In many countries throughout the modern world, December has become synonymous with the celebration of Christmas. Despite this focus, there are many other December celebrations including the Buddhist Rōhatsu and Jewish Hanukkah, secular festivities such as Kwanzaa in America and Hogmanay in Scotland, and ancient Roman rituals such as Saturnalia. To wrap up this festive season, discover some fascinating (and lesser-known) facts on these December celebrations.
Buddhism has been practiced in Japan ever since its official introduction in 552 CE, exerting a major influence on the development of Japanese society and culture. The birth of the historical Buddha is celebrated on 8 April in the Hana Matsuri festival, his enlightenment on 15 February (Nehan) and his death on 8 December (Rōhatsu). Many Buddhist festivals also coincide with New Year festivities, such as the Tibetan “Great Prayer Festival” which falls on the 4th-11th day of the 1st Tibetan month.
Hanukkah (12-20 December) is a Jewish festival celebrated all over the world, observed by the kindling of lights in a menorah. But did you know that there is also a unique culinary tradition? Popular cheese-based dishes such as kugel and cheesecake are eaten during Hanukkah to honor the Biblical figure Judith, who gave the General Holofernes wine and cheese – cutting off his head once he became drunk. This encouraged the Israelites to defeat Holofernes’s terrified troops.
Although it is not celebrated today, Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival which lasted for seven days around 17-23 December. During this time Roman life was inverted; slaves were granted temporary liberty and were allowed to dine with their masters, leisure-wear was worn instead of togas, and presents were exchanged. Each household chose a mock king to preside over the festivities and feasting – a feat repeated in the medieval Feast of Fools.
Taking place on 21 December, the Winter Solstice (also known as midwinter) is an astronomical phenomenon marking the longest night of the year. It has been celebrated since the late-Neolithic period, and many myths and rituals have developed around this event. For instance, the Greek poet Hesiod warned that waiting too long to plough, particularly during the winter solstice, would yield a poor crop.
“Yuletide” is a phrase synonymous with the festive season, with an interesting history in the US. It was only during the 1820s that the Yuletide season (21 December – 1 January) became popular when modernization in terms of communication and transportation helped to spread beliefs about the birth of Christ. When new railroads and roads were constructed, Americans started to feel connected, and this provided an effective avenue for the birth of a new Christmas tradition.
Some atheists and sceptics have referred to 25 December as “Newtonmas”, a humorous reference to Christmas and Isaac Newton’s birthday. Participants send cards wishing “Reason’s Greetings!”, and swap boxes of apples and science-related items as presents. Sir Isaac Newton was the most eminent physicist of his day, but he was also a religious man. He was an unorthodox believer however, denying the doctrine of the Trinity in private.
In 1966 Maulana Ron Karenga created the holiday of Kwanzaa (26 December – 1 January), believing that black people in the United States needed a holiday that celebrated their African heritage. The word “Kwanzaa” is derived from the Swahili word kwanza meaning “the first.” It is spelled with an additional “a” at the end to make it a seven-letter word, so that it corresponds with the theme of seven which occurs throughout the holiday and its celebrations. Kwanzaa lasts for seven days, and the seven principles of Kwanzaa are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).
Boxing Day (26 December) originated in the United Kingdom, and is celebrated amongst friends and family. This has not always been the case though, and Boxing Day presents used to be given as gratuity for services rendered, rather than of a gift between equals. In the 1620s to 1640s, apprentices and servants received money as gifts from their employers on Boxing Day. By the 18th century employers were complaining loudly of the amount they were expected to pay out. The satirical magazine Punch included regular pieces mixing good humour and complaint, for example: “How much longer, we ask with indignant sorrow, is the humbug of Boxing-day to be kept up for the sake of draining the pockets of struggling tradesmen…”
Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve
Traditionally, the most important day of the year in Scotland was New Year’s Eve (31 December). The name Hogmanay was not in use until the 1600s, but the celebration dates back to ancient times. The name is derived from the Old French word aguillanneuf, which meant “a gift at the New Year.” Before the 1850s, the celebration of the New Year was very different, and similar to the Scottish Hogmanay in its gift-giving.
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