For those of my readers in the Northern Hemisphere, tomorrow is the longest night (and shortest day) of the year, more commonly known as the Winter Solstice. It is a time of year that has led to the development of celebrations in almost every spiritual belief on the planet.
For those of us in the West, the most common celebration we encounter is, of course Christmas, but it is certainly not the only one, or even the most celebrated, around the world.
This world of ours is beautiful, diverse and ever-changing, filled with as many world views as there are people. It saddens me when I see people negating or belittling the beliefs of others. My purpose for this post is to showcase a small portion of the holidays and religious observances being celebrated around the world at this time of year (that being November, December, January), and hopefully knowledge will lead to understanding and, eventually, acceptance.
Also known as: Rohatsu
Celebrated: 8th day of the 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, or December 8 in Japan
Bodhi Day is a Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, experienced enlightenment. According to tradition, the Buddha decided to sit under a peepal tree and meditate on the nature of self until he found the root of suffering, and how to liberate oneself from it.
Services and traditions vary amongst Buddhist sects. Individuals may choose to commemorate the event through additional meditation, study of the Dharma, chanting the sutras, or performing kind acts towards others. Some Buddhists celebrate with a traditional meal of tea, cake, and readings.
Celebrated: Seven days in December including the Winter Solstice (Dec 21 or 22)
Chaomos is the winter festival of the Kalasha people, who live in the northwestern corner of Pakistan. The festival honours Balomain, a demigod who once lived among the Kalasha and did heroic deeds. Every year, his spirit comes to the valleys to count the people, collect their prayers, and take them back to Tsiam (the mythical land where the Kalasha originated) and to Dezao (the omnipotent creator god).
At the opening of the celebrations women and girls are purified by taking ritual baths. The men pour water over their heads while they hold up bread that the men have baked. A man waves burning juniper over the head of each woman, murmuring, “Sooch” (“Be pure”). The next day, the men and boys are purified with water and must not sit on chairs or beds until evening when goat’s blood is sprinkled on their faces. Following this purification, a great festival begins, with singing, dancing, bonfires, a torchlight procession and feasting on goat tripe, special bread and other delicacies.
Celebrated: December 25 (or in some places, December 24)
Christmas is a Christian holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, believed to be either a holy prophet, the son of God or an aspect of the Holy Trinity. It is prepared for by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast. Practices associated with Advent include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional and setting up Christmas decorations, such as through a hanging of the greens ceremony.
Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, Christmas music, caroling, exchanging Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, various incarnations of a figure most commonly known as St Nicholas or Santa Claus are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore. This is particularly true for secular households who wish to celebrate the cultural aspects of Christmas without its religious origins.
Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess
Celebrated: Winter Solstice (Dec 21 or 22)
The Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess is a Kemetic Orthodox observance. This holiday celebrates the reunion of the Goddess Het-Hert with her father Ra. One of the myths connected with Het-Hert describes how she became angry with her father, Ra, and wandered into the desert becoming a wild lioness, the Mistress of the Desert. Ra missed his Eye and tried to convince her to come home to Egypt. He eventually had to enlist the skills of Thoth, and Het-Hert was lured home by a magic potion and promises of a life dedicated to music, dance, and drunken happiness.
Rooted in ancient Egyptian faith, the Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess has been kept since 4500 BC. Celebrations include the lighting of lamps and offerings of sweets and dancing for Het-Hert.
Celebrated: December 23
Originally created in 1966 as a family tradition of scriptwriter Dan O’Keefe, who worked on the American sitcom Seinfeld, Festivus entered popular culture after it was made the focus of the 1997 Seinfeld episode “The Strike”. Some people, most of them inspired by the Seinfeld episode, subsequently began to celebrate the holiday with varying degrees of seriousness.
Despite its origins, Festivus has steadily grown in popularity, particularly amongst secular households disenchanted with the rampant commercialism associated with Christmas. The holiday, as portrayed in the Seinfeld episode, includes the Festivus Pole, an unadorned aluminum pole and practices such as the “Airing of Grievances”, which occurs during the Festivus meal and in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed them over the past year. After the meal, the “Feats of Strength” are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is actually pinned.
Also known as: Chanukah; Feast of Dedication; Festival of Lights
Celebrated: eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar (any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar)
Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. According to the Talmud, the Temple was purified and the wicks of the menorah miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was only enough sacred oil for one day’s lighting.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched menorah or hanukiah. One candle is lit on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. Celebratory aspects of the holiday include singing special songs, reciting prayers, giving Hannukah Gelt (small amounts of money), playing dreidel (a four-sided spinning top for children) and eating oil-based foods such as doughnuts and latkes.
Also known as: Eid al-Adha; Bakr-Eid; Feast of Sacrifice or Day of Sacrifice
Celebrated: In the lunar-based Islamic calendar, Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah and lasts for four days. In the international (Gregorian) calendar, the dates vary from year to year, drifting approximately 11 days earlier each year.
Id al-Adha is the second of two religious holidays celebrated by Muslims worldwide each year. It honours the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, as an act of submission to God’s command, before God then intervenes, through his angel Gabriel and informs him that his sacrifice has already been accepted.
Men, women and children are expected to dress in their finest clothing to perform Eid prayer in a large congregation in an open waqf (“stopping”) field called Eidgah or mosque. A sheep, cow, goat, buffalo or camel is then sacrificed as a symbol of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son. The regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid al-Adha by concerted efforts to see that no impoverished person is left without an opportunity to partake in the sacrificial meal during these days. The meat from the sacrificed animal is preferred to be divided into three parts. The family retains one-third of the share; another third is given to relatives, friends and neighbours; and the remaining third is given to the poor and needy.
Celebrations often include gatherings of family and friends, meals, especially lunches and late breakfasts, gift-giving, giving money or gifts to children as a token of love and helping the poor by giving foods, money, meat and clothes.
Celebrated: December 25
Krismas is a secular holiday that celebrates most of the elements of Christmas, with the exception of the myth of Jesus’ birth. Krismas observes the myth of Kris Kringle, also known as Santa Claus, Rudolph and the other reindeer, elves and other secular stories and songs. Celebrations include the giving of gifts, decoration of trees and buildings, a large meal with family and friends and the singing of secular carols. Krismas was created independently in 2004 by Jacob Walker and Will Shetterly, and by other individuals at other times, and has a small, but dedicated band of loyal celebrants.
Also known as: Kwanza; Quansa
Celebrated: December 26 – January 1
Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held in the United States and in other nations of the Western African diaspora in the Americas and honours African heritage in African-American culture. It was created by Maulana Karenga, and was first celebrated in 1966–67.
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colourful African cloth such as kente, 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. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice passed around to all celebrants. A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colours, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast. The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani? which is Swahili for “How are you?”
Also known as: Midsummer; Gathering Day; Summer Solstice; Alban Heffyn; Feill-Sheathain
Celebrated: Summer Solstice (Dec 21 or 22 – Southern Hemisphere)
I know that this blog post is about winter holidays but let’s not forget that, while many pagans in the Northern Hemisphere are celebrating Yule at this time of year, their Southern Hemisphere counterparts are celebrating Litha.
This holiday celebrates the Sun King in all his glory, who can be identified amongst others as Mithras, the Bull God and Jesus Christ in Christian belief. In Pagan celebrations in northern Europe, this is the time when the Oak King, representing the waxing year, is cast down by the Holly King, representing the waning year. The two are aspects of the one: the Oak King is the growing youth while the Holly King is male maturity.
Litha is one of the four solar holidays, and is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest. Because this Sabbat glorifies the Sun God and the Sun, fire plays a very prominent role in this festival. In the past Litha was often marked with bonfires and celebrants staying awake through the short night. To leap over the bonfire was to assure a good crop; some said the grain would grow as tall as the leapers could jump.
Due to fire restrictions in Australia throughout summer, celebrations for this Sabbat tend to be quite different from those in the North. No candles can be lit, no cauldrons burned, and no open flames are allowed outside throughout much of the country. Litha falls in the dry stifling heat of summer in the southern part of our land, but in the north, Litha falls in the hot, wet season, and represents fruitfulness. In Australia the Sturt Desert Pea is a sacred flower of this time. This is a time of ascendancy of the God, at his most powerful now, while the burgeoning Goddess brings forth the bounty of the Earth.
Because of these restrictions, some changes need to be made during rituals and celebrations. Fires can be replaced with other light sources including battery-operated torches that can be covered in coloured cellophane to produce different coloured light applicable to the various Elements. The cauldron can be replaced with a glass bowl of water, filled with rosewater and seashells, symbolising the importance of water to Australian Witches at this time. Garlands for hair, wreaths to carry and use in ritual, and light, casual clothing are all a part of Australian Midsummer celebrations.
Celebrated: December 31
Ōmisoka is the second-most important day in Japanese tradition because it is the final day of the old year and the eve of New Year’s Day, which is the most important day of the year. Families perform Ōsouji (the big cleanup) in order that the home will start the new year clean and tidy.
Around 11:00 PM on Ōmisoka at home, people often gather for one last time in the old year to have a bowl of toshikoshi-soba or toshikoshi-udon together. While the noodles are often eaten plain, or with chopped scallions, in some localities people top them with tempura. Traditionally, families make Osechi for New Year’s Day because cooking during the first 3 days of the new year is considered unlucky.
At midnight, many visit a shrine or temple for Hatsumōde.
Another regular feature of Ōmisoka starts at 7:30 PM when public broadcaster NHK airs Kōhaku Uta Gassen (“Red vs. White singing contest”), one of the country’s most-watched television programs. Popular singers (and singing groups) split into two teams, women in the red team and men in the white, which then alternate while competing for the audience’s heart throughout the evening. At around 11:30 PM, the final singer (or group) sings, and the audience and a panel of judges are asked to cast their votes to decide which team sang better. The winning team gets a trophy and “the winners’ flag.” The program ends at about 11:45 PM. Programming then switches to coverage of midnight celebrations around the country.
Throughout Japan, Shinto shrines prepare amazake (sweet sake) to pass out to crowds that gather as midnight approaches. Most Buddhist temples have a large cast bell that is struck once for each of the 108 earthly desires believed to cause human suffering.
Also known as: Fiesta de Santo Tomás; Feast of St Thomas
Celebrated: December 13-21
The Fiesta de Santo Tomás is a celebration in the Mayan town of Chichicastenango in Guatamala honouring their patron saint, Santo Tomás (or Saint Thomas. Celebrants wear elaborate costumes and fancy masks, turning themselves into dancing Spanish conquistadors. For a week festivities are limited to typical festival events – parades, traditional dances, fireworks. However, on December 21 (St Thomas’ Day), wooden poles as high as 30m are raised in the plaza beside the Iglesia de Santo Tomás and the dance of the palo volador (flying pole) begins. Two ropes hang from the top of each pole and the palo volador dancers ascend in pairs, scaling the poles on wooden steps and tying the ropes to their bodies. Then they leap, swirling around the pole at high-speed, the ropes unravelling as they go, lowering them to the ground. Some hang onto the rope with their hands, and others tie it around their ankles.
Celebrated: December 17-23
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the deity Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” Many Romana, neopagans who follow the Old Ways, celebrate Saturnalia in modern times.
Also known as: Yalda; Shab-e Yaldaa; Shab-e Chelleh
Celebrated: Winter Solstice (Dec 21 or 22)
Shabe-Yalda is an Iranian festival celebrated on the “longest and darkest night of the year”, that is to say the Winter Solstice. In pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition the longest and darkest night of the year was a particularly inauspicious day, and the practices of what is now known as “Shab-e Chelleh/Yalda” were originally customs intended to protect people from evil during that long night, at which time the evil forces of Ahriman were imagined to be at their peak. People were advised to stay awake most of the night, to avoid misfortune, and 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 in good company.
While the religious origins of this holiday have been lost, many of the traditions endure in present day Iran. It is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry until well after midnight. Bonfires are lit and fruits and nuts are eaten. Pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant as the red colour in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life. The poems of Divan-e-Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of most Iranians families, are intermingled with peoples’ life and are read or recited. Little packages of dried fruit and nuts, similar to wedding favours, are often handed out to family and friends.
Also known as: pilgrimage to Mecca
Celebrated: from the 8th to 12th (or in some cases 13th) of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and the Islamic year is about eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year, the Gregorian date of Hajj changes from year to year.
The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey, and can support their family during their absence. The gathering during Hajj is considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world. The Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people, and their submission to Allah. The word Hajj means “to intend a journey”, which connotes both the outward act of a journey and the inward act of intentions.
The Hajj is associated with the life of Islamic prophet Muhammad from the 7th century, but the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Abraham. During Hajj, pilgrims join processions of hundreds of thousands of people, who simultaneously converge on Mecca for the week of the Hajj, and perform a series of rituals: each person walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka’aba (the cube-shaped building and the direction of prayer for the Muslims), runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drinks from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, spends a night in the plain of Muzdalifa, and performs a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing stones at three pillars. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate the three-day global festival of Eid al-Adha
Celebrated: December 21 or 22
Many religious celebrations occur around the Winter Solstice, many of which celebrate the solstice itself. In recent times, however, many atheists and agnostics have also begun to celebrate the Winter Solstice. According to Secular Seasons:
For science-enthusiasts the winter solstice is an interesting astronomical occurrence that offers an opportunity to celebrate what we have managed to learn about the cosmos and affords us an opportunity to revel in the excitement of space exploration and the complexity of the universe.
Those who celebrate the solstice retain many of the secular trappings of Christmas, such as feasts and gift giving, without the religious overtones generally associated with the holiday.
Also known as: Midwinter; Yuletide
Celebrated: Winter Solstice (Dec 21 or 22)
Midwinter has been recognized as a significant turning point in the yearly cycle since the late Stone Age. The ancient megalithic sites of Newgrange and Stonehenge, carefully aligned with the solstice sunrise and sunset, exemplify this. The reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky symbolizes the rebirth of the solar god and presages the return of fertile seasons.
Practices vary, but sacrifices, feasting, and gift giving are common elements of Midwinter festivities. Bringing sprigs and wreaths of evergreenery (such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and pine) into the home and tree decorating are also common during this time. In fact, many of the traditions associated with the Christian holiday of Christmas can trace their origin back to Yule celebrations.
Groups such as the Asatru Folk Assembly in the US recognise the celebration as lasting 12 days, beginning on the date of the winter solstice. In Pagan celebrations in northern Europe, this is the time when the Holly King, representing the waxing year, is cast down by the Oak King, representing the waning year. In most forms of Wicca, this holiday is celebrated at the winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun.
Also known as: Zarthost no deeso
Celebrated: December 26
Zartusht no-diso is an important day of mourning in the Zoroastrian religion. It is a commemoration of the death anniversary of the prophet Zoroaster. It is an occasion of mourning with lectures and discussions held on the life and works of the prophet. Special prayers are recited, and attendance at the fire temple is very high. A much higher number of mobeds (clerics qualified to serve as celebrant priest at the Yasna ceremony and to train other priests) are brought to pray at the Atash Behrams (fire of victory) and Atash Adarans (fire of fires).
These are just a small sample of the wonderful diversity of celebrations taking place at the moment. I only had room for brief snippets on each. If something here interests you, take the time to research it further and pass the information along to somebody else. I am not so naïve as to think that war and conflict can be eliminated entirely, but if everyone can learn to accept and embrace our differences, the world will move one step closer to being a happier, more peaceful place.