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Christmas: December Festivities in Different Cultures
We’ve put together a little summary of the way different cultures around the world celebrate December. Video links provide some examples and hyperlinks provide some back ground. It was first published last Christmas on Abbotsford Today and we’re re-publishing it. Enjoy!
December 23 from www.telegraaf.nl
Sinterklaas (Dutch)–December 5
Sinterklaas (also called Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch [pronunciation (help•info)])
and Saint Nicolas in French) is a traditional holiday figure in the
Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles and Belgium, celebrated every year on
Saint Nicholas’ eve (December 5) or, in Belgium, on the morning of December
6. The feast celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of,
among other things, children.
It is also celebrated to a lesser extent in parts of France (North, Alsace,
Lorraine), as well as in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland,
Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and in the town of
Trieste and in Eastern Friuli in Italy. Additionally, many Roman Catholics
of Alsatian and Lotharingian descent in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. celebrate
“St. Nicholas Day” the morning of December 6th. The traditions differ from
country to country, even between Belgium and the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ Eve, (December 5th) is the chief
occasion for gift-giving. The evening is called sinterklaasavond or
“pakjesavond” (“presents’ evening”). Traditionally, presents are ingeniously
wrapped, and are therefore called surprises. Also, presents are
traditionally accompanied by a poem from Saint Nicholas.
Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure of Santa Claus. It is
often alleged that, during the American War of Independence, the inhabitants
of New York City, a former Dutch colonial town (New Amsterdam) which had
been swapped by the Dutch for other territories, reinvented their
Sinterklaas tradition, as Saint Nicholas to be a symbol of the city’s
non-English past. The name Santa Claus is derived from older Dutch Sinte
Klaas. However the Saint Nicholas Society was not founded until 1835, almost
half a century after the end of the American War of Independence.
Moreover, a study of the “children’s books, periodicals and journals” of New
Amsterdam by Charles Jones revealed no references to Saint Nicholas or
Sinterklaas (“Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” New York Historical Society
Quarterly, October 1954).
Eid’ul-Adha (Muslim) — December 8
(Arabic: عيد الأضحى ‘Īd ul-’Aḍḥā, Urdu: بقرعید) or the Festival
of Sacrifice is a religious festival celebrated by Muslims and Druze
worldwide in commemoration of the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to
sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to Allah. The devil tempted Ibrahim
by saying he should disobey Allah and spare his son. As Ibrahim was about to
kill his son, Allah intervened: instead Allah provided a lamb as the
sacrifice. This is why today all over the world Muslims who have the means
to, sacrifice an animal, as a reminder of Ibrahim’s obedience to Allah. The
meat is then shared out with family and friends, as well as the poorer
members of the community (Islam names Ishmael as the son who was to be
sacrificed, whereas the Judeo-Christian name Isaac).
al-Adha is one of two Eid festivals celebrated by Muslims, whose basis
comes from the Quran. (Muslims in Iran celebrate a third,
non-denominational Eid.) Like Eid el-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha begins with a short
prayer followed by a sermon (khuṭba).
Eid ul-Adha annually falls on the 10th day of the month of Dhul Hijja (ذو
الحجة) of the lunar Islamic calendar. The festivities last for two to three
days or more depending on the country. Eid ul-Adha occurs the day after the
pilgrims conducting Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia by
Muslims worldwide, descend from Mount Arafat. It happens to be approximately
70 days after the end of the month of Ramadan.
Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexican) — December 12
Every year from December 1st through 12th the streets of Puerto Vallarta
come alive with festivities, processions and religious fervor culminating
with the celebration of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Known in Spanish as Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, this important religious and
social festival commemorates the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of
Guadalupe to a peasant in Mexico.
It was on the same day in 1851 that Puerto Vallarta was founded by Don
Guadalupe Sanchez; thus, the 12th of December, also marks the anniversary of
the founding of Puerto Vallarta.
During this annual occasion, various groups, organizations and associations
in Puerto Vallarta converge and participate in the pilgrimage to Puerto
Vallarta’s Cathedral, also known as the Church of Our Lady Of Guadalupe.
This unique structure is a famous landmark in its own right, as its
elaborate crown – allegedly designed to resemble a tiara worn by one of
Emperor Maximilian’s mistresses – simply cannot be overlooked.
Everyone is expected to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Puerto
Vallarta’s revered patron saint. On the eve of the December 12th, the last
procession congregates at the Dreams Puerto Vallarta Resort and begins its
journey towards the Cathedral. Once the procession reaches its destination,
a special mass in devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated.
Baptisms, confirmations, first holy communions and even weddings take place
within the local community to coincide with this special and blessed date.
Fireworks decorate and light up the skies, folk dance groups perform,
traditional parades entertain the crowds, people sing hymns and songs of
praise in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the central plaza is filled
to the brim with street vendors selling fruits, food, local products and
other specialties. The festival successfully combines ancient Aztec
traditions with modern Christian symbolism.
St. Lucia Day (Swedish) — December 13
Saint Lucy’s Day (Sankta Lucia, Saint Lucia) is the Church feast day
dedicated to St. Lucy and is observed on December 13. It retains traditional
forms of celebration mainly in Scandinavia, parts of the United States and
southern Europe. It is celebrated in Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Norway,
Finland, Italy, Bosnia, Iceland, and Croatia. In the United States, people
in areas of Minnesota and other states with Scandinavian roots continue to
celebrate the holiday, often centered around church events. Before the
reform of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, St. Lucy’s Day fell
close to the winter solstice on the Northern Hemisphere.
traditional celebrations, Saint Lucy comes as a young woman with lights
and sweets. It is one of the few saint days observed in Scandinavia.
In Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Norway and Finland, Lucy (called Lucia) is
venerated on December 13 in a ceremony where an elected girl, portraying
Lucia, walks, with a crown of candles, ahead of a procession of other women
holding a candle each. The candles symbolize the fire that refused to take
St. Lucia’s life when she was sentenced to be burned. The women sing a Lucia
song while entering the room, to the melody of the traditional Neapolitan
song Santa Lucia; the Italian lyrics describe the view from Santa Lucia in
Naples, the various Scandinavian lyrics are fashioned for the occasion,
describing the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness. Each
Scandinavian country has lyrics in their native tongues. After finishing
this song, the procession sings Christmas carols or more songs about Lucia.
A similar version occurs in Scandinavian communities and churches in the
When the Scandinavian countries were Catholic, the night of Lucia was
celebrated just as many other saints’ days were. The tradition continued
after the Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s. According to the Julian
calendar, the night of Lucia was the longest night of the
year. This is likely to be the reason why the tradition has lived on in the
Nordic countries in particular, as the nights in November and December are
very dark and long before the snow has fallen, and the idea of light
overcoming darkness is thus appealing.
Hanukkah (Jewish) — Begins at sundown on December 21 (ends December 29)
Hanukkah (Hebrew: חנוכה, alt. Chanukah), also known as the Festival of
Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the
Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd
century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day
of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November
to late December on the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special
candelabrum, the Menorah or Hanukiah, one light on each night of the
holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a
shamash, (Hebrew: “guard” or “servant”) is also lit each night, and is given
a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others. The purpose of
the extra light is to adhere to the prohibition, specified in the Talmud
(Tracate Shabbat 21b-23a), against using the Hanukkah lights for anything
other than publicizing and meditating on the Hanukkah story. (The shamash is
used to light the other lights.)
Hanukkah is mentioned in the deuterocanonical or apocrypha books of 1
Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. 1 Maccabees states: “For eight days they
celebrated the rededication of the altar. Then Judah and his brothers and
the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the
rededication…should be observed…every year…for eight days. (1
Mac.4:56-59)” According to 2 Maccabees, “the Jews celebrated joyfully for
eight days as on the feast of Booths.”
Christmas Day(Christian) — December 25
Christmas (IPA: /krɪsməs/), also referred to as Christmas Day or
Christmastide, is an annual holiday celebrated on December 25 that marks
and honors the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. His birth, which is the
basis for the anno domini system of dating, has been determined by modern
historians as having occurred between 7 and 2 BC. The date of celebration is
not thought to be Jesus’ actual date of birth. It may have been chosen to
coincide with the winter solstice, which the ancient Romans celebrated on
Modern customs of the holiday include gift-giving, church celebrations, and
the display of various decorations—including the Christmas tree, lights,
mistletoe, nativity scenes and holly. Santa Claus (also referred to as
Father Christmas, although the two figures have different origins) is a
popular mythological figure often associated with bringing gifts at
Christmas. Santa is generally believed to be the result of a syncretization
between St. Nicholas of Myra and elements from pagan Nordic and Christian
mythology, and his modern appearance is believed to have originated in 19th
Christmas is celebrated throughout the Christian population, but is also
celebrated by many non-Christians as a secular, cultural festival. The
holiday is widely celebrated around the world, including in the United
States, where it is celebrated by 96% of the population. Because
gift-giving and several other aspects of the holiday involve heightened
economic activity among both Christians and non-Christians, Christmas has
become a major event for many retailers.
Boxing Day (Australian, Canadian, English, Irish) — December 26
Boxing Day is a public holiday in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand
and Australia, as well as many other members of the Commonwealth of Nations
and Greece. It is based on the tradition of giving gifts to the less
fortunate members of society.
It is usually celebrated on 26 December, the day after Christmas Day;
however, its associated public holiday can be moved to the next weekday if
26 December is a Saturday or Sunday. The movement of Boxing Day varies
Kwanzaa (African American) — December 26 to January 1
Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as
candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and
gift giving. It was created by Maulana Karenga and first celebrated from
December 26, 1966, to January 1, 1967.
Omisoka (Japanese) — December 31
Ōmisoka (大晦日?), New Year’s Eve, is the second-most important day in
Japanese tradition because it is the final day of the old year and the eve
of New Year’s Day, likewise the most important day of the year.
People tend to be very busy on Ōmisoka because they have much to do to
prepare for the new year, and New Year’s Day in particular. Many even do a
thorough house cleaning, called ōsōji (大掃除). The exercise is much like
the annual spring cleaning people in most colder climates do and even
involves changing the paper on shōji doors and setting tatami mats out to
air in the sun. Similarly, on the final day of school before winter break,
elementary school children do their own ōsōji to get their schools ready for
the new year, and most businesses spend the year’s final work day cleaning.
The purpose of all this is to get ready to welcome in the new year with
everything—including people’s minds and bodies—in a fresh, clean state, all
ready for the new beginning New Year’s Day is held to signify.
the end of the old year’s final day at school or work, and usually
around 11:00 pm on Ōmisoka at home, people often gather for one last time in
the old year to have a bowl of toshikoshi-soba (年越しそば) or
toshikoshi-udon (年越しうどん) together—a tradition based on people’s
association of eating the long noodles with “crossing over from one year to
the next,” the meaning of toshi-koshi. While the noodles are often eaten
plain, or with only chopped scallions, in some localities people top them
Another regular feature of Ōmisoka starts at 7:30 pm when public broadcaster
NHK airs Kōhaku Uta Gassen (“Red vs white singing contest”), one of the
country’s most-watched television programs. Popular singers (and singing
groups) split into two teams, women in the red team and men in the white,
which then alternate while competing for the audience’s heart throughout the
evening. At around 11:30 pm, the final singer (or group) sings, and the
audience and a panel of judges are asked to cast their votes to decide which
team sang better. The winning team gets a trophy and “the winners’ flag”,
and the program ends at about 11:45 pm. Programming then switches to
coverage of midnight celebrations around the country.
Throughout Japan, Shinto shrines prepare amazake to pass out to crowds that
gather as midnight approaches. Most have a large cast bell (see bonshō for
photos) that is struck once for each of the 108 earthly desires believed to
cause human suffering. The bells’ tolling straddles the midnight hour, and
their deep, low tones reverberate for miles through the crisp night air as
they ring out the old year and ring in the new.
Editor’s Note: If we’ve left anyone out it isn’t because we forget you or decided not to include you … it’s because we weren’t able to find any information on your celebrations. Please send us some information and any video or other links you have and we’ll add you to the site as we hear from you.