December global festivities: What other seasonal celebrations are happening besides Christmas?

Google's latest Doodles commemorate a range of winter festivities 

Benjamin Kentish
Monday 18 December 2017 14:57
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The Jewish festival of Chanukah is typically celebrated by lighting candles and eating fried foods
The Jewish festival of Chanukah is typically celebrated by lighting candles and eating fried foods

It’s easy to forget amid all the Christmas cheer that December is a particularly important month for other religions too, with Islam, Judaism and Buddhism among those also celebrating major festivals.

Google is marking the month with a series of new Doodles relating to the month's global festivities.

In addition to Christmas, here are five other festivals also being celebrated this month:

Chanukah – Date varies

The Jewish festival of lights typically falls during the month of December and commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple after it was ransacked by King Antiochus of Syria. According to tradition, the Jewish people discovered amid the destruction enough oil to keep the Temple’s everlasting light burning for just one day, but it instead lasted for eight – enough time for more to be procured.

Another version of the story says the Jewish people celebrated the rededication of the Temple with an eight-day festival, and makes no mention of the miracle of the oil.

Chanukah sees Jews across the world lighting nine candles, with one used as the leader to kindle the others. On the first night of the eight-day festival, only one candle (and the leader) is lit; by the last night, the whole candelabra, known as a Chanukiah, is filled.

Jews traditionally celebrate the festival by eating foods fried in oil, including doughnuts and potato latkes. Chanukah gelt – meaning money, but generally used to refer to chocolate coins –is given to children as a present and games are played with a spinning top known as a dreidel.

Ashura – Date varies

A Muslim festival celebrated in both Sunni and Shia Islam, Ashura commemorates the day on which Moses is said to have led the Israelites to freedom after years in which they were slaves in Egypt. It also marks the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala in the year 680CE.

Ashura is a national holiday in many Muslim countries and some people make pilgrimage to the reported site of Husayn ibn Ali’s tomb in the Iraqi city of Karbala. The day is considered to be a time for spirituality, self-reflection and repentance. Many Muslims will wear mourning clothes, refrain from listening to music and avoid any kind of celebratory event such as parties or weddings. In some countries, people will cut themselves using knives or chains or carry out self-flagellation. Some Sunni Muslims also fast on the day.

The name “Ashura” is believed to stem from the Hebrew word “Asarah”, which means tenth. On the tenth day of the seventh month, Jews fast to commemorate Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

5 things you may not know about Hanukkah

Feast of St Nicholas – 6 December

The man on whom the tale of Santa Claus is based is celebrated by Christians on 6 December. The legendary figure of Saint Nicholas was born in the third century AD and is said to have used his sizeable inheritance to help the poor and needy. Known for his generosity and love of children, he died on 6 December and the anniversary of his death soon became a day of celebration.

One tale recalls how Nicholas threw bags of gold through the window of a poor man’s house. They are said to have landed in stockings that had been hung to dry by the fire – a story that began the tradition of children leaving a stocking for Father Christmas to fill with presents.

In some countries, the Feast of St Nicholas, and not Christmas, is the main present-giving day. Children will leave shoes or stockings out in the hope they will be filled with presents during the night. It is also traditional for food and drink to be left out for Saint Nicholas and his horses or reindeer.

Known as Krampusnacht in some parts of Europe, the night of 5th December is, according to folklore, when a devil-like monster named Krampus appears. In a story similar to that of Father Christmas, many people say that Saint Nicholas visits only good children and delivers presents, while Krampus delivers lumps of coal to naughty children.

The term Santa Claus stems from Sinterklaas – the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas.

Bodhi Day – 8 December

A celebration of the day that Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment while sitting under a tree, Bodhi Day is celebrated by Buddhists across much of south-east Asia, including in India, China and Vietnam.

The Bodhi tree is believed to be a very old fig tree located at Bodh Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar. Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became Buddha, is said to have reached nirvana after intensive meditation underneath it. Bodhi means “enlightenment” in Sanskrit.

To mark the event, Buddhists spend the day focusing on meditation and studying Buddha’s teachings, as well as celebrating with a meal of tea and cake, or rice and milk. Some hang strings of coloured lights in their homes and on trees to symbolise what they believe are the many paths to enlightenment.

Winter Solstice – 21 December

December 21 is the shortest day of the year, and the solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years. The day was marked by Pagans as the festival of Yule. In ancient times, mid-winter was celebrated as marking the return of the sun, and people lit fires and came together to drink and rejoice. Others, including the Celts, used to set fire to a log to illuminate the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring good luck to their families. Many of these ancient traditions have been incorporated into Christmas; in fact, many people believe the Christian festival is rooted entirely in Paganism.

Some countries have particular celebrations to mark the solstice. In Iran, for example, it is known as Yalda Night and is typically celebrated with family and friends. Traditional foods include watermelon and pomegranate, with the red flesh said to represent the rising and setting of the winter sun. The festival has its roots in Zoroastrianism, which is practised more in Iran than almost anywhere else.

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