December is a month chock-full of celebrations and traditions around the world. It might be the darkest month of the year, but lights and charitable giving illuminate the globe. This is a time when individuals seek out the nostalgic memories and long for families. Yet, it is a month where the whole world celebrates, even if they celebrate differently, there is a blending of traditions. It’s like many threads creating a beautifully woven tapestry of humans at their best. Let’s take time to learn about other countries and people’s traditions as we cherish our own unique heritages. As book lovers, we seek knowledge, and there is no easier way to learn about each other than reading a book (okay, traveling there may be better but not easier).
Disclaimer: This is not a complete list, and we aren’t experts on all holidays, beliefs, and traditions. Hence, we suggest reading books. This is meant as a brief overview.
Saint Nicholas Day – December 6th
Don’t confuse this day with the celebration of Christmas. It is different even though many of the Christmas traditions originate from Saint Nicholas celebrations. He was born in the third century in Patar’s village, which is located on the southeastern coast of modern-day Turkey. He was raised as a Christian and spent his life in the service of the poor. Many stories have emerged about him filling poor girls’ shoes with gold for their dowries so they could be married. Tradition states they would leave their shoes by the fire at night to dry, and in the morning, they’d be filled with enough gold to cover the dowry.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated throughout Europe. Saint Nicholas is not the same as Santa Claus, but good girls and boys receive gifts, and naughty ones receive a twig or chunk of coal. On December 6th (the anniversary of his death), small gifts or treats are left in shoes or stockings.
Hanukkah or Chanukah – December 10th – 18th, 2020
Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights is a celebration of freedom and miracles. In the second century BC, the Jews lived in Judea under the control of a Syrian king, Antiochus III. He allowed the Jews to practice their religion, but his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, outlawed it. Antiochus marched his soldiers into Jerusalem and desecrated their temple.
A few years later, Judah Maccabee led a successful campaign to drive their capturers out of the city. They went to work to clean the temple and rededicate it. The menorah, which was meant to burn at all times, was relit. However, there was only enough purified olive oil to keep it burning one day. A fresh supply wasn’t available for eight days, and yet, the menorah’s candle flames never extinguished. This miracle leads to an annual eight-day festival of lights.
Hanukkah traditions include the nightly lighting of a nine-branched menorah. The ninth candle is the “helper” candle and is used to light the other eight candles. Memorized blessings are recited, and latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam-filled donuts) are eaten. Other traditions include playing with tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts. Dreidels have four Hebrew letters written on them. They are an acronym meaning Nes Gadol Hayah Sham or a great miracle happened there.
St. Lucia – December 13th
One of the most exciting threads of history blending cultures and traditions is found in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Their celebration of an Italian Christian martyr from the year 310 AD is a marvel. How did a woman from Syracuse, Sicily, the patron of Saint of Syracuse, become the center of celebrations in a Scandinavian country?
Saint Lucia or Lucy was martyred for her belief in God. Her story became highly circulated, and around 400, she was venerated as a saint. In the 1100s, Sweden received monks who taught them the stories of this brave woman that refused to marry a pagan and was put to death for it. The Swedes were endeared with her story.
When a famine hit Sweden in the Middle Ages, it is told that a ship sailed into Lake Vannern on the winter solstice, and at the helm was a woman surrounded by light. It was St. Lucia herself. She distributed bags of wheat that lasted all winter.
Another story teaches that St. Lucia used her dowry money to feed the poor. She would arrange candles on her head so both her hands would be free to carry extra food.
In modern-day Sweden, each family celebrates St. Lucia day with the oldest daughter playing Lucia. She wears a long white robe with a red sash, a crown with candles on her head, and serves Lussekatter (Lucia buns) and coffee to her family. Towns will choose a St. Lucia and have a procession also. The boys aren’t entirely left out of the fun; they are the “Star Boys” wearing long pointed hats and robes.
However, she came to be celebrated – St. Lucia day is a festival of lights and kicks off the holiday season with food, fun, and family traditions.
Las Posadas – December 16th
Las Posadas means “the Inns.” It is a nine-day festival celebrated in Mexico, Central America, and parts of the United States. It commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Each night a procession of children re-enact the journey dressed in white and gold gowns is lead by a small child dressed as an angel. They travel from house to house seeking shelter and carrying images of Joseph and Mary. These nights are filled with singing, and mass is held at the end of each night’s procession. Following mass, the children break open a star-shaped piñata filled with candy and toys.
The poinsettia, which has nine leaves, symbolizes Mary and Joseph’s nine-day journey to Bethlehem.
Winter Solstice or Yule – December 21st
Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, meaning it has the least amount of daylight. Ancient pagans celebrated the day by honoring nature and setting their “intentions” for the coming season. Many of the Yule traditions are part of other cultures’ holiday traditions. We’ll list out the most iconic features of winter solstice celebrations, which center on rejoicing the return of the sun. Who isn’t excited about additional daylight.
Yule Altar – A candle is placed in the center to represent the sun. Natural items from winter are placed around the candle, such as pine cones, boughs of fir or cedar, and wreaths.
Yule Wreath – Made from evergreens, these are placed on your door or on the altar. Evergreens are associated with protection and prosperity, bringing both into the new season.
Yule Log – A Nordic tradition that entailed bringing a whole tree into the home to burn for twelve days. A more modern version includes baking a delicious yule log to eat.
Yule Tree – In ancient pagan tradition, a living (outdoors) tree was decorated with candles and ornaments to represent the sun, moon, and stars, and to honor deceased loved ones.
Gift Giving – The giving of gifts was part of the solstice celebration, but they were always gifts from nature, such as a wreath, crystals, or seeds.
Winter Solstice is a time to reflect on nature, slow down, and be intentional. It is a celebration of light returning to our daily lives.
Festivus – December 23rd
Fans of the 1990s hit television series Seinfeld will recognize this holiday as George Constanza’s family tradition. After the episode aired, many people began to celebrate the “holiday,” and it has grown in popularity over the last decade. Interestingly enough, Daniel O’Keefe, a writer on the show, incorporated his father’s thirty-year tradition into the script. Dan O’Keefe Sr. was stunned to hear it mentioned and even more surprised at it’s growing popularity.
Festivus centers around the belief that commercialism takes over the holidays. To celebrate, find a sturdy aluminum pole around your house but don’t decorate it. Let it stand bare in the center of the festivities. A typical Festivus meal is meatloaf on a plate of lettuce. Before eating the meal, there is the annual airing of grievances where you tell each guest how they’ve disappointed you during the year.
After the meal, each guest is challenged to Feats of Strength, such as a wrestling match with the host. Festivus isn’t really over until the host is pinned to the floor. The only other tradition is finding random everyday events to call Festivus Miracles (like I did a Zoom meeting, and my microphone worked on the first try)!
Jólabókaflóð – December 24
In Iceland, December 24th is called the Yule Book Flood. The yearly celebration began in 1944 after Iceland became independent from Denmark. The economy was struggling, and money was limited. Domestic paper was inexpensive, though, and the publishing industry decided to save money by releasing new books during the holiday season. And voilà, that’s the history of the Yule Book Flood.
According to Iceland Magazine, Iceland has the highest literacy rate in the world per capita at 99.9%. (They top the charts as the happiest population per capita also. See the correlation? Just saying.) Perhaps this unique tradition creates a sort of magic about books and their importance in the children’s hearts that stays with them throughout their lives.
Like most holiday traditions, no two families celebrate it quite the same. On Christmas Eve, families exchange books, and the evening is spent reading and drinking a cup of cocoa. The nights are long and provide plenty of time for relaxing and digging into a good book.
While studying Iceland, we shouldn’t skip over their unique take on Christmas in general. Iceland has 13 “Santas” or ‘Jólasveinarnir’ or Jóltide Lads. Actually, they are magical trolls from the mountains who leave the gifts or potatoes (if you aren’t good) in children’s shoes. The first one arrives on December 12th, and a new one appears every night until Christmas. Beware though, they are also known for their mischief.
Here is a list of common Jólasveinar:
Stekkjarstaur – Gimpy
Giljagaur – Gully Imp
Stúfur – Itty Bitty
Þvörusleikir – Pot Scraper Licker
Pottasleikir – Pot Licker
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker
Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler (Skyr, an Icelandic yoghurt)
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Snatcher
Gluggagægir – Window Peeper
GáttaÞefur – Doorway Sniffer
Ketkrókur – Meat Hooker
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar
Christmas – December 24 & 25
Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ – the Son of God. Christmas is derived from the Mass of Christ, which is a service where Christians remember that Jesus died for mankind and then came back to life. The Christ’s Mass service was always after sunset, often at midnight. It was shortened to Christmas over time. It is believed ancient Christians chose to celebrate Christ’s birth during the time of the Pagan celebration of Solstice to avoid persecution.
Christmas Eve is a unique and often separate celebration. Many Christians go to midnight mass or evening church services. In many European countries, the gifts from Santa are opened on this night. Yet, others bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it on Christmas Eve.
Modern Christmas is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians around the world. The traditions and rituals are as varied as people themselves. Lights, trees, gift-giving, family, and goodwill toward others are the hallmarks of the holiday. Most celebrate not only the nativity but also the coming of Santa Claus.
In most American homes, there is the anticipation of the arrival of Santa during the night. Children are encouraged to go to bed early, but the magic of Christmas keeps them stirring for hours listening for the hooves of reindeer on the roof. Many children track Santa on Norad.
Santa Claus brings toys and presents to good children worldwide, which evokes hope and childlike magic. The stories and traditions around this jolly man are diverse. Countries and families adapt and adjust them to fit their specific heritage and needs.
Discoverbooks.com has books on celebrations by country as well as general traditions Around the World.
Kwanzaa – December 26th – January 1st
Kwanzaa is a week-long African-American celebration created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, in 1966. He wanted a way to bring African Americans together as a community. Karenga researched and studied African harvest rituals and combined many together, such as those of the Ashanti and the Zulu. Kwanzaa means first-fruits or harvest in Swahili.
There are seven guiding principles taught and recited during the week. Each represents values from African culture that help strengthen the community. The seven principles are listed below, and they include seven symbols for each day. The principle is discussed, and a candle is lit on the kinara (candleholder). Singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, African drumming, and feasting are all part of the celebrations. It is rich in symbolism and cultural heritage.
- Umoja: Unity – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia: Self-Determination – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility – To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and solve them together.
- Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia: Purpose – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba: Creativity – To always do as much as we can, any way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani: Faith – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Boxing Day – December 26th
Boxing day is celebrated in countries with a history with the U.K. Several theories exist on the history behind the name. The most popular one turns back the clock to Charles Dickens reference to it in The Pickwick Papers. Aristocrats required their staff to work on Christmas Day but gave them the 26th off. They would distribute “boxes” filled with gifts, money, and leftovers from Christmas dinner. This was the equivalent of modern-day holiday bonuses.
The alternative explanation derives from the idea of alms boxes placed in churches during the Advent season. The clergies would hand out the donations the next day on the feast of St. Stephen, who was known for his acts of charity.
Today, most have the day off and relax watching football and eating leftovers.
Whichever holiday(s) you celebrate, you can find out more about them at DiscoverBooks.com. Enjoy the season!