Midwinter is here and for thousands of years, humans have celebrated this time as the longest night of the year makes for long, dark, and often cold nights. Across cultures, countries, and religions, people come together to celebrate the return of light and hope for brighter days. Learn about how people share the light and cheer during midwinter.
Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that was established by American, Mulana Karenga in 1966 after the Watt’s Uprising in Los Angeles that resulted in 34 deaths. 23 of the 34 were shot by law enforcement or the National Guard. Karenga wanted to create a holiday that celebrated African American culture and accomplishment. The festivities last from December 26th to January 1st and each of the seven days has a different meaning and is represented by the lighting of a candle (three red, three green, one black). These are known as the seven principles or Nguzo Saba: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work & responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), Imani (faith). Families celebrate with drum ceremonies, a feast on the sixth day called Karamu and sharing symbols of Pan-African culture. Mazao or crops is represented by fruits and vegetables. Mkeka or the matt represents tradition and history. The kinara or the candle holder is symbolic of African roots and heritage. Muhindi or corn represents children and the future they hold. Kikombe Cha Umoja or the unity cup is a symbol of the unity that makes all possible, and Zawadi or gifts are symbolic of the labor of love from parents and received by children. For more information see the Official Kwanzaa Website.
Hanukkah or Chanukah is the 8 day Jewish Celebration of the Festival Of Lights Commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that happened during the Maccabean Revolt in 2nd Century BCE. Eight gifts are given to mark the eight nights of Hanukkah, a menorah is lit each day. A Menorah is a candelabra that has nine branches. Some traditional food eaten during Hanukkah are fried in oil to represent the oil lanterns during the revolt. Latkes (a type of potato pancake fritter) and sufganiyot (a fried jelly or custard donut) are typically consumed. People also eat dairy products to commemorate a story of triumph in the Book of Judith. Chocolate coins are given to children to teach them about charity and giving. There are many more regional food people celebrate with. Other activities include playing dreidel, a game that uses a four-sided spinning top and teaches about the Torah and how to learn Hebrew. Some take time during Hanukkah to fix something that is broken or needs improvement, whether something physical like a piece of furniture or something intangible like a relationship.
Yule is a historically pagan Germanic tradition that celebrates the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. In nordic practices it is known as Jol. Yule trees celebrated hope and life persisting through the dark winter. Candlelight and bonfires were lit to urge the sun to return. Many Christmas traditions co-opted these practices during the European Christian conversion that spread during the 1st-9th centuries A.D. Many countries kept their pagan traditions alongside new Christian practices. Yule is still celebrated today and incorporated into Christmas traditions. Practices like bringing nature indoors with trees, garlands, and clippings of important plants like holly, ivy, and mistletoe persevere along with the celebration of the return of light by lighting candles and now string lights to stave off the dark winter. Another tradition is feasting because the origins celebrated the god, Odin and his great hunt. In ancient times, animal sacrifices were made to bring back the sun and people ate and drank to create merriment among dark days. Some cultures celebrate by burning a Yule Log, a log decorated with plant clippings and winter decorations and sometimes stuffed with papers listing the hopes for the new year.
Dong Zhi is the arrival of winter in China. Families get together to celebrate the last year. It falls on the 21st-23rd of December, following the traditional celestial calendar. Many celebrate by eating tangyuan, glutinous rice balls that are typically colored pink or green. In Northern China, many eat dumplings, but in the south, many eat pinyin, a rice cake meant to be eaten by family or shared with friends. Taiwan also celebrates by eating tangyuan, but this festival is also a time for people to honor their ancestors. Many make food offerings, including a nine-layer cake shaped like an animal. To fight off illness, people make Hot Pots with meat and ginger, ginseng, deerhorn, and mushrooms.
Santa Lucia or St. Lucy Day
Scandinavia’s old calendar marks December 13th as the Winter Solstice. It commemorates when Lucia who under the Diocletianic Persecution, brought food to those hiding in Roman catacombs from the Roman guard. Lucia of Syracuse is a martyr saint and is celebrated during the Advent season. Oftentimes young girls wear a wreath with four lit candles as legend says Lucia wore to light her way. It is most celebrated in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, parts of Finland, and Italy. Oftentimes towns and cities have parades and celebrations that use candlelight to brighten the darkness of winter. St. Lucia Day is marked near the solstice because of the pagan to Christian conversion that allowed them to keep some of their ancient traditions, like lighting fires to celebrate the return of the sun.
Christmas Traditions Around the World
Los Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day
In Spain, on January 6th, it is said Spanish Children are visited by the three kings instead of Santa Claus or St. Nicholas. They leave out shoes so that the three kings fill them with gifts and sweets. Families and friends come together for a meal and also eat Roscón de Reyes, a sweet circular cake with dried fruits.
St. Nicholas Day
St. Nicholas Day is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra, a miracle worker who lived during the fourth century, who is said to have given money to a father in need of a dowry for his daughter. St. Nicholas is said to have thrown coins into the home through an open window and they landed in a shoe. This is the European and North American tradition of leaving shoes or stocking out to receive oranges, candies and small gifts. Typically celebrated in western countries on the 5th or 6th of December and eastern countries on the 19th, it falls in Advent and serves as a precursor to Christmas.
Jolabokaflod or the “Book Flood”
Iceland has a long history of a love for reading as their first library was founded in 1786. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, friends and families give books as gifts. The tradition started after Iceland gained independence in 1944. Because paper was not a rationed commodity during World War II, books were a reliable Christmas gift. The tradition has been escalated by the Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature and the Icelandic Literature Center. Today, families spend the evening reading and encouraging young people to read.
We hope you’ve enjoyed these winter traditions. Tell us your favorite family or cultural traditions to brighten the dark days of winter. We hope you have a safe and warm holiday season.
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