Happy…I mean Merry…I mean Mazel Tov…I mean, where am I? “Happy Holidays” in December is an all-encompassing term that covers many special days, from many different cultures. So, depending on where you are during this holiday-saturated time, you may be given a different kind of greeting, and it would be nice to not only know what they mean, but also how to respond and participate in the festivities around you.
Other than that, though, it’s great (and important!) to get outside of your comfort zone and your own traditions so you can see and learn–maybe even experience, if you’re lucky–different holiday traditions around the world. Knowing about holiday traditions can help you see new cultures in a clearer light, connect with your friends and coworkers who celebrate differently than you, and just overall understand the world on a more beautiful and diverse level. Here are six December holidays around the world that you should know about:
St. Nicholas Day
This December holiday isn’t largely celebrated in the United States, but is big in many European countries. On the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death on December 6th 343 A.D., this holiday pays tribute to a man who spent most of his life helping those in need.
There are many stories about his secret good deeds, but one seems particularly well known. A very poor man had three daughters, and because they did not have dowries, they faced futures likely including prostitution. To save them from this dark fate, St. Nicholas threw a bag of gold for each daughter through their windows. The treasures are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry.
Today, children place a shoe outside their door in the hopes that some treasure will be left inside. In some countries, it’s believed that St. Nicholas arrives in November and spends several weeks traveling throughout the countryside on a horse or donkey finding out if children have been good (better than an elf on a shelf!).
This Christian holiday in December has many similarities to St. Nicholas Day, as far as December holidays around the world go, but it has very different roots. Christmas takes place on December 25th and celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is the son of God.
The biblical story tells that he was immaculately conceived by his parents Mary and Joseph, and born in a stable because all the inns were full. He went on to perform many miracles, spread the word of God, and ultimately was crucified for the sins of humanity. This December holiday is celebrated by over two billion people worldwide, through family gatherings, gift exchanges, special masses, caroling, and infamous Christmas decorations. One of the most popular Christmas decoration is the Christmas tree (originally a pagan tradition that entailed decorating a tree with edibles such as nuts and fruit), which is decorated with ornaments, bows, lights, and tinsil nowadays.
What the heck is this day? It is on so many calendars on December 26th and is popular in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Unfortunately, much to the dismay of our suspicions, it isn’t a special day every year when all Canadians get out big red gloves and beat each other up. It turns out that this seemingly mysterious holiday in December is a bit obscure in its origins, but carries the same basic principle.
Some sources say that Boxing Day became a holiday because servants traditionally worked Christmas Day, but had the following day off, since their employers gave them a gift following their service. Another says that church alms boxes, where people donated money and items for the less fortunate, were opened and distributed the day after Christmas creating a new December holiday. Then the tradition expanded to include service people, such as mail carriers and tradesmen. Today, many people have Boxing Day off, where it is celebrated, and the growing post-Christmas sales have marked it as a major shopping day.
A special day times eight, this Jewish holiday (another of the religious holidays in December), also known as the Festival of Lights, is one of many December holidays around the world and is celebrated for eight nights and days (the exact dates change slightly every year). Hanukkah is celebrated to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in 165 BC. The ruler at the time had outlawed Judaism and confiscated their temple; circumcision was banned and animal sacrifices were performed at the altar. But, the Jewish people organized a revolt and, upon success, the temple was rededicated, but required cleansing.
To complete cleansing, the iconic candle holder known as the Menorah, needed to burn uninterrupted throughout consecutive nights, but there was only enough oil to last one. Miraculously, the Menorah burned for eight days, the exact amount of time needed to replenish their oil. Today, for this holiday in December, special rituals are held on each day, represented by a branch on the Menorah. The ninth and middle candle is higher than the rest and is there in case you actually need the light of a candle, since it is forbidden to light the others for practical purposes.
This young holiday in December is less religious and more ideological, and strives to reconnect individuals with their African culture. Created in 1966 by Mualana Kareng, a professor of African studies, activist, and author, Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st. Derived from the Swahili word meaning “first fruits of the harvest,” each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a principal that Kareng believed represented the best within communities. These principles are unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Kareng originally created it as an alternative for the black community, as a unique way for them to celebrate themselves versus imitating dominate society, but now it is widely incorporated and celebrated in addition to other December holidays around the world.
Festivus - The Holiday for the Rest of Us
Don’t forget the best of all, the one that was created (basically) for fun and made popular by the television sitcom Seinfeld. It was created as a way to celebrate December holidays without dedicating any day to just one tradition and avoiding any pressures that come with holiday celebrations. This December holiday seems comparable to April Fool’s Day, mixed with a 30th birthday party, and then mixed with an ugly Christmas sweater party. Make it whatever you want, whether that’s celebrating your pet peeves, how much Mondays suck, cats in sinks, or whatever else suits your fancy. The only rule of Festivus is that you celebrate the holiday in December, and do so happily and creatively.
It was originally conceived by the writer Dan O’Keefe and passed on to Seinfeld through his son, who was a screenwriter for the show. The event was a family tradition for years and included signature events such as the “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength” in place of gift exchanges and decorations.
Hop on over to those holiday shindigs!
Since it’s so easy to get stuck in your own comfortable swing of things, it is important to step outside our comfortable bubble every once in awhile (preferably more!) and really remember the origins and roots of other traditions and cultures around the world. As December holidays around the world are coming right up, it’s great to learn a little more about different traditions celebrated by people across the globe. December holidays are about bringing people together, so why not do that exact same thing on a global scale?