There are so very many holidays and celebrations in December. In our neck of the woods some of them are very well know, Christmas and Hanukkah immediately come to mind. While some are becoming more widely recognized, like Kwanzaa and Yule. Let’s do a little armchair adventuring and look at some holiday traditions from across the spectrum. (This journey will not be exhaustive, there are just too many holidays for one blog!) For more info on any of these holidays, click on the links scattered throughout this post for more a more in-depth look.
In 2018, Hanukkah was the first of the December holidays to be celebrated. It was celebrated from sundown December 2 to sundown December 10. For those not familiar, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that is roughly 2,000 years old. 2,000!
Also called the Festival of Lights, it is a celebration of triumph, freedom, and the miracle of the menorah that burned for eight days with only enough oil for one. Modern traditions include the nightly lighting of the candle, exchanging small gifts, playing with the dreidel, eating traditional meals including potato latkes (Guys, latkes are so good) and giving thanks. A beautiful holiday to start us on our journey today.
Next up, we have feast days and Saint days! These all come from the Christian tradition, but many aren’t regularly celebrated here in WNC. Let’s start with Saint Nicholas Day. And yes, this is the jolly old St Nick we take our traditional Santa Claus from. His day is traditionally December 6 and is celebrated with the leaving of small gifts or coins (or coal if you’ve been naughty), giving to the poor, and feasting.
But tied to the kind image of Saint Nicholas is one of his companions, Krampus. On the night of December 5, Krampus stalks the countryside looking for naughty children to take away in his sack. This central European creature is horned and hoofed and terrifying. I know that this guy would have scared me into behaving much more readily than the Elf on the Shelf. At least the Elf won’t kidnap me and beat me with reeds. But then there’s always the wassailing Welsh Christmas Horse, Mari Lwyd. I can thank my Welsh ancestors for that Christmas tradition that will forever haunt my dreams.
Our next feast day has become much more visible in our area lately. It’s the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A traditionally Mexican celebration, I grew up seeing it in L.A. but had nearly forgotten about how beautiful a celebration it is until just recently when I saw a local Lady of Guadalupe processional. It is said that the Virgin Mary appeared before Juan Diego in what would become Mexico City. Her day is celebrated on December 12, but She is also celebrated on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, December 8. On Her days there is feasting, special Mass, parties, and processionals featuring her image.
Somewhat chronologically we next find Yule. I say somewhat chronological because Yule is more of a season and can be celebrated anytime between mid-November and early January. It is a pagan festival that revolves around feasting and drinking during midwinter. It has been linked to celebrations of the Wild Hunt and Odin. That said, several of our Christmas traditions come straight from this pagan holiday. Our Yule Log and Christmastide markets are the most obvious examples. Though the Gavle Yule Goat is one of my favorites.
Yule leads us directly into the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. December 21st (usually, but sometimes the 20th). A holiday as old as human beings. Many ancient marvels line up with the solstice, including Stonehenge. Marked by, you guessed it, feasting to welcome back the sun and the eventual rise of spring. Also an inspiration for many of our Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree and possibly Santa’s reindeer.
We’ve made it to Christmas. I know y’all know the traditions of gift giving, Santa Claus, music, family, feasting, and let’s not forget the birth. of. Christ. But also remember in the western Church, Advent is December 1 through December 24 (and in the Eastern Orthodox Church is a 40 day Nativity Fast). Christmas is December 25. The 12 days of Christmas start on the 25th and go until January 6, which is Epiphany, aka Three Kings Day, aka the day that the little baby Jesus got his gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Advent and Epiphany have their own traditions apart from what we typically think of as “Christmas.” Lighting of candles, special prayers and Church services, the diving for the cross. A Greek Orthodox celebration where the first lucky young man to recover the Crucifix is blessed by the Church for the coming year.
To Kwanzaa! Another holiday that is gaining recognition in our area, Kwanzaa is a celebration from the culture of the African diaspora. It is celebrated from December 26 to January first and ends with feasting and gift giving. (There is definitely a universal theme in the December holidays.) Kwanzaa has seven core tenets represented by the seven candles of the Kinara. These principles are Umoja, meaning unity, Kujichagulia, self-determination, Imani, faith, Nia, purpose, Kuumba, creativity, and Ujima and Ujamma for collective responsibility and cooperative economics.
So with that, we come to the end of our very brief journey through December. It’s only early December as I write this, so we have plenty of celebrations ahead of us yet, both religious and secular. Whatever you may celebrate this month, may it be filled with warmth and joy and peace.