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.