In our last blog, we talked about how the Christmas holiday is celebrated around the world, from feasts of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan to St. Nicholas arriving in the Netherlands by steamboat. Today, we will be introducing some of the other popular holidays that take place in December. As we mentioned in the last part, the reason there are so many holidays in December is that thousands of years ago, even before the time of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions), there were already numerous holidays celebrated in December, centered around the Winter Solstice.
Hannukah – December 10th to December 18th (2020)
One of the other most familiar December holidays is the celebration of Hannukah, otherwise known as the “Festival of Lights.” Unlike Christmas, the dates for Hannukah follow the traditional Hebrew calendar. This means that Hannukah typically begins between late November and late December. A traditional Hannukah celebration includes the lighting of the menorah, a type of candelabra that includes eight lights in a row, along with a ninth light above or off to the side, separate from the other eight. During each night of Hannukah, one of the eight candles are lit from the flame of the ninth candle (known as the shamash), until all the candles have been lit.
According to tradition, the menorah miraculously remained lit for eight days during the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire. Hannukah commemorates this event and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Other popular traditions associated with Hannukah include playing the game of dreidel and eating traditional foods, such as latkes. A somewhat more modern tradition includes giving gifts on each of the eight nights of the celebration. Hannukah is celebrated all over the world, from Africa and the Middle East to North America, South America, and Australia.
Kwanzaa – December 26th to January 1st
Kwanzaa is a more “modern,” yet still incredibly important December holiday. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga – a famed professor of African, activist, and author – as a holiday specifically for African-Americans and based on traditional African harvest festivals. In fact, the name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits.”
There “seven principles” of Kwanzaa are: 1) Unity, 2) Self-Determination, 3) Collective Work & Responsibility, 4) Cooperative Economics, 5) Purpose, 6) Creativity, and 7) Faith. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of these seven principles. Families observing the holiday use a variety of celebratory objects, including a candle holder for seven candles, the candles themselves, crops, corn, a ritual cup use to commemorate and give thanks to their African ancestors, and a variety of other gifts, known as zawadi. Homes are also typically decorated with colorful art and African cloth, and women wear the traditional kaftan attire and fruits.
Kwanzaa traditions tend to vary, but often include drumming, musical performances, libations, a discussion of the day’s dedicated principle (from the seven principles outlined above), and finally, a “feast of faith.” As unity is an important theme of Kwanzaa, and Kwanzaa itself is created from an amalgamation of various old and new traditions and customs, celebrations are welcoming and open to those who are not African-American.
Boxing Day – December 26th
Although fairly unknown in the United States, Boxing Day is a holiday found in the United Kingdom and a number of other countries that used to be part of the British Empire, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and numerous other countries in the Commonwealth of Nations. Therefore, although it began as a “British” holiday, Boxing Day has truly become an international holiday.
The name “Boxing Day” goes back to the days when the wealthy would box up gifts for the poor and their servants, on the day following Christmas. Servants were also usually given this day off from work and would take the Christmas boxes given to them back home to their families. Although the “traditions” of this holiday have disappeared over the years, it is still a public holiday (or “bank holiday”) in the Commonwealth countries in which it is observed.
In more recent times, Boxing Day has been a day mostly for shopping, in many ways similar to “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) in the United States.
In this brief, two-part series, we have taken a look at several of the holidays celebrated around the world during the month of December. However, there are many other holidays from around the world celebrated in other months, or in varying months depending on the respective calendars utilized by other faiths. For example, the Chinese follow the lunar calendar and Muslims follow the Islamic calendar. We will discuss some of these other holidays throughout the year in future cultural blog series.
To all who celebrate a holiday in December, we wish you a very happy holiday and a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year!