we won’t get booze in our bottles, we’ll knock your windows out!”

There are other sources for different parts of the thing, but as far as I know, there’s never been any tradition where a woman walks from farm to farm carrying baked goods.

Ahhh. LOL, Rikard. The further elucidation is priceless. The activities of the (male) students sound charming and reverent! 😉 Coincidently, I watched a television program last night (after I read your first comment) amazingly enough featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with guest star Sissel. (My brain gets soft this time of year). Should you care to click on the link, you will note that included in the program was “…her [Sissel’s] recounting of the Norwegian tradition of Santa Lucia.” Not only did she read the story, which did describe a young lady in white bringing light to her neighbors, but the production included about a dozen “Lucias” with candelabra on their heads, weaving a ballet around the audience. So, there you have it. If Sissel says it, it must be true! 😀

I like Sissel Kyrkjebø. 🙂 She has a nice voice, and she knows how to use it.

Maybe there has been a different Norwegian tradition, or maybe I have been slightly mis-informed. Either way, Lucia is still a strange mix of traditions. (Don’t get me wrong – I don’t really disapprove, I just think it’s funny.)

Oh, I like Sissel very much, too, Rikard. Her voice is beautiful and ethereal. I just found it odd that she was guesting with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (Maybe it’s just me).
Even when I first read about the Lucia tradition I didn’t understand the purpose, really. I still like your male college student tradition the best. 😉

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