December holds many more holidays than Christmas. Some also are celebrated by Christians, but many are celebrated by followers of other faiths, or are secular.
Here’s a summary of popular December holidays, celebrated in the United States and/or around the world:
Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas. Advent means ‘coming’ in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.
No one is really sure when Advent was first celebrated, but it dates to at least 567 A.D. when monks were ordered to fast during December leading up to Christmas.
In many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on Nov. 15, and is also called the Nativity Fast.
On Dec. 8 Buddhists celebrated Bodhi Day, the day when Siddhartha Gautama, on seeing the morning star at dawn, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree and became the Buddha, the “Awakened One.”
Buddha’s enlightenment has for 2,500 years been the central article of faith for Buddhists, as well as being the unifying principle of all Buddhist teaching. For Buddhists everywhere Bodhi Day is an opportunity to acknowledge their dedication to the principles of wisdom, compassion and kindness — the distinguishing features of the Buddhist worldview.
Boxing Day occurs every year on Dec. 26. It’s a national holiday in the United Kingdom and Ireland. If the day after Christmas falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday is designated as the official public holiday.
Dec. 26 is also the feast day of Saint Stephen, the patron saint of horses, which is why Boxing Day has come to be associated with horse racing and fox hunting.
According to some, Boxing Day can be traced to the Victorian era when churches often displayed a box into which their parishioners put donations.
Also in Britain, on the day after Christmas Day, servants of the wealthy were given time off to visit their families because their services were required for the Christmas Day celebrations of their employers. They were therefore allowed the following day for their own observance of the holiday and each servant would be handed a box to take home, containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food.
It was also customary for tradespeople to collect “Christmas boxes” of presents or money on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year.
A Christian holiday on Dec. 25 honoring the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas evolved over two millennia into a worldwide religious and secular celebration, incorporating many pre-Christian pagan traditions into the festivities along the way. Today, Christmas is a time for family and friends to get together and exchange gifts.
Eid Milad UnNabi
Sunni Muslims observe the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday on the 12th day of the Islamic month of Rabi’ al-awwal, while Shi’a Muslims mark it on the 17th of this month. Muhammed is believed to be the last prophet.
Mawlid, or Milad, is celebrated with large street parades in some countries. Homes and mosques are also decorated. Some people donate food and other goods for charity on or around this day. Others listen to their children read out poems about events that occurred in the Prophet Muhammed’s life. Mawlid is celebrated in this way in many communities across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
However, many Muslims do not participate in celebrations on this day. Instead, they may mark the occasion by spending more time to read the Koran. Muhammed is said to have been born on a Monday and some scholars see fasting during the hours of daylight on Mondays as another way to celebrate his birth.
Feast of the Holy Family
The Feast of the Holy Family celebrates the human family unit, as well as the ultimate family unit: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The feast, not a solemnity, is usually celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas. If Christmas is a Sunday (as it is this year), then the feast is celebrated on Dec. 30.
The main purpose of the Feast is to present the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families, and for domestic life in general.
Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is becoming an increasingly popular Catholic feast in some American communities on Dec. 12. It is dedicated to Jesus’ mother Mary.
The day is particularly special for Americans of Mexican heritage, as it honors the belief that Mary, who is Mexico’s patron saint, appeared to a man in Mexico City twice in 1531.
Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods.
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple. Also spelled Hanukkah (or variations of that spelling), the Hebrew word is actually pronounced with a guttural “kh” sound, kha-nu-kah, not tcha-new-kah.
In the second century BC, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and belief in God. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on Earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.
When they sought to light the Temple’s Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.
To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah.
Hanukkah is celebrated Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 this year.
Holy Innocents Day
Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, or Innocents’ Day, is celebrated in Christian churches in the West on Dec. 28 and in Eastern churches on Dec. 29 to commemorate the massacre of children by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18).
These children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day. At first it may have been celebrated with Epiphany, but by the 5th century it was kept as a separate festival. In Rome it was a day of fasting and mourning.
The day is still observed as a feast day and, in Roman Catholic countries, as a day of merrymaking for children.
Many Christians around the world, particularly those of the Catholic faith, mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in their diaries and calendars. Church services (or Masses) to honor this observance are held on or around Dec. 8.
Theological controversy surrounded the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for centuries. However, popular celebration of this holiday dates to at least the eighth century. The argument related to the meaning of the word “immaculate,” which in this context refers to the belief that Jesus’ mother Mary was conceived without original sin.
Many theologians throughout Christian history, including St. Thomas Aquinas, questioned the Immaculate Conception. It remained open for debate for many years until Pope Pius IX proclaimed it to be an essential dogma in the Catholic Church on Dec. 8, 1854. Since then, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the belief that Mary was born without sin and that God chose her to be Jesus’ mother. Many Anglicans in the world also hold this belief.
Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday honoring African culture and traditions. It falls between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 each year. Maulana Karenga, an African-American leader, proposed this observance and it was first celebrated between December 1966 and January 1967.
It is celebrated by people from a range of African countries and their descendants. Kwanzaa consists of a week of celebrations, which ends with a feast and the exchange of gifts. During the celebrations, candles are lit and libations are poured. A libation is the name given to a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god. During Kwanzaa, a wooden unity cup is used to pour the libations.
A Kwanzaa ceremony often also includes performance of music and drumming, a reflection on the Pan-African colors of red, green and black, and a discussion of some aspect of African history. Women often wear brightly colored traditional clothing. Some cultural organizations hold special exhibitions of African influenced art or performances during the period of the celebrations.
The Las Posadas (Spanish: “The Inns”) religious festival is celebrated in Mexico between Dec. 16 and 24. Las Posadas commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. When they were unable to find lodging in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary were forced to seek shelter in a stable, where the Christ child was born.
Las Posadas is celebrated in cities and towns across Mexico. Each evening during the festival, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession through the streets of town. The procession is primarily made up of children dressed in silver and gold robes carrying lit candles and images of Mary and Joseph riding a donkey. Adults, including musicians, follow the procession, which visits selected homes and asks for lodging for Joseph and Mary. Traditionally, the procession is always refused lodging, though the hosts often provide refreshments. At each stop, passages of scripture are read and Christmas carols are sung.
Mass is held each day after the procession and, at the conclusion of the service, children break open piñatas filled with candy, toys and, occasionally, money. The piñatas are usually crafted in the form of a star, which was said to have guided the three wise men of biblical tradition to the newborn Jesus.
Pancha Ganapati is a modern Hindu festival that lasts for five days, from Dec. 21 to Dec. 25. It honors Ganesha, one of the most worshiped Hindu deities. Ganesha is venerated as the patron of arts and culture.
The festival of Pancha Ganapati was created in 1985 by Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (born Robert Hansen), an American-born convert to Hinduism. The celebration was conceived as a Hindu alternative to December holidays (Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, etc.).
Pancha Ganapati is a family holiday. During each of five days of the festival, all family members focus on sadhana, a special spiritual practice. Pancha Ganapati symbolizes mending of all past mistakes and new beginnings. It is customary to create a shrine with a large statue or picture of Lord Ganesha in the main room and decorate it with leaves, flowers and hanging ornaments.
Each day of the festival is associated with a different color and meaning behind it:
- Dec. 21: golden yellow, love and harmony among family members.
- Dec. 22: royal blue, love and harmony among neighbors.
- Dec. 23: ruby red, love and harmony among business associates.
- Dec. 24: emerald green, joy and harmony that come from the arts (music, dance, drama, art).
- Dec. 25: brilliant orange, love and harmony within all three worlds (trailokya).
Saint Lucia’s Day
St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated in Sweden, Norway and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on Dec. 13 in honor of St. Lucia. One of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Lucia was killed by the Romans in 304 AD because of her religious beliefs.
In Scandinavian countries, each town elects its own St. Lucia. The festival begins with a procession led by the St. Lucia designee, who is followed by young girls dressed in white and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads and boys dressed in a white pajama-like costume singing traditional songs. The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia, and it is meant to bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year.
Schools generally close around noon on the day of the festival so that families can prepare for the holiday. Families observe St. Lucia’s Day in their homes by having one of their daughters (traditionally the eldest) dress in white and serve coffee and baked goods, such as saffron bread (lussekatter) and ginger biscuits, to the other members of the family. These traditional foods are also given to visitors during the day.
Saint Nicholas Day
In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is Dec. 6. In some places he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. In other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children’s wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come.
Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his day, not Christmas, is the primary gift-giving day. Parties may be held on the eve, Dec. 5, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children will find small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.
A watchnight service is a late-night Christian church service. In different Christian denominations, such as Apostolic Pentecostals and Methodists, the watchnight service is held late on New Year’s Eve, and ends after midnight. This provides the opportunity for Christians to review the year that has passed and make confession, and then prepare for the year ahead by praying and resolving. The service often includes singing, praying, exhorting and preaching.
Following the lead of a small Christian denomination called the Moravians in what is now the Czech Republic that began having “watch” services in 1733, the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, originated watchnight services in 1740, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal Services. The services provided Methodist Christians with a godly alternative to times of drunken revelry, such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Today, a Methodist watchnight service includes singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, as well as scripture readings.
Watchnight service has added significance and history in the African-American community in the United States, since many slaves were said to have gathered in churches on New Year’s Eve, in 1862, to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.
In Anglican or Roman Catholic churches, this ceremony is often replicated in the form of a Midnight Mass or Eucharist.
Iranians around the world celebrate Yalda, which is one of the most ancient Persian festivals. The festival dates to the time when a majority of Persians were followers of Zoroastrianism before the advent of Islam.
On Yalda festival, Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.
Considered the longest night of the year, Yalda eve is the night when ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light.
Yalda, which means birth, is a Syriac word imported into the Persian language. It is also referred to as Shab-e Chelleh, a celebration of the winter solstice on Dec. 21 — the last night of fall and the longest night of the year.
The holiday marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Dec. 21) and celebrates the rebirth of the sun and beginning of winter. It is one of the oldest winter celebrations known.
The winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year. In ancient Rome, the weeklong feast of Saturnalia honored the sun god Saturn. Celts believed the sun stood still for 12 days, making it necessary to light a log fire to conquer the darkness. During the Iron Age, the Celts and other ancient Europeans welcomed the winter solstice by feasting, merrymaking and sacrificing animals. Today, modern pagans celebrate the holiday by lighting candles, throwing bonfires, hosting feasts and decorating their homes.