Each year, the Christmas season starts in earnest immediately after the last trick-or-treater has gone home and changed out of their costume. It’s understandable that so many people love Christmas as the holiday juggernaut it’s become. For the religious, it still has the Christian elements while many of the other aspects of Christmas have been thoroughly secularized for everyone else. In many ways, it’s become a catch-all holiday for the season. But Christmas isn’t the only holiday that’s worth knowing this time of year. We’ve already covered Hanukkah, so let’s focus on some of the other major holidays you may bump into in the United States!
For millions of Indians in India and around the world, there’s nothing like Diwali (sometimes spelled Deepawali), their festival of lights. A religious ceremony celebrating the victory of good and light over evil and darkness, Diwali is actually observed by three different religions — Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In Hindu tradition, it is also a festival of the new year, which falls on the fourth day of Diwali. It runs for five days during the Hindu month of Kartik, which generally falls in late-October to early-November. Each day has specific ways to celebrate it, each ramping up until the third day of Diwali, which is the main day of the holiday.
Today, Diwali is celebrated around the world, so there’s probably a Diwali festival near you!
The first day of Diwali is called Dhanteras, and it’s a day of cleaning the home and purchasing gold and other precious metals. This is thought to bring good luck since the goddess Lakshmi will only enter a clean home. The second day, Choti Diwali, sees families decorating the home with traditional clay lamps and creating rangolis, which are colorful arrangements of sand and powders. The third day of Diwali is the main day of celebration. Lights of all kind — from the clay lamps to candles and even fireworks — are lit as families gather for feasting and prayers to the goddess Lakshmi, called the Lakshmi Puja. Govardhan Puja is on the fourth day of Diwali, seen by Hindus as the first day of the new year. It’s common for friends and families to gather and exchange gifts with each other. The final day of Diwali is a special day for anyone with siblings. Bhai Dooj is all about the bond between siblings. Adult brothers visit the homes of their sisters for a feast. Since the sisters host, the brothers are expected to bring them special gifts. Today, Diwali is celebrated around the world, so there’s probably a Diwali festival near you!
Originally introduced in 1966, Kwanzaa (derived from matunda ya kwanza or first fruit in Swahili) is a pan-African holiday established to celebrate the shared culture of modern African Americans. Kwanzaa is a non-political, non-religious holiday that revolves around togetherness and family and can be celebrated alongside Christmas. There is a special attention given to the seven principals of Kwanzaa (or Nguzo Saba):
- Umoja (unity),
- Kujichagulia (self-determination),
- Ujima (collective responsibility),
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics),
- Nia (purpose),
- Kuumba (creativity),
- Imani (faith)
Kwanzaa also has seven primary symbols that represent the African culture:
- Mazao (crops, representing the rewards of productive and collective labor),
- Mkeka (the mat, representing tradition),
- Kinara (the candle holder, representing African roots),
- Muhindi (corn, representing children and their future),
- Kikombe Cha Umoja (the Unity Cup, representing the foundational principle and practice of unity),
- Mishumaa Saba (seven candles, representing the core principles),
- Zawadi (gifts, representing a parent’s labor and love and a child’s commitment)
Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 with each day focusing on a different principle. Family members are asked to reflect on that principle each day, either through thought or meditation, music, or reading. Families or communities will also gather to light candles on the kinara representing that day’s principle. Sometimes, special food will be eaten on a corresponding day representing the principle. On the second to last day of Kwanzaa (December 31), a large feast is held called Karamu. Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated around the world by people of many different faiths and cultures to celebrate the community, resilience, and principles the holiday has come to represent.
It may surprise you, but one of the major pre-Christian influences of Christmas, Yule and the observance of the winter solstice, is still celebrated by many. Today, Yule is a solstice festival held by many Neo-Pagan religions such as Wiccans and Heathens (Germanic Neo-Pagans). When you think of a Pagan solstice celebration, don’t picture a scene from MacBeth with crones standing around a bubbling cauldron. A solstice celebration marks when the day is either the longest or shortest (summer and winter respectively). Yule specifically is one of the solar festivals on the Pagan Wheel of the Year that represents the cyclical nature of the year. It usually falls on December 21 or 22.
Most Neo-Pagan traditions are non-dogmatic, which means there aren’t universal expectations or rituals to follow.
As Neo-Paganism is a loose term for a wide swath of different religions and traditions, Yule and the winter solstice are celebrated in many different ways. Some even celebrate it alongside Christmas, recognizing the influences both played on each other. Others see it as a time to welcome the return of the sun as the days will continue to grow longer until the summer solstice. For Celtic-based Neo-Pagans such as Wiccans, you may see a ceremonial reenactment of the battle between the Holly King (who reigns during Autumn and Winter) and the Oak King (who reigns during Spring and Summer). Others celebrate Yule in ways that may feel more Christmas-y. You may make an evergreen wreath, host a Yule feast, or light a Yule log. You can also make wishes for the coming year, set up a Yule altar, recite prayers to welcome the return of the sun, hold a cleansing ceremony, or practice other more distinctly Pagan rituals.
Most Neo-Pagan traditions are non-dogmatic, which means there aren’t universal expectations or rituals to follow. Instead, you’re invited to make up your own traditions that fit the spirit of the celebrations welcoming back the sun and light into the world. For example, if you’re interested in celebrating Yule and Christmas, you could celebrate Christmas with an emphasis on the pre-Christian elements we covered in some of our Christmas Why Do We Celebrate That? articles. A winter solstice celebration doesn’t even have to be religious!
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The holidays are a time to celebrate so why limit yourself to only one? It’s a great way to become familiar with other cultures and celebrate the differences that enrich our culture. If you know anyone that takes part in any of these holidays — whether it’s Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Yule, or another we haven’t covered — taking part can strengthen your friendship and show them you value the relationship. Even if you don’t know anybody, it can simply be very fun to celebrate around this time of year. From all of us at the Shop and Enroll blog, happy holidays!