As the days shorten and night falls earlier in the northern hemisphere, our thoughts turn toward the upcoming holidays. Whether that means Solstice or any of the many holidays celebrated by the world’s faithful in wintertime, spiritual people of all denominations find a joyful reason for the season.
Winter Solstice – Pagan Solstice celebrated as Yule by modern Pagans. The Wheel of the Year marks the eight points of the Sun’s journey through the seasons, especially the four major turning points: the Solstices and Equinoxes. Winter in the North, and Summer in the South, begins on December 21 as the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn. This marks the moment when the Sun appears to stand still, and the source of light and warmth on Earth prepares to reverse course from its extreme southern path – the reason for the season of cold in the North (and heat in the South). After solstice, the days begin to lengthen toward Spring. Known as Midwinter or Yule, the festival surrounding Winter Solstice is one of earth’s most ancient, as any visitor to Stonehenge can testify (every year, the Sun aligns with the Henge on this date at Sunrise). Pagans around the world celebrate this day with the offering of sacrifices, giving of gifts, and decorating the home with festive trees and plants like holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and pine. Wiccans observe this holy sabbat either with their covens or in their homes, such as by decorating a Yule tree with candles. Making offering to their ancestors, such as water, flowers and incense, is one way for Pagans to set intentions for the new year. Cleansing their space, cleaning the altar and crystals, and practicing divination (such as tarot, or using a pendulum) are ways to foster spiritual energy and set intentions on this blessed day.
Chanukah – Jewish is a remembrance of the victory the Jewish people celebrated with God’s help when the Maccabees defeated the conquering Greco-Syrian army. The eight-day holiday takes its cue from the miracle of light when, after winning in battle, the soldiers, found one last jar of oil. To sanctify their Temple, the Maccabees poured this small amount of oil into a lamp, which miraculously burned for eight days of light. So Chanukah is a celebration of when the Jewish people were able to consecrate a place of worship that had been defiled by war and an invading religion. Chanukah actually means “dedication” in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Bible, referring to the re-dedication of the Second Temple. The celebration of Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah, etc.) falls on the 25th day of the lunar month of Kislev, which corresponds to the start of the winter season wherever it falls on the Gregorian calendar. Chanukah is celebrated by the giving of gifts over its eight nights, along with singing songs and lighting a Menorah, the nine-candle candelabra. Festive foods are extra oily, like potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, in celebration of the miracle. Don’t forget the dreidel and chocolate gelt!
Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti – Sikh December 22 is also the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru who was the final person to hold this office before he established the holy book Guru Granth Sahib as the enduring Guru of Sikhism. Sikhs celebrate this birthday on different days of the year, according to their calendar, often corresponding to early January, by congregating in the Gurudwara to recite prayers and the text. People parade through neighborhoods singing holy songs (kirtan) and making offerings to the poor. Sikhs also mark the winter with the Martyrdom of Sahibzade, the sons of Guru Gobind Singh, which is celebrated on December 21 and 26.
Kwanzaa – African is a modern holiday celebrated by members of the African Diaspora in North America. It falls on December 26 and is celebrated for one week. Each day is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. These were developed by Maulana Karenga. People celebrate by decorating their homes with African themed art along with contemplating the African Pledge. A candelabra of seven candles called a kinara is lit ceremonially.
Christmas – Christian Christmas is celebrated by the followers of Jesus as the date of his birth, born in a manger in Palestine when the bright star led the Magi to find the baby Messiah. Modern observances include singing carols, giving gifts, and decorating a Christmas tree. In the Advent, or weeks prior to the Nativity, it is customary to build a Nativity Scene, depicting the Christmas story. Christmas Eve begins the festivities, and is followed by the twelve day of Christmas, concluding with Epiphany. Lighting candles like Bayberry on Christmas Eve is one way to celebrate this festival of light.
Las Posadas is celebrated in the leadup to Christmas in Southwestern US, Mexico, and Latin America. This Catholic festival is celebrated by having children carry pictures of Joseph and Mary in a candle-lit procession of caroling from house to house until one lets them in. This is a retelling of the journey made on the eve of Jesus’ birth. At the final house, they celebrate with a final mass, and a piñata for the children!
Zartosht No Diso – Zoroastrian – the anniversary of Persian prophet Zoroaster’s death falls on December 26 and, although somber, is also celebrated as a festival of light. The faithful visit fire temples and commemorate their prophet through reciting scriptures and prayers.
Birthday of Mithras – Mithraism – originally marked the date of December 25 prior to Christianity’s use of that date for its holy day.
Bodhi Day – Buddhist: (celebrated as enlightenment day by many Mahayana Buddhists – especially China (Rohatsu), Japan (Shaka-Jodo-e), Korea, and Vietnam. Like most holidays celebrated in Buddhism, it falls on a lunar date. In China that is marked as the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, although in Japan that was modernized to fall always on the Gregorian date of December 8. Although many Southeast Asian Buddhists of the Theravadin sect celebrate a similar holiday during summer’s Vesak day, both commemorate the Enlightenment of the Buddha, when Prince Siddhartha awakened as Shakyamuni, the Buddha of our age. That is why the name of the holiday refers to the Sanskrit and Pali word for awakening, bodhi. Sitting under the tree in north India that we now call the Bodhi tree, he woke up to his previous rebirths, then realized these were due to karma, and set forth the path to enlightenment called the Four Noble Truths. Celebrations vary by tradition but include Buddhist acts of making merit to dedicate to the welfare of all beings, such as meditation, prayer, reciting the words of the Buddha (Sutras), and making offerings to monks, nuns, and those in need.
New Year’s Day, also called Sylvester in Europe, is perhaps the world’s most celebrated holiday. Parties, joyful consumption of food and wine, and the making of resolutions are some common ways to celebrate.
In Japan, the Shinto celebration of Oshogatsu falls on this day too. On New Year’s Eve, temples ring out 108 bells. Oshogatsu marks the best time to visit the local kami shrine to ask for blessings for the upcoming year by making food offerings and stating your resolutions in front of the gods.