Now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s as important as ever to recognize that the term holiday encompasses a vast array of events that are celebrated by a variety of religions, spiritualities and cultures.
With so many celebrations at this time of year, we did some research into a variety of holidays—some of which you’re probably already familiar with, and others that you might enjoy learning more about.
By providing this small list of examples, we aim to highlight some of the rich traditions and mores to be found within our communities.
Nirvana (or enlightenment)—a state of being free from suffering—is the ultimate goal of Buddhists. The Buddhist holiday of Bodhi Day is celebrated on December 8, and for Mahāyāna Buddhists, it commemorates the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, Sidhartha Gautama.
Mahāyāna Buddhism, which originated in India, is one of the two main branches of Buddhism. It is practiced in India and other Asian countries, including:
- And others
Bodhi is a day of remembrance and meditation. Bodhi, from the Sanskrit, means “awakening.” The day is celebrated by practicing acts of kindness toward others, meditating and chanting sacred texts.
The diya or dipa (oil lamp) represents Deepavali (or Diwali), the festival of lights. In Sanskrit, Deepavali means “a row or garland of lamps.” The lamps serve as symbols of spiritual illumination and awakening, as well as new beginnings for the coming year.
The wells of the lamp are traditionally filled with oil, and a wick is laid in the oil and lit. Sharing meals and exchanging gifts—along with wishes for prosperity—play a significant role in this celebration.
Primarily in honor of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Deepavali is an important Hindu religious holiday celebrated throughout Asia.
Depending on geographic location, the holiday commemorates significant events in the lives of other important religious figures, such as:
- Rama (in North India and Nepal)
- Krishna (in South India) or
- Kali (in Bengal)
This holiday is also recognized by practitioners of the Jain and Sikh religious faiths.
Eid al-Adha (also Id al-Adha) is a three-day festival held in the 12th Islamic month. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the holiday may fall at any season of the year.
The holiday honors the Jewish leader Abraham, an ancestor of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, and commemorates a particular event in his life. According to the Koran—the holy book of Islam—God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to prove his faith. (This story also appears in Hebrew scripture, only the son to be sacrificed is identified as Isaac.) Just as Abraham was about to fulfill God’s command, God told him to stop and allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead.
The descendants of Ishmael became Arabs. Stories of the life of Ishmael—including his founding of Islam’s sacred city of Mecca—are told to children as during Eid al-Adha. As part of the festival, new clothes are often worm and gifts are given as well.
The festival is often concluded with the Hajj: the pilgrimage to Mecca. Just outside the city pilgrims sacrifice an animal—commonly a ram but sometimes a cow or lamb—in memory of Abraham’s faith.
Elsewhere in the world, a male head of the household carries out a similar ritual according to Islamic rules. Then the meat is roasted for a special feast. It is divided into three portions:
- One for family
- One for friends and relatives
- One for the poor
Another important aspect of Eid al-Adha is remembering the dead by visiting burial grounds, laying palm branches on graves and reciting passages from the Koran.
Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights. It is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar. (It may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.)
Hanukkah celebrates the survival of Judaism and the victory of the Maccabees, led by Judah, over the Hellenistic Syrians. In 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes mandated the imposition of the Greek religion on all subjects and forbade Jews from practicing their religion. In a revolt that took place around 165 BCE, the Maccabees defeated the Syrians.
Following their victory, the Maccabees went to the temple in Jerusalem to remove the Greek altar and statues. To rededicate the temple, they lit a special candelabrum called a menorah (or hanukiah), which is meant to burn as an eternal flame.
Enough oil could be found to burn for one day. But miraculously, the candelabrum remained lit for eight days—the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
Lighting the Menorah
To commemorate the victory and the rededication of the temple, Hanukkah is observed by lighting a menorah. A menorah holds nine candles. Eight of them represent the eight days the oil burned in the temple; the ninth (placed higher and in the middle of the others) is the servant or shammesh candle that is used to light the rest.
On the first night of Hanukkah, a single candle is lit. An additional candle is lit on successive evenings until all eight are illuminated on the final night. Lighting the candles signifies spirit, courage, justice and hope.
China’s Dongzhi Festival celebrates the winter solstice, falling on a day between December 20th and 23rd, when daylight is the shortest. The Chilnese solar calendar is divisded into 24 parts; Dongzhi is the term that names the period in which the winter solstice occurs.
For the Chinese, the winter solstice expresses the principles of yin and yang: how opposites—male and female, good and evil, light and dark—are interconnected and cannot exist without one another. In particular the winter solstice relates to ascendancy of yang, the masculine principle.
Several important traditions are practiced during this holiday. In reverence to ancestors, people visit temples. A special family meal is prepared, consisting of glutinous rice balls or dumplings in hot broth. The practice is said to have originated during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), when physician Zhang Zhongjing offered the dish to the poor suffering in the cold.
Many participants in the festival create drawings of flowers to signify the coming of spring. The number of flowers corresponds to the days until spring: 81, or often just nine (which is the square root of 81).
Celebrated between December 26 and January 1, Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, a UCLA professor from Nigeria. The name comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits.”
Dr. Karenga develop Kwanzaa as a response to the Watts riots of 1965, a civil disturbance in Los Angeles that was triggered by a racially charged altercation between an Anglo-American police officer and an African-American man. Karenga intended to create a holiday for people of African descent to celebrate their heritage—an alternative to the traditional holidays celebrated by Caucasians, such as Christmas.
Kwanzaa takes its inspiration from traditional African harvest festivals and is intended to strengthen a sense of unity and pride in African heritage. During the celebration, an African style of dress is encouraged.
Educationally- and inspirationally-themed gifts are given at the end of the seven day celebration to promote and commemorate achievement throughout the year. Each element of the holiday is ripe with meaning and symbolism.
The Kinara (candle holder) symbolizes the whole of African ancestry. The candle colors of red, black and green refer to the colors of the Bendera (the pan-African or Black Liberation flag. This banner was originally the Universal Negro Improvement Association flag, as proposed in the 1920s by Marcus Garvey, father of the Black Nationalist movement).
The candles represent the Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba), which are the values needed to sustain the African-American family, community and culture. To honor their ancestors—and as a sign of unity—celebrants pass around and drink from the cup (kikombe cha umoja), which holds a libation (tambiko), usually wine or grape juice.
A bowl of fruits and vegetables (mazao) represents the harvest and signifies the importance of collective labor. Corn, an essential African crop, symbolizes the human life cycle. Typically, the number of corn ears in the mazao represents the number of children in the household.
Yule is a celebration of the winter solstice that occurs each year on December 20, 21, 22 or 23. Practitioners of contemporary neopagan religions such as Wicca, Pantheism, Asatru and Druidism celebrate Yule.
These religious beliefs center upon humans’ inseparable partnership with the Earth. Yule traditions focus on the concept of renewal—and the symbolic nature of winter as a part of the cycle of life (and the precursor to the growth inherent in spring).
Creating an Altar
An important part of celebrating Yule is assembling symbolic objects together on a piece of cloth to create an altar used for contemplating the importance of the season. The elements of the altar have commonalities, but each particular altar is meant to be an individual’s own interpretation of the season’s spiritual significance.
The log and candles relate to the neopagan sun deity. The log, typically gathered by the altar’s maker, refers to the ancient Celtic fire ritual of welcoming the sun deity into the home.
The gold candle (which represents the sun god) is placed in a vessel (the womb of the goddess), and serves as a symbol of the sun’s rebirth—as each day’s sunlight hours start to increase after the solstice.
The inclusion of animals in the arrangement also symbolizes rebirth. In particular, a stag is synonymous with fertility.
The holiday is celebrated on December 25 and is preceded by a period of four weeks called Advent (or “the coming”). Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, is a time of reflection, penitence and prayer in preparation for Jesus’ birth.
A Jolly Old Elf
Other customs of the Christmas holiday practiced in the US include special religious services and music, gift giving and decorations such as trees, wreaths and lights. Although unrelated to the nativity story, the figure of Santa Claus also plays heavily in this holiday.
Santa is a derivation of Nicholas, a fourth-century saint revered among Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians—and known for secret gift giving. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on December 6. For Orthodox Christians, Christmas is celebrated on January 7, reflecting the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the West’s Gregorian calendar.
A Season of Kindness
Whether you celebrate one holiday, several or none of the above, we at FRCC hope the holiday season brings love, generosity and kindness into your life. And we wish you the very best as we get ready to head into the new year.
Andrew Helper (assistant director of facilities) and Robin O’Connell (assistant director of advising)—both at FRCC’s Westminster Campus—contributed to this post.