I would like to pretend that my time spent relocating has given me a greater cultural sensitivity and profound understanding of global spiritual beliefs. Sadly, instead it has just given me far greater scope for gaffes and a wider network of people to inadvertently offend. Thankfully, the people I have met have been endlessly forgiving, and even amused by my blunders, but in an attempt to help you avoid the many and varied pitfalls that I have stumbled into, here’s my breakdown of religious festivals and cultural celebrations that fall in December. And for full disclosure, there are references at the bottom to prove that I haven’t in fact just made it all up. Should I have omitted one, please feel free to add an explanation in the comments section at the bottom, but please note that “Jedi Knight” will not be accepted.. (Photo of 11th Century Celtic Cross in Pembrokeshire, otherwise known as home..)
5 – Ashura (Islamic, Muslim). Ashura is a religious observance marked every year by Muslims. The word ‘ashura literally means “10th,” as it is on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year and is now recognized for different reasons and in different ways among Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.
Ashura has been a day of fasting for Sunni Muslims since the days of the early Muslim community. It marks two historical events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the Ark, and the day that Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah. Shi’a Muslims use the day to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet, in 680 CE, and mark it with expressions of grief and mourning.
6 – St. Nicholas Day (International)
8 – Bodhi Day – Buddha’s Enlightenment (Buddhist) On Bodhi day many Buddhists celebrate Gautama’s attainment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, India.
8 – The Immaculate Conception celebrated by Catholics who follow the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which teaches that Mary, the mother of Christ, was conceived without sin. Mary’s sinless conception is the reason why Catholics refer to Mary as “full of grace”. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated by Catholics on December 8th each year.
21 – Hanukkah (Jewish) – (Hebrew word for dedication) begins on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. It lasts for eight days beginning at sunset the previous day and is also known as the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah celebrates the victory (165 BCE) of the Maccabees over the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV and the subsequent reclamation of Jerusalem. According to the Talmud, only a one day supply of nondesecrated oil was found in the Temple when the Maccabees prepared it for rededication by removing all Syrian idols. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days until oil that was fit for use in the temple could be obtained.
This miracle is commemorated by the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. The candles are placed on the menorah or hanukkiya, a nine-branch candelabrum. The ninth branch of the hanukkiya holds the shamash, or servant light. This branch is lit first and is used to light a new candle on successive nights. The candle lighting is accompanied by the chanting of blessings. During Hanukkah, gifts are exchanged and children often play the dreidl game.
12 – Our Lady of Guadelupe (Catholic) Celebrated by Roman Catholics throughout Central and South America who honour the Empress of the Americas.
13 – Santa Lucia Day – the feast day of Santa Lucia / Saint Lucy marked by Catholics and Orthodox Christians and also celebrated by members of the Lutheran Church. Celebrations take place in the USA and Europe, especially Scandinavia.
16-25 – Las Posadas (Mexico) is a traditional Mexican festival which re-enacts Joseph’s search for room at the inn. Each Christmas season, a processional carrying a doll representing the Christ Child and images of Joseph and Mary riding a burro walks through the community streets. The processional stops at a previously selected home and asks for lodging for the night. The people are invited in to read scriptures and sing Christmas carols called villancicos. Refreshments are provided by the hosts. The doll is left at the chosen home and picked up on the next night when the processional begins again. This continues for eight nights in commemoration of the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
22 – Winter Solstice – Yule (Pagan) – the time when the sun child is reborn, an image of the return of all new life born through the love of the Gods. Within the Northern Tradition Yule is regarded as the New Year.The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year (21st December) and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
25 – Christmas (Christian, Roman Catholic, International, Protestant) (7 January for Orthodox Christians). Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God and has been celebrated by Christians for more than 1600 years. Christmas (from Old English Cristes maesse or “Mass of Christ”) is observed annually on December 25 although the exact date of Christ’s birth is not known. The Christmas season begins on the First Sunday of Advent and ends on Epiphany.
Christmas is also a popular secular holiday which focuses upon the many versions of St. Nicholas and other traditions such as Christmas carols, mistletoe, Christmas cards, and giftgiving. Children write letters to Santa Claus and tell him what they’d like to receive for Christmas. With help from his elves, Santa prepares the gifts and then, on Christmas Eve, he leaves the North Pole in his reindeer-guided sleigh. Rudolph leads the reindeer across the sky and onto each housetop. Santa carries the gifts down the chimney at each home and places them under the Christmas tree. Usually, the children of the house leave cookies and milk for Santa. Santa Claus is known by other names in different parts of the world. For example, in Germany, he is known as Kris Kringle (from Christkindle or “Christ child”) while the French call him Pere Noel. Many people celebrate Christmas with elements of both the religious observances and the secular rituals. However, some Christians reject the customs with pagan origins and many secularists discount the story of Christ’s birth. Regardless of whether the celebration is religious or secular, the main spirit of the season remains.
26 – Boxing Day (Canada, United Kingdom) / St Stephen’s Day. St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is associated with the distribution of alms to the poor, and Boxing Day is typically the day when gifts of appreciation are given. The day is also called the Feast of Stephen, noted in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas.
26 – Kwanzaa (African-American) Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural festival beginning on December 26 and ending on January 1. The festival was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga. Dr. Karenga’s goal was to establish a holiday that would facilitate African-American goals of building a strong family, learning about African-American history, and developing unity.While developing the new holiday, Dr. Karenga studied many African festivals and found many of them to be harvest related. Because of this, he named the celebration Kwanzaa from the Kiswahili word meaning “first fruits.” Karenga identified seven principles, the Nguzo Saba, of the African-American culture and incorporated them into Kwanzaa. The principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). Each day of Kwanzaa focuses upon one of the seven principles. After a candle-lighting ceremony, participants discuss what the principle means to them. Gifts are also exchanged during this time. A Karamu (feast) featuring traditional food, a ceremony honoring ancestors, music, and dancing is held on December 31.
New Year’s Eve. A secular celebration of the end of the Old Year of the Gregorian calendar, and is a time for making resolutions, and starting afresh. Usually associated with wanting to be richer, thinner, fitter, kinder, and more determined, resolutions typically last until the second week in January…