CHRISTMAS and WINTER HOLIDAYS AROUND the WORLD
Celebrations of Light, Generosity, and New Beginnings
Dr. Gabrielle Francis
The Holiday Season is always filled with a sense of Magic and Wonder. I love this time of year and have deep appreciation for the Rituals and Celebrations that bring people together in family and community.
December Holidays around the world focus on the spiritual symbolism of Light. Modern society has replaced much of the spiritual significance of The Holidays with materialism. I wanted to share some of the many Traditions Celebrated around the world with the hope that it may inspire you to enjoy the holidays with more intention and appreciation. With intention we can create Personal Rituals that are meaningful to us. Rituals are opportunities to ground Spirituality into our Daily Life. They are small acts of Mindfulness that enrich everything we do.
Diwali is a Festival of Lights and one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. The 5-day Festival is usually celebrated in November and is one of the most popular Hindu Festivals. Diwali is symbolic of the “Victory of Light over Darkness” and Knowledge over Ignorance. Diwali is associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of luck, wealth, and prosperity. The festival unites families with feasting and celebration and Diyas, (oil Lamps), are used to illuminate inside and outside the home. Ceremonies to worship Lakshmi and to invite in Prosperity and Wealth are performed. The symbolic lighting of the Diyas symbolizes the victory of Good over Evil.
SAINT NICHOLAS DAY, EUROPE
At the beginning of the Advent season is St. Nicholas Day, December 6. St. Nicholas was a bishop who was known for his good deeds, especially for the needy and children. He often gave generously and anonymously (without anyone knowing the gifts were from him). Many countries in Europe celebrate the Feast of Sinterklaas—also known as St. Nicholas—starting on the 5th of December, the eve of the day, by sharing candies, chocolate letters, small gifts, and riddles. Children put out their shoes with carrots and hay for the saint’s horse the evening prior, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. In Belgium and the Netherlands, a fellow dressed as St. Nicholas would arrive by ship on December 6 and ride a white horse (or a donkey) through the towns, handing out gifts. It was the Dutch pronunciation of his name—Sinterklaas—as well as Dutch traditions that made their way to America. These led the way to the name Santa Claus and the tradition of gift-giving. For many European countries, this simple gift-giving day in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the meaning of Christmas itself.
BODHI DAY, Buddhist
Each year on December 8th, Buddhists celebrate the day that Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment through meditation. The word Bodhi means awakening or enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is popularly known as the Buddha. Siddhartha, once an Indian Prince, eventually abandoned his life of luxury for a much simpler one. Many believe that Siddhartha resolved to sit underneath a Bodhi tree and meditate until he found the root of suffering and how to free himself from it. After becoming enlightened and experiencing Nirvana, Siddhartha became a Buddha, or “Awakened One.” For 2,500 years, Buddha’s enlightenment has served as the central tenant of the Buddhist faith. The Bodhi tree grows in Gaya, India. Buddhists consider it their most sacred site of pilgrimage.
While the day celebrates the founder of the Buddhist faith, the day quietly reflects the ways to attain enlightenment. Buddhists around the world celebrate this day with Remembrance, Meditation and Chanting. At the beginning of Bodhi Day, the Buddhists decorate a fig tree with colored lights and beads. This is symbolic of the many paths to Enlightenment.
FEAST of THE VIRGIN of GUADALUPE, Mexico
December 12 is the day that Mexicans Celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Every year, thousands of people from all over Mexico make a pilgrimage to the Basilica in Mexico City. This is the day that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Juan Diego in the hills of Tepeyac in 1531. She asked him to tell the Bishop that the Mother of God sent him to ask for a church to be built atop the Tepeyac Hill. As a sign of their devotion to Mary, pilgrims travel to this site on their knees from all over Mexico. Outside of the Basilica there are Mariachis, Folk Musicians, and ethnic dancers. There are masses and other fiestas and celebrations that take place to honor La Virgin Morena, or dark-skinned Madonna. Households all over Mexico erect altars to honor the Virgin Mary. They celebrate her day with gratitude and devotion for all her gifts.
Hanukkah is a Jewish Festival known as The Festival of Lights. It symbolizes the rededication of the Second temple of Jerusalem following the Maccabean Revolt. Observation of Hanukkah involves the lighting of a Menorah, a 9 Candle Candelabra. Each night a candle is lit using the center candle. One candle is lighted each day during Hanukkah. The Menorah represents a miracle for the Jewish people. During the battle, the Temple’s candelabrum burned for eight straight days and nights using an amount of oil meant for a single day. Hanukkah festivities involve games, prayers, and eating oil-based foods such as Latkes and Jelly Donuts. The Word Hanukkah means “Rededication.”
LAS POSADAS, Mexico
The celebration of the Posadas is an important Mexican and Central American Christmas Tradition. Celebrations take place on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas, from December 16 to 24th. The word posada means "inn" or "shelter" in Spanish. In this tradition, the Bible story of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem and their search for a place to stay is re-enacted. The tradition also involves a special song, as well as a variety of Mexican Christmas carols, breaking piñatas, and celebration. The celebration begins with a procession in which the participants hold candles and sing Christmas carols. Sometimes there will be individuals who play the parts of Mary and Joseph who lead the way, or images representing them are carried. The procession will make its way to a particular home, (a different one each night), where a special song (La Canción Para Pedir Posada) is sung. Once inside the house, there is a celebration which can vary from a big fancy party to a small get-together among friends. On each of the nine nights, a different quality will be meditated upon: humility, strength, detachment, charity, trust, justice, purity, joy, and generosity. After the religious service, the hosts distribute food to their guests, often tamales and a hot drink such as ponche or atole. Then the guests break pinatas, and the children are given candy.
LUCIA DAY, Scandinavia
Each year on Dec. 13, St. Lucia Day is celebrated throughout Sweden, Norway, and Finland. St. Lucia Day is held in honor of the woman said to have been one of the first Christian martyrs. St. Lucia Day is celebrated with candlelight and traditional candlelit processions. Scandinavians not only honor St. Lucia with candlelight, but they also dress like her in commemoration. The eldest girl in the family will oftentimes portray St. Lucia by putting on a white robe in the morning. She might also wear a crown full of candles because legend has it that St. Lucia wore candles in her hair to allow her to hold food for Rome's persecuted Christians in her hands. Given this, the eldest daughters also serve their parents Lucia buns (sweet, saffron, S-shaped rolls) and coffee or mulled wine. During church, the women will sing the traditional St. Lucia song, which describes how the martyr overcame the darkness and found the light. The night of St. Lucia was known to be the longest night of the year (winter solstice). The idea of light overcoming darkness and the promise of returning sunlight has been welcomed by the locals for hundreds of years. The celebrations and processions on Saint Lucia Day are illuminated by thousands of candles.
The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, it takes place between December 20 and 23, depending on the year. Cultures around the world have long held feasts and celebrated holidays around the winter solstice. Fire and light are traditional symbols of celebrations held on the darkest day of the year. The winter solstice is the day of the year with the fewest hours of daylight, and it marks the start of astronomical winter. After the winter solstice, days start becoming longer and nights shorter as spring approaches. Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures and has been marked by festivals and rituals. It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun. Because the event was seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth have been common. In cultures which used nature as a guide, the winter solstice is a celebration of new beginnings and overcoming darkness with Light.
DONG ZHI, China
Dong Zhi, The Winter Solstice Festival is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Chinese and other Asian countries. The coming of winter is celebrated by families and is traditionally the time when farmers and fishermen gather food in preparation for the coming cold season. It is also a time for families to come together. Dong Zhi celebrates the Chinese concept of yin and yang, which represents balance and harmony in life. It’s believed that the yin qualities of darkness and cold are at their most powerful on the shortest day of the year, but also at their turning point to give way to the light and warmth of yang. For this reason, the Winter Solstice Festival is a time for optimism and an increase in positive energy coming in. Traditionally, Dong Zhi is a time for the family to celebrate. Local customs are different in different regions, but they may include foods such as dumpling, rice balls, and other warm foods to prepare for the cold. Dong Zhi is also a time of honoring the ancestors and elderly family members.
Yalda, is the Persian celebration on December 21 for the Winter Solstice. It is also celebrated in other Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Yalda has its origins in Zoroastrianism, the original religion of Iran prior to Islam. On Yalda, Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness. Ancient Persians believed that evil forces were dominant on the longest night of the year and that the next day belonged to the Lord of Wisdom.
On this night, family members get together and stay awake all night long. The foods of Yalda are very symbolic and include dried nuts, watermelon and pomegranate. Eating Watermelon, a summer fruit ensures health and wellbeing. Pomegranates are reminders of the cycle of life--the rebirth and fertility. Persians believe that at the end of the night, darkness is defeated by light and therefore they must celebrate the whole night. Another tradition of Yalda is the reading of mythology and poetry. There is a tradition to read the poetry of Hafez, an Iranian Poet from the 14th Century. Each member of the family makes a wish and randomly opens the book and asks the eldest member of the family to read it aloud. What is expressed in that poem is believed to be the interpretation of the wish and whether and how it will come true. In Iran today, Yalda is a holiday that celebrates new beginnings.
The Hopi Soyal Ceremony begins on the shortest day of the year, December 21, and symbolizes the second phase of Creation at the Dawn of Life. Its prayers and rituals implement a plan of life for the coming year, ceremonially turning back the sun toward its summer path. The Hopi People of Arizona celebrate December as the time when the Kachinas come down from their home in the San Francisco Peaks to bring the Sun back to the world. The Kachinas, spirits that guard over the Hopi, dance at the winter solstice ceremony to celebrate the new life coming in. The Soyal Ceremony symbolizes the Creation at the Dawn of Life. Its prayers and rituals implement a plan of life for the coming year, ceremonially turning back the sun toward its summer path. The sacred rituals are performed in underground chambers called Kivas. Many ceremonies involve dancing and singing. At Soyal time elders pass down stories to children, teaching pivotal lessons like respecting other and honoring ancestors. The Hopi, The Peaceful Ones believe everything that will occur during the year is arranged at Soyal.
Christmas is celebrated on December 25 and is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, Christ. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. December 25—Christmas Day—has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870. The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of Pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift exchange, Advent Calendar, Wreaths, Christmas Music and Caroling, Nativity Plays, Christmas Trees and Decorations, Holiday Meals and Parties, and Santa Claus. The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. Christians refer to Christ symbolically as the “Light of the World.”
Kwanzaa is a Holiday that honors African Heritage in the African American Culture. It is celebrated in the tradition of the Harvest Festivals of African Countries. The word Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili word that means “first fruits.” Created by Maulana Karenga in 1966, it is observed from December 26-January 1, and ultimately ends with a feast and the exchange of gifts. There are seven days of Kwanzaa and each day honors a different principle. The 7 principles include:
unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as Kenta, especially the wearing of Kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge
May you enjoy the Many Traditions around the World that make December a Magical Time to Celebrating the symbolism of “Light” and “New Beginnings!”
May your December be one of Reflection and Appreciation for the adventures and growth of the past year….
So that you may usher in the New Year with Fresh Energy and Hope…
Wishing You Peace, Hope, Love, and Many Blessing this Holiday Season!