In the United States, Christmas is typically the star of the holiday show in December. However, several other religious and cultural celebrations occur during this winter month. Despite their diverse origins, many of these December holidays share common threads, including religious history and celebrating the winter solstice.
Here are a few winter holidays that, along with Christmas, occur near the end of each year. Just as people around the world celebrate Christmas in different ways, some of the traditions listed here may vary regionally.
Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th)
Where: St. Nicholas Day is a popular holiday in Europe and in many countries, including Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey.
History: Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey in the third century. Noted for his generosity to children and the poor, he is the inspiration for Santa Claus. Several elements from modern Christmas celebrations come from Saint Nicholas, including: candy canes, hanging Christmas stockings, gift giving during the night, and giving to the needy.
Celebrations: On the night of December 5, children place their shoes by the door or stockings by the hearth, filled with bits of straw and carrots in their shoes for Saint Nicholas’ white horse (Netherlands) or donkey (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Sweden). These items are replaced in the night by small toys and candy.
Bodhi Day (December 8th in Japan)
Where: China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan (where Bodhi Day is known as Rohatsu).
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History: “Bodhi” means “enlightenment” in Sanskrit, and this special time commemorates the day when Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha while sitting under a bodhi, or fig tree. Bodhi Day is celebrated by Zen Buddhists on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, which can vary in countries like China that follow a different lunar calendar. In Japan, Bodhi Day is celebrated each year on December 8th.
Celebrations: Observance of Bodhi Day is low-key compared to many Western traditions, and can vary among different regions and Buddhist sects. This is a time for contemplation and meditation in remembrance of this day of awakening. Families may decorate their homes with a picture of Buddha sitting under a fig tree, which has heart-shaped leaves, or by lighting candles and decorating a small ficus tree with strings of beads.
Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12th)
Where: This religious festival originated in Mexico but is becoming more popular in some U.S. communities, particularly in the southwest.
History: The Feast (Fiesta) of Our Lady of Guadalupe honors the reported appearance of the mother of Jesus in Mexico City during the 16th century, who became the patron saint of Mexico.
Celebrations: While not an official federal holiday, street festivals celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe are common. Some people make a pilgrimage to Mexico City to the spot where Mary of Guadalupe is said to have first appeared before a peasant farmer in 1531. Many families celebrate by receiving blessings at church followed by a feast of traditional Mexican fare. Brightly colored flowers decorate feast tables.
Saint Lucia Day (December 13th)
Where: Considered the start of the Christmas season, St. Lucia Day celebrations are most common in Scandinavian countries–particularly Sweden–and also in Italy.
History: Celebrations honoring Saint Lucia, the patron saint of Sweden, combine Christian and pre-Christian traditions.
Celebrations: “Lucia” means light, which is a common theme in St. Lucia Day celebrations. Girls dressed as St. Lucia wear a white dress with a red sash and a crown of lingonberry branches ringed with candles. Each year, schools and towns in Sweden appoint a young girl to be their official “Lucy,” who plays a significant role in a celebratory parade. Boys wear white robes and a pointed hat decorated with stars and carry, rather than wear, candles. Ginger snaps and saffron-flavored buns (lussekatter) are popular Lucia Day treats.
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Yule (December 21st or 22nd, on the winter solstice)
Where: Originating in Northern Europe, Yule is also celebrated by modern Pagans and Wiccans in the United States.
History: Many December holidays celebrate the return of light during the darkest time of year, which occurs during the winter solstice, and Yule, or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is no exception. In fact, the Christmas yule log gets its origin from this celebration of light. Often coinciding with the winter solstice, the Feast of Yule, or originated as a midwinter festival celebrating the return of more sunlight after the solstice.
Celebrations: Yule traditions vary among countries and belief systems, and some of its origins are lost to history. Generally, Yule originated as a midwinter feast where a Yule log was burned and bonfires were lit in celebration of the heat, light, and life-giving powers of the returning sun. Keeping a bit of the Yule log, or its ashes, was thought to bring good luck and often kept for the next year’s celebration. Today, modern Pagans and Wiccans celebrate Yule around the winter solstice (December 21-22), either as a single event or celebration lasting days or weeks. Going door to door singing carols originated from the Yule tradition of wassailing, where carolers went door to door offering a drink from a bowl of wassail, or hot mulled cider.
Hanukkah (Between late November and late December)
Where: Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is celebrated by people of the Jewish faith worldwide.
History: Hanukkah is an 8-day Festival of Lights honoring the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that was damaged during a rebellion. There was only enough consecrated (sacred) oil in the temple lamp to burn for a day, but the oil lasted seven more days, which was considered a miracle. So for eight days each winter, people celebrate this miracle during Hanukkah by honoring light and oil as a way of giving thanks. A relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah has grown in popularity in recent years in the United States.
Celebrations: On the first night of Hanukkah, a menorah, which holds nine candles, is displayed in a window and the first candle is lit. Each night after sundown, a new candle is added to the menorah and lit using the central shamash (helper) candle. To celebrate the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, foods fried in oil such as potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly-filled doughnuts (sufganiyot) are popular treats. Spinning a four-sided top called a dreidel and exchanging small gifts are also popular traditions.
Kwanzaa (December 26 – January 1)
Where: The United States and Canada.
History: Founded in 1966 by American professor Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa celebrates African American family, community, and culture. There are seven principles honored during this week-long observance: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” or “first fruits.”
Celebrations: Kwanzaa combines several traditional African harvest celebrations, and families celebrate in a variety of ways. Children may light one of seven candles in a Kinara (candleholder) each night, followed by a discussion of one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Traditional African drum music, and a feast on December 31st are also common elements of a Kwanzaa celebration.