Christmas is such an overwhelming force of marketing and media attention, that we often forget there are other important holidays during December, as well. In different parts of the world and in different cultures, Christmas takes on a completely different meaning than it does in the West, and in some places it doesn’t exist at all, but other holidays are observed instead.
Christmas itself is celebrated most commonly in Europe and the Americas, though many other countries and even non-Christian cultures have adopted some form of celebrating it. In the United States we usually celebrate and open gifts on the 25th of December, but some places (especially in parts of Europe) prefer to do it on the night of the 24th, while some churches postpone celebrations until the first week of January. In some non-Christian cultures, Christmas-like celebrations are often combined with New Year’s Eve celebrations, with people wishing each other a merry Christmas on the 31st rather than the 25th.
Hanukkah (sometimes with variant spellings) is the eight-day holy festival of the Jewish people, and although it is a movable feast, it tends to coincide somewhat with the Christmas season, and sometimes even overlaps Christmas (as it will in 2008). Hanukkah commemorates the eight-day celebration of the liberation and rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Each night at sundown, for eight consecutive nights, Jewish people light the menorah, which is a special candle holder. There are eight candles, one to represent each night of the festival, and a ninth candle that is used to light the others. Family members may give each other gifts on each of the eight nights. There are also delicious meals, prepared with special Hanukkah foods, and children play special Hanukkah games.
Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of African heritage that occurs every year starting on December 26th. It is not specific to any country or religion, but was created during the 1960s to help give people of African descent a holiday more reflective of their culture and beliefs. Participants in the Kwanzaa celebrations focus on a different virtuous principle each day, and light special candles to denote their devotion to these principles. The atmosphere of Kwanzaa is both joyous and reverent, and much time is spent with family and friends. Sometimes traditional African ceremonies are performed, and celebrants may also wear special clothing during this time.
Yule is a term often used as an alternative word for Christmas, but the actual Yule festival is a Pagan/Germanic celebration which occurs on and around the Winter solstice. This places Yule at approximately December 21st, though historically the actual celebration dates have varied slightly throughout the centuries. Many of the traditions of Yule are similar to Christmas, and in fact there is evidence to suggest that both holidays have a common origin, though Yule itself predates Christianity. Those who celebrate Yule do so with a tree and gifts, and special foods, many of which also appear in a typical Christmas dinner.
Bodhi Day falls on December 8th, and marks the date on which Siddhartha Gautauma, more commonly known as the Buddha, attained enlightenment. Buddhists across the world vary in their observances of this important day, but rather than being a celebration, it as mostly a time for reflecting on the nature of suffering, and the knowledge that relief from suffering can be achieved through personal effort on one’s own path to enlightenment.
These are just a few of the holidays that happen in December, but there are many more in existence, all with varying degrees of popularity. Some people stick to observing one holiday, while others may have families of mixed heritage, and combine holidays or celebrate more than one. The important thing to remember is kindness and respect — learning about the beliefs and practices of others can help bring us all closer together during the holiday season .