December Traditions from Around the World
This year I started working at an international school in Vancouver. In September the Mexican students celebrated Mexican Independence day. At around the same time, students from China celebrated the Harvest Festival. The holiday celebrations became a little competitive between students. As a school we decided to try to celebrate as many traditions as possible. I also started to think personally about the different traditions celebrated in December, aside from the ones I know fairly well – Christmas and Hanukkah. Apparently, there are many. In this holiday spirit of learning here are some December traditions from around the world:
St. Lucia Day
St. Lucia was a Christian martyr. According to legend, she brought food and aid to early Christians hiding from persecution. She wore a crown of candles on her head, so that she could use her hands to carry as much as possible. Her feast day is around the same time as the shortest days of the year, so her crown of candles represents the returning light as well as the winter solstice. In Norwegian countries, girls will dress as “Lucy”, carrying trays of cookies in a procession and singing. Participants may also enjoy St. Lucia buns or bread, as well as Swedish glögg. Apparently, if you celebrate St. Lucia, you will have enough light to see you through the long, dark winter.
December 26th – January 1st
Joyous Kwanzaa! Kwanzaa is celebrated throughout the United States and other regions of West African diaspora. Kwanzaa was first practiced in the late 1960s and celebrates the seven principles of Nguzo Saba or the seven principles of African heritage:
- Umoja (Unity)
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
- Ujimi (Collective Work and Responsibility)
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics
- Nia (Purpose)
- Kuumba (Creativity)
- Imani (Faith)
The seven candles in the kinara (candelabra) represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
During this holiday homes are decorated with symbols of African heritage. Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente and fresh fruits to represent African idealism. Today many families of African heritage will also mix the Kwanzaa holiday traditions with Christmas and New Years.
In Japan, Omisoka is celebrated on the last day of the year. At 11:00 pm on Omisoka, families will gather to have a bowl of bowl of toshikoshi-soba or toshikoshi-udon together for the last time that year. The long noodles symbolize crossing over from one year to the next. The noodles are often eaten plain, with scallions or tempura on top. It is considered unlucky to cook during the first 3 days of the New Year so families will make Osechi (similar to what we would consider a Bento box) for New Year’s day.
People will also gather to watch a national singing contest on tv. Public broadcaster NHK airs Kōhaku Uta Gassen (“Red vs. White singing contest”). Singers divide themselves into two teams – men on the White team and women on the Red, while judges and the public are invited to vote for a winner. The winner receives the winners flag at around 11:45 pm.
Shinto shrines prepare amazake (a nutritious drink made of fermented rice) to pass out to people as midnight approaches. At Buddhist temples a large cast iron bell is struck once for each of the 108 earthly desires that cause human suffering.
December 20th or December 21st
Shab-e Yalda “Yalda night” or Shab-e Chelleh “night of forty” is another tradition tied to the Winter solstice and celebrating the longest night of the year. Friends and family gather to eat, drink and read poetry, primarily the poems of Divan-e-Hafez. Red fruits and nuts (especially watermelon and pomegranates) are eaten to symbolize the red hues of dawn.
In the Zorastrian tradition, the longest night of the year was considered unlucky. People stay up all night with their friends and family, eating the last fruits from the summer, and talking about good times to ward off bad intentions.
December 21st and 22nd
Marking the arrival of winter, the Dongzhi festival is celebrated throughout Asia. Dongzhi marks a return to longer days and follows the Yin and Yang principal of balance (after the cold and darkness of winter, there will be light and warmth).
Families come together and eat tangyuan or balls of glutinous rice. Each family member will receive at least one large tangyuan as well as several smaller balls. The tangyuan is often served with rice wine. In northern China, many families will instead eat dumplings, which help people keep warm during the cold winter months (according to tradition). The festive food is also a reminder that another year has passed and everyone should behave better – many people now also consider themselves another year older.
Whatever you are celebrating this December, I would like to wish you my personal festive greeting:
Merry Everything and a Happy Always!