How different cultures and religions celebrate the winter season holidays differently.
This blog post highlights the most popular ways people all over the world celebrate. The month of December is full of celebrations of all kinds, some of which as unique as the region of the world where they originated. Some have been celebrated for thousands of years, others are fairly new- but they are all important for the people that hold them dear.
Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.
~ Robert Alan
It really doesn't matter how you choose to say it – celebrate, celebrar, fira, célébrer, يَحْتَفِلُ, 庆祝, slaviti, fejre, festeggiare, viering – a celebration is understood all over the world and across cultures and religions as an act or event that commemorates something, and in some cases it makes something, or a specific date, special. Many people throughout the generations have taken time during the winter months to celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. And while you can see many differences in the events we celebrate, and how we do so, they all have similar aspects of togetherness, reflection, and enjoyment.
Christmas is the most popular celebration in most Western countries, around the world and throughout the U.S., but there's many more winter celebrations around. The most well-known and celebrated are usually religious in nature; some others were inspired by nature itself, acknowledging the darkest day of the year and the inevitable return of the sun; while others honor cultural traditions of the region or country they are celebrated in. There are a lot of other holidays that are culturally significant to their countries of origin, some of which have festivities that far exceed even the most ostentatious Christmas celebration.
Here we mention only 10 of the most popular celebrations around the world, all around the month of December, but there's many more.
Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.
A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many countries, and it is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season organized around it.
Although the month and date of Jesus' birth are unknown, the church in the early fourth century fixed the date as December 25. This corresponds to the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar and it is exactly nine months after Annunciation on March 25, also the date of the spring equinox.
Most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, part of the Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. For Christians, believing that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than knowing Jesus' exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.
The celebrations associated in various countries with Christmas, have a mix of Pagan, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular customs of the holiday include gift giving; completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath; Christmas music and caroling; viewing a Nativity play; an exchange of Christmas cards; church services; a special meal; and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.
Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. Over the past few centuries, Christmas has had a steadily growing economic effect in many regions of the world.
(Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה), also known as the Festival of Lights (Hebrew: חַג הַאוּרִים, Ḥag HaUrim), is a Jewish festival commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple.
It is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, commonly called a menorah or hanukkiah. One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. This unique candle is called the shammash (Hebrew: שַׁמָּשׁ, "attendant"). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shammash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the festival. Typically two blessings (brachot; singular: brachah) are recited when lighting the candles. On the first night, the shehecheyanu blessing is added, making a total of three blessings.
The blessings are said before or after the candles are lit depending on tradition. On the first night of Hanukkah one light (candle or oil) is lit on the right side of the menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first but it is lit first, and so on, proceeding from placing candles right to left but lighting them from left to right over the eight nights.
Other festivities include singing Hanukkah songs, playing the game of dreidel and eating oil-based foods, such as latkes and sufganiyot, and dairy foods. Since the 1970s, the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement has initiated public menorah lightings in open public places in many countries.
Originally instituted as a feast "in the manner of Sukkot (Booths)", it is a relatively minor holiday in strictly religious terms. However, Hanukkah has attained major cultural significance in North America and elsewhere, especially among secular Jews, due to often occurring around the same time as Christmas during the holiday season.
(/ˈkwɑːn.zə/) is an annual celebration of African-American culture that is held from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually held on the 6th day. It was based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa, including West and Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 by the American Maulana Karenga who created it during the aftermath of the Watts riots as a specifically African-American holiday. Karenga said his goal was to "give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza", meaning "first fruits". First fruits festivals exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice, and Karenga was partly inspired by an account he read of the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama. It was decided to spell the holiday's name with an additional "a" so that it would have a symbolic seven letters.
During the early years, Karenga said it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas. He believed back then that Christianity was a "White" religion that Black people should not follow, but as it gained mainstream adherents, Karenga decided to alter his position so practicing Christians would not be alienated from the celebration, stating in the 1997 book "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture", that "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.
After its initial creation in California, Kwanzaa spread outside the United States
Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage). They were developed in 1965, a year before. These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili word meaning "common". Each of the seven days is dedicated to one of these principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. Children are included in ceremonies and also give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Food and drinks are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. The holiday greeting is "Joyous Kwanzaa". Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa.
A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast of faith (Karamu Ya Imani). The greeting for each day is Habari Gani?, which is Swahili for "How are you?". Cultural exhibitions include the "Spirit of Kwanzaa", an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.
At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so went against the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination), violating the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. But today most African American families that celebrate it do so along with celebrating Christmas and New Year. However, its observation has declined steadily in both community and commercial contexts throughout the years. The National Retail Federation sponsors a marketing survey on winter holidays since 2004, and in 2015 they found that only about 1.9% of those polled planned to celebrate Kwanzaa—about six million people in the United States.
Las Posadas is a "novenario" (an extended devotional prayer in the Catholic faith). the name Posadas derives from the Spanish word for lodging, or accommodations, which in this case refers to the inn from the Nativity story. It uses the plural form as the celebration lasts for a nine-day interval (called the novena) during the Christmas season, which represents the nine-month pregnancy of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
It is celebrated in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and Spain, and by Hispanics in the United States.
It is typically celebrated each year between December 16 and December 24. These countries have continued to celebrate the holiday, with very few changes to the tradition, for over 400 years.
In Mexico, celebrations started in 1586. Many of their holidays include dramatizations of original events, a tradition which has its roots in the ritual of Bible plays used to teach religious doctrine to a largely illiterate population in 10th- and 11th-century Europe. The plays lost favor with the Church and were eventually banned as they became popular through the addition of folk music and other non-religious elements; they were reintroduced in the 16th century by the Spanish as the Christmas pageant, a new kind of religious ceremony to accompany the Christmas holiday.
In Mexico, the winter solstice festival was one of the most important celebrations of the year that came on December 12 according to the Julian calendar used by the Spanish until 1582. According to the Aztec calendar, Tonantzin Guadalupe (the mother of the gods) was celebrated on the winter solstice, and she is still feted on December 12, while their most important deity, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, was born during the month of December (panquetzaliztli). The parallel in time between this native celebration and the celebration of Christmas lent itself to an almost-seamless merging of the two holidays. Seeing the opportunity to proselytize, Spanish missionaries brought the reinvented religious pageant to Mexico where they used it to teach the story of Jesus' birth. In 1586, Friar Diego de Soria obtained a Papal bull from Pope Sixtus V, stating that a Christmas mass should be observed throughout Mexico on the nine days preceding Christmas Day.
While its roots are in Catholicism, Protestant and many secular Latinos also follow the tradition- adapting the traditions to their culture and region. For example, one event in Portland, Oregon, finishes with Santa Claus and Christmas gifts donated to needy children. Also, a large procession has been held since 1966 along the San Antonio River Walk, which traverses large landmarks in San Antonio, Texas, including the Arneson River Theater, Museo Alameda, and the Spanish Governor's Palace, ending at the Cathedral of San Fernando.
In the Philippines, the tradition of Las Posadas is illustrated by the Panunulúyan pageant; sometimes it is performed immediately before the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass) and sometimes on each of the nine nights. The main difference, compared to other countries, is that actors are used for Mary and Joseph instead of statues and they sing the requests for accommodation. The lines of the "innkeepers" are also often sung, but sometimes these respond without singing. The lyrics are not in Spanish but in their language.
In Nicaragua, the older generations grew up celebrating posadas, but the tradition fell out of fashion in cities by the 1960s. However, another major holiday called La Gritería (The Shoutings), on December 7, is celebrated in honor of La Purísima Virgen (The Purest Virgin). La Purísima originated in León in the 1600s with Franciscan friars, and the celebration spread quickly throughout the country. By the 1800s, it became a national holiday and has since become a tradition in the Nicaraguan diaspora. La Purísima starts at noon with major fireworks. Around 6:00 PM more fireworks announce the time when adults and children go out around their neighborhoods or towns with burlap sacks in hand visiting different altars while caroling the Virgin Mary. In exchange for singing, people receive sweets, fruit and toys. The celebration goes on into the night. At midnight, fireworks in the shape of Mary, stars and angels begin, typically lasting half an hour.
Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have a similar tradition called Parrandas, Aguinaldos or Mañanitas; but their atmosphere is more similar to Carnavales. The tradition began in the 19th century, in order to get the people to go to midnight masses the week before Christmas; the church had the idea to put together groups of children and provide them with jars, plates, and spoons so they could run around the village making noise and singing verses. The idea persisted over the years and gained a street party ending. The aguinaldo is a musical gift offered during the Christmas season and is a tradition inherited from the islands' Spanish colonizers. As a musical gift, aguinaldos are mostly played by "parranderos" or "trullas" during the Christmas holidays.
In Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, families and friends gather from the 16th to the 24th of December to pray the Novena de Aguinaldos. In Venezuela, aguinaldo is a genre of Christmas music and generally have six verses. Played by "parranderos" or "aguinalderos" that announce their arrival in song and seek to gain entry to the community houses to relate the story of the birth of Christ, and to share in the joy of the message of Peace on Earth and to all People of Good Will. Aguinaldos are played with typical instruments such as the cuatro (a small, four-string guitar), furruco, and maracas. Other instruments often used are violin, guitar, tambourine, mandolin, bandol, caja (a percussive box instrument), and marímbula (an Afro-Venezuelan instrument). In exchange for the entertainment, "parranderos" are traditionally given food and drink: hallacas, panettone, rum and "Ponche Crema" (a form of alcoholic eggnog). Aguinaldos are also played at Christmas church celebrations.
Three-Kings Day or Epiphany Holiday
In the English-speaking world, the Christmas and holiday season tends to end with the celebration of New Year’s Day. However, for those in Spanish-speaking countries, the holiday festivities extend all the way to January 6th. Christians celebrate this day as the Epiphany – the day the three wise men found the newborn Jesus Christ after following a star through the desert for 12 days after his birth. While this day isn’t quite as important for English-speaking Christians, for those in Spain and Latin America it is a very important date marked with celebrations known as El Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day.
For those in Spanish-speaking countries, the three wise men (Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) are traditionally associated with gift-giving – as per their story of giving the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The holiday itself dates back to the 4th century and became especially prominent in the Roman province of Hispania (modern-day Spain and Portugal). From there, the traditions spread with colonists to Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Just as with Christmas, there is a heavy emphasis on gift-giving on Three Kings Day. Children all over the Spanish-speaking world sleep early the night before Three Kings Day so that the kings will come and leave them presents. In the same way as families leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus, families will often leave salt and grass, and even cigars for the kings themselves– the first two are meant for the camels that the three kings are said to ride on. Parades and parties are commonplace. Some even include camels.
In Mexico and among Mexican families in the US, another tradition revolves around the baking and eating of a special treat known as rosca de reyes, or Three Kings bread. This is a sweet bread that contains a baby Jesus doll hidden within. It is said that if you are the one who ends up with the baby Jesus doll on Three Kings Day, you’re obligated to host a party for the subsequent holiday Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day), which occurs on February 2nd.
In Spain, on the evening of January 5th every year, Spanish towns and cities are given over to the colorful parades. Mechanized floats bearing effigies of Melchior (Arabia), Gaspar (the Orient) and Balthazar (Africa) – or real life versions of the wise men played by members of the local council – and various other brightly-costumed participants, trundle down major streets; as they pass, they throw out handfuls of sweets that rain down on the spectators gathered to watch their grand entry into the town. The sweets are for kids, for whom this annual holiday has become the biggest deal for, but adults also collect them with upturned umbrellas trying to catch as many as possible. In major destinations such as Madrid and Barcelona, the sweet-throwing Kings’ parades attract crowds of hundreds of thousands and are televised across the country, but every Spanish town and city stages some kind of celebration on January 5th. The atmosphere is friendly and family oriented and the parades usually happen early evening so young children can watch them before going to bed.
in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries there are many traditions that go along with Three Kings Day. Leading up to the holiday, children write letters to the Kings asking for gifts. The night before the Kings' anticipated arrival, children collect and leave bundles of grass out to feed the camels that the three kings ride on and they leave out candy and cookies for the three Kings to enjoy while they are delivering presents. In the morning, children wake up early to open their gifts brought to them by the Three Kings, and the rest of the day is spent with family eating, playing, and celebrating the end of the holiday season.
Three Kings Day is celebrated in many different cultures around the world with distinct feasts, parades, parties and traditions unique to each individual place, but one thing they all have in common is the importance of acknowledging this important day in biblical history.
Yule (Winter Solstice)
(also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót or "Yule time" or "Yule season") is a festival historically observed by the Germanic people. The original celebrations of Yule are connected to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky), the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht ("Mothers' Night"). Yule is the modern version of Old Norse Jól and Jólnir one of the names for Odin. The Old English derivates ġēol or ġēohol and ġēola or ġēoli, and indicates the 12-day festival.
Later departing from its original roots, and with the advent of Christianity, Yule underwent a major transformation and became known as the Christian festival Christmastide. Most present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, the decorated trees and most of the things we associate with the Christmas celebration are actually from older pagan Yule traditions. Cognates to Yule are still used in the Scandinavian languages as well as in Finnish and Estonian to describe Christmas and other festivals occurring during the winter holiday season. Many pagan rituals and traditions were also adopted into the Christian version of the festival and continue to this day.
The Winter Solstice, or Yule, is an important holiday celebrating the longest night of the year and what it represents – the return of the sun towards the earth. The festival celebrates the eventual return of spring, life, and fertility. While it has undergone many changes, it continues to be a festival that’s celebrated by different groups of people, especially by Wiccans and Neopagans. Because there are many forms of Neopaganism today, Yule celebrations can vary.
Yule is represented by many symbols, which revolve around the themes of fertility, life, renewal, and hope. Some of the most popular Yule symbols include:
- Undecorated evergreen trees (renewal and new beginnings. They’re a symbol and reminder that although everything seems dead and gone, life still continues);
- Red, green, and white colors (the red berries of holly, which signified the blood of life. The white berries of mistletoe denote the purity and necessity of wintertime. Green is for the evergreen trees that last all year. Together, the three colors are a sign of the promise of things to come once the colder months come to an end);
- Holly (represents the masculine element, and its leaves symbolize the Holly King, a representation of winter. It was also seen as a protective plant as the prickliness of the leaves were believed to ward off evil);
- The Yule tree (the origins of the Christmas tree can be traced to the Yule tree. It is symbolic of the Tree of Life and is decorated with symbols of deities, as well as natural objects such as pinecones, fruit, candles, and berries);
- Wreaths (they symbolize the cyclical nature of the year and are also seen as a symbol of friendship and joy);
- Singing carols (participants sing songs during Yule time and would sometimes go from door to door. In return for their singing, people would give them a small gift as a symbol of blessings for the new year);
- Bells (during the Winter Solstice, people would ring bells to scare away evil spirits that were lurking about to do harm. This is also symbolic of ringing away the darkness of winter and welcoming in the sunshine of spring);
- The Yule Log (the Celts lit bonfires during Yule both for warmth and as a prayer of hope, they were typically made with oak wood, and it was considered a good sign if the fire didn’t extinguish during the twelve-hour period on the night of the Winter Solstice. The fire would be maintained and kept burning at a slow rate for 12 days before putting it out. After that time, the ashes would be sprinkled in the field for good luck. People stored any remaining wood until the following year to help light the new Yule fire. This act symbolizes annual continuity and renewal. This practice is where the tradition comes from. Modern customs dictate that the log must either come from your own land or be a gift, and can’t be bought or stole as that brings bad luck).
Plants like mistletoe, ivy, and holly are also thought to bring protection, luck, and stave off misfortune. All these plants and trees, when brought indoors, would assure safety to the residing woodland spirits over the harsh winter months.
Ivy stood for healing, fidelity, and marriage, and was fashioned into crowns, wreaths, and garlands. The druids valued mistletoe greatly and considered it a powerful plant. Both Pliny and Ovid mention how the druids would dance around oaks that bore mistletoe. Today, mistletoe is hung in rooms or entryways, and if two people happen to find themselves under it, tradition dictates that they must kiss.
Boxing Day (Saint Stephen's Day)
Boxing Day is a holiday celebrated the day after Christmas Day, occurring on the second day of Christmastide, it originated as a holiday to give gifts to the poor, but today it is primarily known as a shopping holiday.
It originated in the United Kingdom and is celebrated in a number of countries that previously formed part of the British Empire. Boxing Day is on December 26, although the attached bank holiday or public holiday may take place either on that day or one or two days later (if necessary to ensure it falls on a weekday).
Boxing Day is also concurrent with the Christian holiday Saint Stephen's Day, and it's very similar to the American Black Friday.
In parts of Europe, such as Bulgaria, Catalonia, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Scandinavia, it is celebrated as a second Christmas Day.
The name, mostly used in the UK for December 26th, refers to a Christmas box traditionally given to servants and tradespeople, containing money, a gift and sometimes leftover food. The European tradition of giving money and other gifts to those in need, or in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is sometimes believed to be in reference to the alms box placed in the narthex of Christian churches to collect donations for the poor. The tradition may come from a custom in the late Roman/ early Christian era wherein alms boxes placed in churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which in the Western Christian Churches falls on the same day as Boxing Day. On this day, it is customary in some localities for the alms boxes to be opened and distributed to the poor.
Ōmisoka (大晦日)—or ōtsugomori (大晦)—is a Japanese traditional celebration on the last day of the year. Traditionally, it was held on the final day of the 12th lunar month. With Japan's switch to using the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era, December 31 (New Year's Eve) is now used for the celebration.
Ceremonies for welcoming the New Year on Omisoka are held at shrines and temples. At shrines, a ceremony is held to purify all uncleanliness of the year. There are differences depending on the type of shrine or temple.
A countdown event is also held at the bustling Shibuya Scramble Crossing. Although it isn't a traditional custom, it's a new trend that has become more and more popular in recent years.
Traditionally, important activities for the concluding year and day were completed in order to start the new year fresh. Some of these include house cleaning, repaying debts, purification (such as driving out evil spirits and bad luck), and bathing so the final hours of the year could be spent relaxing. Recently, families and friends often gather for parties, including the viewing of the over four-hour Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦, "Red/White Singing Battle") on NHK, or more recently to watch large mixed martial arts cards. This custom has its roots in the ancient Japanese culture surrounding toshigamisama (歳神様) or toshitokusama (歳徳様), which revolved around the practice of showing reverence toward the gods of the current and upcoming years.
About an hour before the New Year, people often gather together for one last time in the old year to have a bowl of toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon together—a tradition based on people's association of eating the long noodles with "crossing over from one year to the next", which is the meaning of toshi-koshi. While the noodles are often eaten plain, or with chopped scallions, in some localities people top them with tempura. Traditionally, families make osechi on the last few days of the year. The food is then consumed during the first several days of the new year in order to "welcome the 'deity of the year' to each household" and "wish for happiness throughout the year".
At midnight, many visit a shrine or temple for Hatsumōde, or the first shrine/temple visit of the year. Throughout Japan, Shinto shrines prepare amazake to pass out to crowds that gather as midnight approaches. Most Buddhist temples have a large bonshō (Buddhist bell) that is struck once for each of the 108 earthly temptations believed to cause human suffering. When seeing someone for the last time before the new year, it is traditional to say "Yoi o-toshi wo" (良いお年を, lit. "Have a good New Year"). The traditional first greeting after the beginning of the New Year is "Akemashite omedetō" (明けましておめでとう, lit. "congratulations on the new year").
This celebration is the equivalent of New Year's Eve in the Western world.
Soyal is the winter solstice ceremony of the Zuni and Hopi people. It is held December 21, the shortest day of the year. Participants ceremonially bring the sun back from its long slumber, mark the beginning of another cycle of the Wheel of the Year, and work on purification. Pahos prayer sticks are made prior to the Soyal ceremony, to bless all the community, including homes, animals, and plants. The sacred underground kiva chambers are ritually opened to mark the beginning of the Kachina season.
The Hopi Soyal Winter Solstice Ceremony begins on the shortest day of the year, and symbolizes the second phase of Creation at the Dawn of Life. Its prayers and rituals implement a plan of life for the coming year, ceremonially turning back the sun toward its summer path. The Hopi People, inhabitants of northern Arizona for over a thousand years, celebrate December as when the Kachinas come down from their home in the San Francisco Peaks to bring the sun back to the world. The Katsinam or Kachinas, spirits that guard over the Hopi, dance at the winter solstice Soyal Ceremony (Soyaluna or Soyalangwul), understood to mean “Establishing Life Anew for All the World.”
The longest ceremony on the ceremonial cycle, lasting up to 16 days, sacred rituals are performed in underground chambers called kivas. Many ceremonies involve dancing and singing; the kachinas may even bring gifts to the children. At Soyal time elders pass down stories to children, teaching pivotal lessons like respecting others. The Hopi, The Peaceful Ones (Hopitu Shinumu), believe everything that will occur during the year is arranged at Soyal.
Katsinam are Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests and a prosperous, healthy life for humankind. They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Katsinam, of which there are over two hundred and fifty different types, represent various beings, from animals to clouds.
In preparation for the kachinas’ arrival, the Hopi make prayer sticks of tied feathers and pinyon needles called Pahos to bless the community, including their homes, animals and plants. Children are given replicas of the kachinas, intricately carved and dressed like the dancers, to help them learn about the hundreds of kachina spirits. Sixteen days before the winter solstice, one of the chief kachinas enters the Pueblo. He appears like a tired, old man who has just awakened from a deep slumber, teetering and on the verge of losing his balance. People follow his every move. He typically staggers over to the dance plaza where with great exaggeration, he dances and sings in a very low voice a song that is regarded as too sacred for the public to hear.
The actual Soyal ceremonies are not general public knowledge. One informant describes a particular ceremony starting with a Hopi leader wearing a headdress decorated with images symbolizing rain clouds overseeing the main celebration taking place in the kiva. He will also carry a shield that has a star, antelope, and other symbolic objects. Someone will also carry an effigy of Palulukonuh, also called the Plumed Snake, carved from the woody stalk of an agave plant.
Shield bearers enter the kiva and take turns stomping on the sipapu (a shallow hole covered by a board that symbolizes the entrance to the underworld). Then they arrange themselves into two groups, on on the north side, another in the south. Then they sing as the bearer of the sun shield rushes to one side, then the other. He is driven back by the shield bearers on both sides. The movements symbolize the attack of hostile powers on the sun (drought, fire, darkness, cold) that influence whether it will shine and bless the crops.
On the west all of the kiva, they construct an altar with two or more ears or corn contributed from each family, surrounded by husks and stalks. It also has a large gourd with an effigy of the Plumed Snake’s head sticking out, operated like a puppet, rising and made to roar. The shield bearers then throw a meal to the snake effigy, answered by more roaring noises. This persuades him not to swallow the sun, like he does in an eclipse. When the Sun God’s footprints appear in the sand, everyone knows he has been persuaded to return.
The entire ceremony ends with a public kachina dance. The Katsinam remain with the people for the first half of the Wheel of the Year until the summer solstice, when they return to their home in the mountains.
St. Lucia's Day
Saint Lucia's Day, also called the Feast of Saint Lucy, is a Christian feast day observed on December 13. The observance commemorates Lucia of Syracuse, an early-4th-century virgin martyr under the Diocletian Persecution, who according to legend brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, wearing a candle lit wreath on her head to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Her feast day, which coincided with the shortest day of the year prior to calendar reforms, is widely celebrated as a festival of light. Falling within the Advent season, Saint Lucia's Day is viewed as a precursor of Christmastide, pointing to the arrival of the Light of Christ in the calendar on Christmas Day.
Saint Lucia's Day is celebrated most widely in Scandinavia and in Italy, with each emphasizing a different aspect of her story. In Scandinavia, where Lucy is called Santa/Sankta Lucia, she is represented as a lady in a white dress symbolizing a baptismal robe and a red sash symbolizing the blood of her martyrdom, with a crown or wreath of candles on her head.
In Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Swedish-speaking regions of Finland, as songs are sung, girls dressed as Saint Lucy carry cookies and saffron buns in procession, which symbolizes bringing the Light of Christ into the world's darkness. In both Catholic and Protestant churches, boys participate in the procession as well, playing different roles associated with Christmastide, such as that of Saint Stephen or generic gingerbread men or Santa Clauses, or nisses. The celebration of Saint Lucy's Day is said to help one live the winter days with enough light.
In Scandinavian countries each town elects its own St. Lucia. The festival begins with a procession led by the St. Lucia designee, who is followed by young girls dressed in white and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads and boys dressed in white pajama-like costume singing traditional songs. The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia, and it is meant to bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year. Schools generally close around noon on the day of the festival so that families can prepare for the holiday. Families observe St. Lucia’s Day in their homes by having one of their daughters (traditionally the eldest) dress in white and serve coffee and baked goods, such as saffron bread (lussekatter) and ginger biscuits, to the other members of the family. These traditional foods are also given to visitors during the day.
In earlier centuries the Norse celebrated the winter solstice with large bonfires meant to scare off evil spirits and to alter the course of the sun. After converting to Christianity sometime around 1000, the Norse incorporated the legend of St. Lucia into their celebration. The modern festival of light combines elements of both pagan and Christian traditions.
A special devotion to Saint Lucia is practiced in the Italian regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, in the north of the country, and Sicily, in the south, as well as in the Croatian coastal region of Dalmatia. In Hungary and Croatia, a popular tradition on Saint Lucia's Day involves planting wheat grains that grow to be several centimeters tall by Christmas Day, representing the Nativity of Jesus. St. Lucia is the patron saint of the city of Siracusa (Sicily).
On December 13, a silver statue of St. Lucia containing her relics is paraded through the streets before returning to the Cathedral of Syracuse. Sicilians recall a legend that holds that a famine ended on her feast day when ships loaded with grain entered the harbor. Here, it is traditional to eat whole grains instead of bread. This usually takes the form of cuccia, a dish of boiled wheat berries often mixed with ricotta and honey, or sometimes served as a savory soup with beans.
St. Lucia is also popular among children in some regions of North-Eastern Italy, where she is said to bring gifts to good children and coal to bad ones the night between December 12 and 13. According to tradition, she arrives in the company of a donkey and her escort, Castaldo. Children are asked to leave some coffee for Lucia, a carrot for the donkey and a glass of wine for Castaldo. They must not watch Santa Lucia delivering these gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them.
In Croatia, Hungary and some their neighboring countries, a popular tradition on Saint Lucia's Day involves planting wheat grains, this serves as symbol of the new life born in Bethlehem, with a candle sometimes placed in the middle of the new plant as a symbol of the Light of Christ that Saint Lucia brings. Wheat grains are planted in a round dish or plate of soil, then watered. If the planter is kept moist, the seeds germinate and the shoots are ideally several inches high by Christmas. The new green shoots, reminding us of the new life born in Bethlehem, may be tied with a ribbon and put near or under the Christmas tree. It derives from one of the many pagan traditions found in Croatia and other Slavic nations, that once served as part of rituals to appease their many deities and fairies, but were mostly forgotten after their Christianization. Traditions such as this one stubbornly live on to this day, the deities and original meanings long forgotten, their meanings simply replaced with ones more in accordance with Christianity. The real reason wheat was and is planted at this time, or on the Day of Saint Barbara, is because the density, color and richness of the shoots will foretell how the upcoming yield will be, as well as increase the chances of it being a good one.
The celebration of St. Lucy's Day is popular among Scandinavian Americans, and is practiced in many different contexts, including (but not limited to) parties, at home, in churches, and through organizations across the country. Continuing to uphold this ritual helps people keep ties with the Scandinavian countries their ancestors emigrated from.