The “Other” December Holidays
We often tend to associate the month of December with Christmas, and all the traditions that surround it. With the exception of Hannukah, many of us probably cannot name even one other holiday that takes place in December! This is in spite of the fact that worldwide, December has more holidays celebrated in it than most other months of the year! This article will shed some light on some other major, but lesser-known December holidays around the world.
The “Darkest Day” of the Year
You may be wondering why December is such a popular month for celebrations. Undoubtedly, a large part of it has to with the winter solstice–the shortest day, and alternatively, the longest night of the year. It falls on December 21st each year for most of the world–specifically, all countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Dating back to ancient times, many cultures, have celebrated the winter solstice in their own unique ways. In the modern day, it is still common for many cultures to hold special celebrations on, or around the winter solstice. Some of these celebrations will be discussed below, in addition to other non-solstice related December holidays around the world.
The list is by no means exhaustive, but includes a few holidays spanning diverse regions around the world. It is organized chronologically by the 2014 dates.
December Holidays Around the World
Bodhi Day (Rohastu) (December 8th)
Bodhi Day — or Rohatsu, as it’s known in Japan — commemorates the day in 596 BC that the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. According to tradition, the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautauma) decided to sit under a pipul tree (ficus religiousa) and meditate until he could discover the root of suffering, and how to liberate oneself from it. There are many variations to how he gained enlightenment, but all traditions agree that he attained it on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month while meditating under the tree. The date has now been fixed to December 8th on the Gregorian calendar. It is celebrated by Buddhists all around the world, regardless of denomination.
In Japan, this holiday is known as Rohatsu, which in Japanese literally means “the 8th Day of the 12th Month”. The holiday is often preceded by intensive meditation, and it is typical for monks and laymen alike to meditate the entire night before Rohatsu.
Buddhist homes, often have a fiscus tree displayed. On Bodhi Day, these trees are usually decorated with multi-colored lights, strung with beads to symbolize the way all things are united, and hung with three shiny ornaments to represent the Three Jewels – The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A meal of rice and milk is also significant on this holiday, as according to Buddhist legend, this is what was offered to the Buddha upon his awakening under the Bodhi tree. Children often participate in baking heart-shaped cookies, modeled after the shape of the leaves of the Bodhi-tree.
Las Posadas (December 16-24)
Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration which originated in Spain, but is now mostly celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, portions of the Southwestern United States, and in the Philippines. It begins on December 16th (December 15 in the Philippines) and ends on the night of December 24.
Las Posadas literally translates into “the inns” or “the lodgings” and symbolizes the Biblical journey of Mary and Joseph as they searched for shelter in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. The nine-day celebration often includes candle-lit processions re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s journey through Bethlehem. Children dress up in costumes depicting Joseph, Mary, angels, shepherds and the Three Wise Men. They then travel from house to house, re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph, until they reach a designated house where the celebration is being held that year. Upon arrival of their guests, the hosts, or “innkeepers” meet the procession at the door to begin the holiday celebrations by signing traditional songs. The celebrations of Las Posadas wrap up on Christmas Eve with a large feast.
Hanukkah (December 16-24)
Hanukkah (or Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday which celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. It commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd Century BC. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, the eight days/nights fall on varying dates in between late November to late December. Hanukkah became more widely celebrated from the 1970s onwards, when Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson called for more public awareness of the festival and encouraged the lighting of public menorahs.
The festival is observed by lighting the candles in a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched menorah or hanukiah. According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, after the temple was re-dedicated, there was very little oil remaining. The oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night, every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days– just enough time to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. For each night of Hanukkah, one additional candle is lit, ending off with eight on the final night. The typical menorah/hanukiah consists of eight branches with an additional distinct branch in the middle. The extra light is called a shamash and is given a distinct location, usually above, or below the other eight. The purpose of the shamash is to have a light available for practical use, since it is forbidden to use the Hanukkah lights themselves for purposes other than publicizing and meditating upon Hanukkah.
Other Hanukkah festivities include playing dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) and eating traditional, often oil based foods.
Soyal (December 21-29)
Soyal is the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi and Zuni Native American peoples, whose roots trace back to the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and southern Colorado for over two millennia. It is held for nine days, starting on December 21 (winter solstice). According to tradition, the kachinas (the spirits that guard over the people) come down from their world at the winter solstice. They remain with the people until the summer solstice, at which time, they return to their home in the mountains.
During Soyal, sacred rituals are performed in chambers, called kivas, and many ceremonies involving dancing and singing take place. Tradition tells that the kachinas may even bring gifts to the children. Soyal time is when oral traditions and stories are passed down from the elders to children from the elders and children are taught important lessons. The Hopi believe that everything that will occur during the year is arranged at Soyal.
In preparation for the kachinas’ arrival, the Hopi make prayer sticks to bless and purify the community, including their homes, animals and plants.
Yalda (December 21)
Yalda, or Sab-e-Yalda, meaning “birth”, in Persian is an Iranian festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year. It is celebrated in the night between the last day of the ninth month (Azar) and the first day of the tenth month (Dae) of the Iranian civil calendar, which corresponds to the night of December 20th or 21st each year.
During Yalda, friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry until late into the night. Fruits and nuts are staple items. Pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant as the red colour symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and the glow of life.
In Zoroastrian tradition (which pre-dates Islam in the region) the longest and darkest night of the year was a particularly inauspicious day, and the custom of Yalda was originally a custom intended to protect people from evil during that long night. Fires would be burnt night-long to ensure the defeat evil. There would be feasts, acts of charity and prayers were performed to ensure the total victory of sun. People were advised to stay awake most of the night, and gather in groups to prevent misfortune falling upon them. People would then gather in the safety of groups of friends and relatives, share the last remaining fruits from the summer, and find ways to pass the long night together. Although the religious significance of the night of long, dark night has mostly been lost, the old traditions of staying up late in the company of friends and family have been retained in Iranian culture until today.
Dongzhi (December 21)
Dongzhi literally means “the extreme of winter” and is one of the most important festivals celebrated by Chinese and other East Asian cultures during the winter solstice.
The origins of this festival can be traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos. After this celebration, there will be days with longer daylight hours and therefore an increase in positive energy flowing in.
Traditionally, the Dongzhi Festival is also a time for the family to get together. One activity that occurs during these get-togethers (especially in the southern parts of China) is the making and eating of rice balls, which symbolize reunion.
Kwanzaa (Decemer 26-January 1st)
Kwanzaa is a week-long African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community and culture. Celebrated December 26 to January 1st every year, its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language. It is based on seven core principles based on African Heritage. The holiday was created by Maulana Karenga, and was first celebrated in 1966–1967.
The first-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia and appear also appear in more modern times in other African civilizations such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland. Kwanzaa builds on the five fundamental activities of Continental African “first fruit” celebrations: in-gathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment, and celebration.
Gifts are given mainly to children, and usually include a book and a heritage symbol. The book is to emphasize the African value and tradition of learning stressed since ancient Egypt, and the heritage symbol to reaffirm and reinforce the African commitment to tradition and history. The colours of Kwanzaa are black, red and green and are often utilized in decorations for Kwanzaa. Decorations also include traditional African items such as African baskets, cloth patterns, art objects, and harvest symbols.
In conclusion, as mentioned above, this is not an exhaustive list of December holidays around the world. Rather it is a small demonstration of the diversity of the numerous holidays that take place throughout this month. It is very easy to get so entrenched in our own societal norms and culture, that we sometimes forget that there is a whole wide world out there which views things very differently from us.
Maybe now when you drive past a house with decorative lights, or see a celebration going on in your neighbourhood, rather than assume it must be for Christmas, your mind will think of all the unique possibilities of which holiday is being celebrated.
If you know anyone celebrating one of these holidays this month, make sure to send them a greeting. Read more about the best way to do this in our Diversity Guide to Holiday Greetings.