A beginner’s guide to December holidays and events other than Christmas

Keeping these traditions alive gives meaning to all beliefs and cultures

Hanukkah candles lit for the holiday. (Flickr/drakelelane)

Hanukkah candles lit for the holiday. (Flickr/drakelelane)

The month of December is notorious for only showcasing Christmas, but there are plenty of other celebrations that reference different cultures and beliefs. 

Life gets more festive as December rolls around because it gives folks something to look forward to and spend time with the people and traditions they hold close to their hearts. 

Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah, is one of the most celebrated holidays worldwide. It is an eight-day Jewish celebration, usually in November or December. It is highly significant as Hanukkah commemorates the gained freedom of Jews from their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean revolt led by Judah Maccabee around 200 B.C. They cleansed the Second Temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt its altar, and rededicated it to Israel’s God, which gives another term for Hanukkah, “Feast of Dedication.” 

The most important tradition during Hanukkah is the eight-branched candelabrum called Menorah. A candle is lit every night until all the candles are burning on the last evening, with a ninth candle used to light the others. It is a reminder of how the temple light lasted and served as a miracle. 

Other traditions include the daily reading of Psalms from the Torah, the sacred scripture, almsgiving, and singing a special hymn. Traditional foods are also served and mainly cooked in oil, such as latkes, potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts in honour of the miracle temple story. 

Kwanzaa, meaning “First Fruits” in Swahili, is another annual holiday celebrated in December and is known as an African-American celebration of life. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University. African harvest celebrations such as Ashanti and Zulu served as the basis of the week-long festivities. 

Kwanzaa is a secular occasion celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and affirms the role and heritage of African families and their social values that shaped the community. 

It is celebrated primarily in the United States, but has also been adopted by different countries in the Caribbean and places with large populations of African descendants. The central idea of Kwanzaa lies in seven guiding principles known as “Nguzo Saba,” which represent values and concepts reflective of African culture. 

Each day of the celebration is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. A candle-lighting is observed each evening to discuss each principle with each symbol corresponding to them. Most notably is Mazao, which are crops for the farmers’ sacrifices and hard work during harvest, Mkeka, a placemat made from straw or cloth for keeping the history and traditions alive, and Vibunzi, an ear of corn for fertility and the future hopes of the family from their children. 

Most people celebrate the Dongzhi Festival in East Asia on the winter solstice. This one-day celebration occurs annually around Dec. 21 and can be historically traced back to the Han Dynasty. 

It is inspired by the yin-yang philosophy representing balance and harmony in the universe. It is believed that negative yin energy is at its peak on the dark winter solstice and positive yang energy grows as daylight hours lengthen towards spring. 

During Dongzhi, people consume warm “yang” food to counteract the “yin” energy of the winter season, such as hotpot, babao porridge, dumplings, and tang yuan which are glutinous rice balls. There are some public events and performances prepared by villages, though it is mostly celebrated by families to come together, cook and share warm meals, and worship their ancestors by burning incense, praying, and offering food. 

In addition to the Dongzhi Festival, Japan has Omisoka or Otsugomori which is similar to Western New Year’s Eve celebrations. The term Omisoka was derived from “misoka” as “the thirtieth day.” 

Rather than a grand celebration, people are focused on a spiritual and ritual-focused gathering with the primary goal of having good luck and starting the year with a clean slate. 

Temple bells ring 108 times to symbolize the cleansing of 108 worldly passions that created human suffering, a Buddhist ritual known as “joya no kane,” and the last bell is rung for people to make an important wish of positivity for the coming year. 

Families do all their preparations days prior to the event, such as cooking meals, purchasing gifts, and cleaning the house from top to bottom. It is an important custom to welcome the new year with a clean household for good luck and hang a kadomatsu, which is a traditional pine decoration believed to welcome ancestral spirits to their homes. 

They also eat a traditional noodle dish called Toshikoshi-soba an hour before midnight to symbolize long life and an easy transition from the current year to the next. People are also encouraged to visit shrines and temples at the beginning of the year, called Ninen-mairi, to pay homage to their patron Shinto god, or anywhere close to where they live. 

Hindus worldwide have their own gift-giving celebration called Pancha Ganapati. It is a five-day long festival created in honour of Lord Ganesh, patron of Arts and Guardian of Culture. Families celebrate the holiday season centralized on Hindu values to bring harmony and joy into the five realms of life: family, friends, associations, culture, and religion. 

Each family creates a shrine with a bronze or large wooden five-faced elephant statue of Lord Pancha Ganapati. For five days, different traditions are observed for each of the five realms of life, such as mending relationships and passing on cultural refinements. 

Each morning, children wear different colours to symbolize the god’s five powers or “shaktis” and leave a tray of sweets and fruits while adults give gifts on the fifth day for the children to open. 

Pancha Ganapati also includes a special spiritual discipline called Sadhana, which gives importance to mending past mistakes and establishing a new beginning between oneself and others. Handmade presents or greeting cards are much more preferred than extravagant gifts and games to further the principles of Hindu culture.