Winter Holidays Around the World

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Thanksgiving kicked off the proverbial holiday season, and a slew of celebratory days follow around the world. Many are religiously or spiritually affiliated in one way or another and a group align themselves with the winter solstice. Here are some of the major holidays along with some fun facts:

Advent: Starting anywhere from late November to early December is the Advent. This is the time period celebrated by various Christian groups in preparation for Christmas. With the Advent comes the Advent Calendar. The modern day variation of the Advent Calendar is mainly aimed at children as a countdown to the big day when they can rip open the gifts from under the tree. Variations of the calendar existed since 19th century Germany, and disappeared during World War II to save paper. After its resurrection postwar, it has become one more aspect of the Christmas holidays that merchandisers can cash in on.

Saint Nicholas Day: Saint Nicholas, who is through to be the origin of the modern day Santa Claus, has his day celebrated on December 6th. He was believed to have generously given a poverty stricken family with three daughters a dowry in the cover of the night, so that no one would know who had left gold at the family’s home. The tradition of children receiving gifts was so popular, that when Martin Luther created the Protestant church he knew he could not have it disappear all together. Instead the figure of Krist Kindle was created, who served much the same purpose, but instead brought gifts on Christ’s birthday –taking the focus away from the saint and toward Jesus.

Hanukah: A Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days and nights commemorating the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. There are various ways to spell out the holiday: Hanuka, Chanuka, Hanukah, Chanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukkah, and variations there of. The holiday is a transliteration, not a translation, from Hebrew which is difficult to have a uniform spelling for words with sounds not found in alphabet. There is a common misperception that Hanukah is the biggest Jewish holiday, but it is actually less religiously important than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu’ot.

Bodhi Day: Observed on December 8th, Bodhi Day celebrates the day in 596 BC when Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Although the day is for remembrance and meditation for Buddhists, there are interesting similarities to other holidays. Lights symbolizing enlightenment can be strung around the home or along pathways and lit during the evenings and for 30 days starting on Bodhi Day. In some Buddhist homes a fiscus tree is decorated with colored lights (for enlightenment), strings of beads (for unity), and three ornaments (for the Three Jewels). Or to get the children involved, Bodhi tree shaped cookies can be made while telling the story of Buddha.

Winter Solstice: The winter solstice occurs on December 21 or 22. It is the day when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Capricorn (the summer solstice on June 20 or 21 is when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Cancer) and marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. This day that begins winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere is celebrated in a plethora of different ways and places:

Beiwe Festival: Celebrated by the indigenous people of Finland, the Sami, who worshiped the sun-goddess of fertility and sanity.

Brumalia: A month-long celebration honoring the ancient Roman god Bacchus.

Chawmos: Celebrated by the Kalash in Pakistan, it marks the return of a demigod who collects prayers.

Dongzhi Festival: An important holiday in China and much of East Asia that delves in to the yin and yang philosophy of day and night.

Goru: A harvest celebration marking the arrival of the sky god for the Dogon people of Mali.

Inti Raymi: Honoring of the sun god by the Inca in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Karachun: The Slavic form of Halloween where evil spirits were believed to be the strongest on the longest night of the year.

Koeda: An ancient Slavic holiday that celebrated with fires in the hearth and children wore disguised while visiting houses with songs. The festivities were eventual absorbed into Christmas Eve and most of the traditions lost during the Soviet Union.

Lenaia: The original Greek form of the Roman Brumalia holiday.

Lohri: The winter solstice festival of the Punjab in India.

Saint Lucy’s Day: A Scandinavian tradition where a female is chosen to play Lucia, wearing a white robe and crown of candles, and chases away the winter.

Şeva Zistanê: Ancient Kurdish holiday celebrating the victory of light over darkness that is still observed today.

Soyal:A ceremony by the Zuni and Hopi Native Americans to bring back the sun after a long winter.

Yalda: An Iranian Persian holiday that celebrates the birth of the Persian angel of light and truth.

Yule: A Germanic pagan winter festival that was later tied into Christmas.

Pancha Ganapati: A five-day Hindu holiday held from December 21st to 25th worshiping Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity of culture and new beginnings. During the family-centered festivities, children dress or decorate a statue of Ganesh in a different color every day. On the first day the color is yellow, and the day focuses on family love and harmony. The second day is blue and extends out to neighbors, relatives, and close friends. The third day is red and the pursuit of love and harmony is widened to include business associates and the public. The fourth day is green and a day for music, art, drama, and dance. The final day is orange and focuses on charity and religiousness. The origin of the holiday is relatively new as it is a modern day holiday adapted so that Hindus, especially those living in the West, would not feel left out of the Christmas festivities without sacrificing their religious beliefs.

Twelve Days of Christmas: Although nearly forgotten in the United States, the twelve days of Christmas starts on December 25th –it is misconception that it ends on Christmas Day. The twelve days stretch until January 5th or 6th, depending on which Christian tradition is followed, and ends with the Epiphany. Many children receive gifts from some variation of Santa Claus on Christmas day, a modern change to the holiday as many parts of Europe children receive gifts on Epiphany –as it marks the day the Three Wise Men visited Jesus with gifts after his birth. Many of the pagan and indigenous holidays for the winter solstice were absorbed into Christmas as Christianity spread through Europe centuries ago. Christmas is also celebrated in countries that do not have a predominantly Christian population, like in Japan where secular aspect of the day is adapted like gift giving and the Christmas tree.

Boxing Day: In the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and handful of other Commonwealth nations celebrate Boxing Day on the day after Christmas. Traditionally, it was a day when servants and trades people received gifts from their superiors and given the day off. In modern day, Boxing Day serves as the British equivalent of Black Friday, and is the largest shopping day of the year. In towns across The Bahamas, a street parade with music called Junkanoo is held on Boxing Day. The celebration draws its origin from when slaves in the area were given a day off near Christmas to be with family and commemorate with African dances.

Kwanzaa: Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration starting December 26th and spans to January 1st. It is a modern holiday that was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University. In reaction to the Watts Riots in August 1965, Karenga aimed to create a celebration that united African-Americans together. The holiday borrows traditions from various harvest celebrations ranging from Ashanti to Zulu. The name kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits.”

by World Affairs Council Intern Natalia Mitsui

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