The month of December is imbued with religious holidays and celebrations that span a wide number of faiths and cultures. Since calendars around the world are not always congruent with each other, the actual days on which these celebrations occur often differs, but the rituals themselves are observed just the same wherever large numbers of participants reside.
Festivals and celebrations of many different holidays are recognized each year all over the world. Even nonconventional celebrations are making their way onto calendars as more and more independent religions are gaining popularity.
Ramadan (dates vary)
The first major ritual to cross from November into December is the Islamic holiday of Ramadan. Commencing when a combination of physical sightings of the Islamic calendar’s ninth month’s new moon and astronomical calculations are observed, practicing Muslims around the world begin a month of total abstinence of food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight hours.
A pre-dawn meal called “suhoor” is eaten to start the day and not until after sunset is a meal of dates (iftar) eaten, following the custom of the Prophet Muhammad. After eating the dates, it is time for the sunset prayer, followed by the supper meal.
Ramadan is a time of intensive worship and reading of the Quran. The 27th night, known as the Night of Power (Lailat ul-Qadr) is when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, which is often a sleepless night of prayer. Ramadan began this year Nov. 17 and concludes Dec. 16.
St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6)
This day marks the beginning of the Christmas holiday season for many in Europe. Saint Nicholas was a bishop in what is now Turkey. He was said to be a kind and generous man who enjoyed showering children with gifts. The eve of St. Nicholas Day is eagerly awaited by many European children, who anticipate gifts and bags full of sweets, oranges and peppernuts.
In Romania, on Dec. 5, children and adults leave polished black boots at the entrance to their homes for St. Nick to leave gifts in. In Bulgaria, Dec. 6 is a winter festival in honor of the master of seas, rivers and lakes, and is observed with meals of carp.
Czech Republic citizens believe that St. Nick is accompanied by an angel and a devil. The three of them go door to door in the evening asking children how they behaved that year. Children recite poems for the saint and expect to receive gifts of appreciation.
The French have celebrated this day since the Middle Ages. Parades of decorated floats and music mark his arrival, with evening festivals of fireworks throughout France.
In the Netherlands, Dutch children stuff their shoes with hay and carrots for St. Nick’s horse. Legend goes, if the children have behaved that year, then the hay will be replaced with gifts in the morning. It is the Dutch colonists who emigrated to New Amsterdam, now called New York City, who take credit for bringing the tradition of Saint Nicholas with them, giving rise to the North American version of Santa Claus at Christmastime.
Bodhi Day (Dec. 8)
This is a day of reverence for the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, whose teachings formed the religion of Buddhism. Siddhartha lived in the sixth century B.C. and was born in the Himalayan foothills, now Nepal. Disturbed by suffering of humanity, he set out at a young age to live a life of wandering, meeting people and living without comfort. According to legend, after many nights of sitting under a “bodhi tree” (fig tree) deep in thought, Siddhartha became “enlightened” to the human condition.
Today, Buddhists observe the importance of this event by celebrating Bodhi Day, a day of prayer, meditation and teachings. In North America, some Buddhists incorporate Bodhi Day with Christmas traditions by stringing colored lights around their homes, which represent the many pathways to enlightenment. Also, it is common to decorate a potted live ficus tree with lights, strings of beads representing unity and three shiny bulbs representing the three jewels of Buddhism.
Hanakkuh (Dec. 10-17)
Known as the “festival of lights,” Hanukkah, also known as the Hebrew word “Chanukah” meaning dedication, is celebrated for eight days in commemoration of the victory of the Jewish people over the Hellenistic Syrians in the year 165 B.C. The Jerusalem temple was occupied by Greek invaders and desecrated.
When Jewish armies regained the temple, they couldn’t find enough special oil to light the menorah. Finally, in a chamber of the Temple, a bottle of oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (the high priest) was found and had just enough inside to burn for one night, but somehow its contents kept the flame burning for eight nights until new oil could be found.
In observance, a Menorah containing eight candles is placed in the home and one candle is lit every night of Hanukkah until all eight are burning the final night. Gifts are exchanged between family and friends, and rich foods prepared with oil add a more modern aspect to the holiday.
Dongji (Dec. 21)
Considered one of the four great holidays in Korea since ancient times, this day is recognized as the beginning of a new year because days begin getting longer afterward, and is seen as a revival of the sun. Since the Korean calendar claims a different date as the New Year, Dongji is seen as the “Little New Year.”
The traditional meal served is called Patjuk, which is a rice-and-red-bean porridge, and Saealsim, which are boiled rice flour balls. During Dongji, each person must eat as many Saealsim balls as they are years old.
Traditionally, they believed that the red color of Patjuk would drive away evil spirits that came to wreak havoc on the longest night of the year, so bowls of the porridge are placed around the house to ward off the spirits.
Yule (Dec. 21)
It is recognized by people of the Wiccan faith, also known as “witches,” as the birth of the new solar year and beginning of winter. They observe this holiday by ringing bells on solstice morning, adorning homes with sacred herbs, ivy, holly and evergreen boughs to symbolize a connection with the earth.
On Solstice Eve, Wiccans meditate in darkness and then welcome the birth of the sun by lighting candles and singing chants and Pagan carols.
Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1)
Kwanzaa is an African-American and pan-African holiday in celebration of harvest, community and culture. It observes five fundamental activities: ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration.
The name is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. The festival dates as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia, and is recognized in west and southern Africa as well as in North America.
The focus is family unity. It is considered an important time for families to gather to observe the Seven Principles of Kwanza (Nguzo Saba), which are: unity, self-determination, collectivity, cooperation, purpose, creativity and faith.
Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga revived the tradition in North America on Dec. 26, 1966, during the Civil Rights Movement as a non-religious holiday that related to the growth and development of North Americans of African descent.