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In the United States, December holidays usually means Christmas or Hanukah, and most of us are familiar with the customs of both. A Christmas tree, too much food, lots of presents and Church for the former, and a Menorah, too much food, lots of presents and Synagogue for the latter. But what most of us don’t realize is that December means something entirely different for millions of people around the world, some who celebrate Christian traditions unlike our own, and some who celebrate holidays most of us have never heard of. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes mystical, and sometimes violent, other people’s beliefs most likely seem as strange to us as ours probably do to them. But believing itself is a gift, so here’s a guide to what others may be doing this December.
Ashura - men covered in blood screamig
DECEMBER 5- ASHURA (Islamic, Muslim)

Ashura is an Islamic holiday observed on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year. The word Ashura means "10."

Shortly after the Hijira in AD 622, Muhammad designated Ashura as a day of fasting from sunset to sunset, perhaps patterned on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Traditionally, Ashura commemorates two events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the ark and the day Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah. When Jewish-Muslim relations became strained, however, Muhammad designated Ramadan the Muslim month of fasting, making Ashura a voluntary fast, as it has remained among Sunnis.

Among Shi'ites, however, Ashura is a major festival, the tazia (ta'ziyah). It commemorates the death of Husayn (also spelled Hussein), son of Imam 'Ali and grandson of Muhammad, on the 10th of Muharram, AH 61 (October 10, 680), in Karbala, Iraq. The event led to the split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, and it is of central importance in Shi'a Islam.

For Shi'a Muslims, passion plays, rituals and observances on Ashura consist primarily of public expressions of mourning and grief. Some Shi'as express this mourning most violently, flagellating themselves on the back with chains, beating their head or ritually cutting themselves, producing a veritable sea of blood. This is intended to connect them with Husayn's suffering and death as an aid to salvation on the Day of Judgment.

Many Shi'a make pilgrimages on Ashura to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala, Iraq, that is traditionally held to be Husayn's tomb. Husayn's martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shi'a as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny, and oppression.

Bodhi day - Buddah statue, celebration room and monkDECEMBER 8 - BODHI DAY (BUDDAH’S ENLIGHTENMENT- Buddhist)

Prince Siddhartha Gautama left his home and family and all his possessions behind at the age of 29 to discover the meaning of life. After six years of rigorous discipline and asceticism under the guidance of a number of spiritual teachers, he still hadn’t found what he was seeking, and he went off by himself, broke his fast, and sat under a pipal tree, vowing not to arise until he had finally reached enlightenment.

Over a period of days he faced several temptations, visions of mythic figures that tried to disrupt his resolve. And then on the morning of the eighth day he came to a realisation of what he believed to be the nature of existence. Bodhi Day is, according to Mahayana tradition, the date of his enlightenment and his subsequent revelation of the ‘four noble truths’.

Dukkha: All existence is unsatisfactory and filled with suffering.

Trsna: The root of suffering can be defined as a craving or clinging to the wrong things; searching to find stability in a shifting world is the wrong way.

Nirvana: It is possible to find an end to suffering.

The “noble eightfold path’’ is the way to find the solution to suffering and bring it to an end.

He wrote, “My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, 'Released.' I discerned that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'

From that point forward, Siddhartha Gautama was referred to as the Buddha, i.e. the ‘enlightened one’ or “awakened one”. Bodhi Day is observed in many ways, including prayer, meditation and teachings.

Santa Lucia choir singing. Woman with crown of candles on her head.DECEMBER 13 - SANTA LUCIA DAY (Sweden)

Luciadagen (Santa Lucia Day) is one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Sweden. Although not a legal holiday, Saint Lucia’s Day is a day of great celebrating and merriment.

The Story of Saint Lucia stretches back to the time of the Vikings and the Roman Empire. According to legend, Lucia was a brave young woman from the island of Sicily, in the Mediterranean. When Lucia heard about the persecution of Christians by the Emperor, she gave one Christian family her entire dowry. This so angered her betrothed husband, that he told authorities that Lucia secretly practiced Christianity. Lucia, who died a martyr’s death, was much admired for her courage, generosity and faith. And tradition has it that she took food to Christians hiding from persecution in underground tunnels, wearing candles on a wreath around her head to light the way.

The tradition includes crowning a young girl the ‘lucia’, who then wears a crown of candles and delivers songs, coffee, and saffron buns (lussekatter!) to her family.  She also has an entourage called the ‘luciataget’ (or lucia train), including girls in white dresses and boys in white robes and pointy white hats carrying torches to light the way.

Las posadas navidenas. People walkinng around singing villancicos.DECEMBER 16-25 - LAS POSADAS NAVIDENAS (Mexico)

Las Posadas (Spanish for "the inn") is a traditional Mexican festival which re-enacts Joseph's search for a room at the inn. Each Christmas season, a processional carrying a doll representing the Christ Child and images of Joseph and Mary riding a burro, walks through the community streets. The processional stops at a previously selected home and asks for lodging for the night. The people are invited in to read scriptures and sing Christmas carols called ‘villancicos’. Refreshments are provided by the hosts.

The doll is left at the chosen home and picked up on the next night when the processional begins again. This continues for 8 nights in commemoration of the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Jewish Hannukah candle stick
DECEMBER 21-28 - HANUKAH (Jewish)

Hanukah is an 8-day festival celebrating the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Greeks in the 2nd century B.C. When they returned to their temple victorious, they found only a 1-day supply of holy oil. But miraculously, it burned for 8 days.

Yule celebration. Painting of Solstice.DECEMBER 22 - YULE (Wiccan/ Pagan) and SOLSTICE (Catholic)

In Wiccan beliefs, the Sun King is reborn as a new baby on the day of the Winter Solstice. On that day (or close to it), an amazing thing happens in the sky. The earth's axis tilts away from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, and the sun reaches its greatest distance from the equatorial plane. As a festival of the Sun, the most important part of any Yule or Solstice celebration is light -- candles, bonfires, and more.

Gathering around a hearth or lighting bonfires that last all night was and is one of the most common rituals on this holiday and is the root of the Yule Log tradition known today.

A ritual hearth fire was part of many different cultures observances on this special night. The tradition of the Yule log varies greatly across the many groups which lit fires for this event. It dates back to 12th century Europe, and was prevalent throughout France and Italy as well.

Customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule. Yule is not necessarily always tied to Christianity, which means Yule in the Nordic Countries is also celebrated by many non-Christians and even by the non-religious, who treat Yule as an entirely secular tradition.

Litha celebration. Witch with ritual symbols. Calendar of sabbat periods.DECEMBER 20-23 - LITHA (Wicca/ Pagan)

The Wheel of the Year is a Pagan metaphor and calendar for the cycle of the seasons. It consists of eight festivals, known as sabbats, spaced at approximately even intervals throughout the year.

In many forms of Paganism, the passing of time is seen as cyclical, and is represented by a circle or wheel. The progression of birth, life, decline, death  and rebirth as experienced in human lives, is echoed in the progression of the seasons. Many Pagans also see this cycle as echoing the life, death and rebirth of the God and the fertility of the Goddess.

As the Wheel originates in the Northern Hemisphere, in the Southern Hemisphere most Pagans advance these dates six months so as to coincide with the natural seasons as they occur in their local climates.

In spite of modern lifestyles and insulation from the natural world, we are still dependent upon the forces of nature, and contemporary Witches observe the Sabbats to establish and maintain a balance with nature. Sabbats are also a time for the Witch to look within, to reassess the life-path taken so far, and to reaffirm the directions she or he wishes to take in the future.
Christian painting of the birth of Jesus Christ.
DECEMBER 25 - CHRISTMAS (Christian, Roman Catholic, International)
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.
gift boxes on cotton
DECEMBER 26 - BOXING DAY (Great Britain)

Despite its name, Boxing Day, which is celebrated on December 26 in Great Britain, has nothing to do with pugilistic competition. Nor is it a day for people to return unwanted Christmas presents. While the exact origins of the holiday are obscure, it is likely that Boxing Day began in England during the Middle Ages.

Some historians say the holiday developed because servants were required to work on Christmas Day, but took the following day off. As they left to visit their families, their employers would present them with gift boxes.

Kwanzaa celebration. Family seating at the table. Candle stick with food on a table.DECEMBER 26 - JAN. 1 - KWANZAA (African-American)

Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural festival beginning on December 26 and ending on January 1. The festival was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga. Dr. Karenga's goal was to establish a holiday that would facilitate African-American goals of building a strong family, learning about African-American history, and developing unity.

While developing the new holiday, Dr. Karenga studied many African festivals and found many of them to be harvest related. Because of this, he named the celebration Kwanzaa from the Kiswahili word meaning "first fruits."

Karenga identified seven principles, the Nguzo Saba, of the African-American culture and incorporated them into Kwanzaa. The principles are  Umoja  (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

Before the Kwanzaa celebration begins, a straw mat (Mkeka) is placed on a table. A Kinara (seven-candle candle holder) and Mshumaa (the seven candles) are placed on the Mkeka along with Muhindi (ears of corn) and the Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup). The seven candles include three red ones placed on the right, three green ones placed on the left, and a black one placed in the center. The black candle represents the African-American people, the red candles represent their struggles, and the green ones represent their vision for the future.

Each day of Kwanzaa focuses upon one of the seven principles. After a candle-lighting ceremony, participants discuss what the principle means to them. Gifts are also exchanged during this time. A Karamu (feast) featuring traditional food, a ceremony honoring ancestors, music, and dancing is held on December 31.
Old Painting of Zarathost No Disco plus statue on the back.
DECEMBER 26- ZARATHOSHT NO DISCO (Death of Prophet Zarathushtra, Zoroastrian)

Zarathosht No Disco is the day on which the death anniversary of Prophet Zoroaster symbolically falls. Special prayers are recited and Zoroastrians go to the Fire Temple to pray. There aren't any elaborate celebrations on the day, since it is a solemn occasion. There are many versions of the legend of how Zarathustra died. One says that in his 77th year, he was killed in a fire-temple by the Turanian army. A variation says that the person who was killed was not Zarathustra, but someone else, while Zarathustra himself ascended the skies.

There are no public functions to mark the day. Ceremonies and services are confined to either the home or to the temple. Special prayers are recited, and lectures and discourses are held on the life and works of the prophet. Zarthost No Deeso is highly observed in Mumbai and Gujarat particularly, and in other parts of India which have a considerable Parsi population. / Issue 198 - July 2018
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