Christmas is a “season” in many Christian churches that lasts, not from the beginning of November until Christmas day, but from Christmas Day until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. In those Christian traditions, the weeks leading up to Christmas are part of Advent, a period of fasting and reflection in preparation for the holiday.
The slow build-up to Christmas is a sad loss for all of us. Whether or not you are a Christian who celebrates Advent, there are many advantages to taking time out for peaceful reflection and moderation before the emotionally-charged and opulent celebration of Christmas begins. Besides, Christmas toys and goodies are all the better when you and your family have had to do some patient waiting before you give and receive.
But what if you can’t wait until the middle of December to put up decorations and hand out those thoughtful presents? Here are eight December holidays to tide you over until Christmas.
Saint Nicholas’ Day (December 6)
Even though Americans think of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” as Santa Claus, the Feast of Saint Nicholas falls a full nineteen days before Christmas. According to legend, Saint Nicholas secretly provided gold coins as dowries for each of a poor man’s three daughters. Children in many parts of Europe leave their shoes out before they go to bed on December 5 for Saint Nicholas to fill them with chocolate coins or small toys. Sometimes Saint Nicholas is accompanied by the fiendish Krampus, who steals toys from bad children and leaves a rod for their parents to discipline them with in their shoes.
Day of the Little Candles (December 7)
In Columbia, the Día de las Velitasmarks the unofficial opening of the Christmas season. Columbians place candles and paper lanterns wherever they will be visible, such as in windows, on sidewalks, or in parks in honor of the Virgin Mary before the solemn remembrance of her immaculate conception on December 8.
Bodhi Day (December 8)
A more subdued celebration than most December holidays, Bodhi Day marks the day the historical Buddha reached enlightenment. Many Buddhist sects commemorate the day with meditation, reading sutras, performing charitable deeds, or serving a traditional meal of tea and cake.
Hanukkah (December 8-16 in 2012—dates change annually)
Historically, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish celebration commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the book of Maccabees, (canonical for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, apocryphal for Jews and Protestant Christians), the Jews defeated the Syrian general Nicanor but discovered that his men had desecrated most of the ceremonial oil used to light the temple lamp. The one night’s supply of oil miraculously lasted for eight days, enough time to prepare more. Jews mark Hanukkah by lighting a nine-armed candelabrum called a menorah, adding one candle for each night of the miracle. In North America and Israel, parents often give a gift to their children each night of the festival.
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12)
In 1531, a poor Mexican peasant named Juan Diego met the Virgin Mary on a rugged hillside where she asked him to build a church. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most famous churches in Mexico and the feast day celebrating Mary’s visit to Mexico is one of the country’s most important holidays. As many people as possible travel to the basilica or specially decorate the altars in their own churches. Outside, Mexicans hold elaborate fiestas in Mary’s honor, ending the evening with a display of fireworks.
Saint Lucy’s Day (December 13)
Lucy is the patron of light, so the celebration in her honor often involves candles, decorated lanterns, or fireworks. Particularly in Scandinavian countries—where Lucy is one of the only saints honored by Protestant Christians—children participate in processions led by a blond young woman wearing a crown of holly and candles. In Italy, “Santa Lucia” brings toys or coal to children on the eve of her feast day.
Yule (December 21)
Yule is a pre-Christian, Germanic holiday for the winter solstice. The Saga of Haakon the Good credits King Haakon I of Norway with conflating Yule with Christmas to make it easier for pagan Norwegians to convert. (As a result, many Christmas traditions come from the way Northern Europeans marked the occasion, including Christmas trees, wassailing, and Yule logs.) Although few of us will want to return to the Yule-time tradition of animal sacrifice, King Haakon demanded that, when his subjects celebrated Yule or Christmas, “everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.”
Pancha Ganapati (December 21-25)
Pancha Ganapati is a five-day Hindu festival in honor of Ganesha, patron of arts and culture. During each day of the festival, families focus on a specific sadhanaor spiritual discipline of harmony: within the family, within the community, within the workplace, with music and dance, and within the three spiritual worlds. Families set a statue of Lord Ganesha in the main room. Children redecorate the statue each day and offer it trays of fruits and incense. On the fifth day, the children may open gifts from their families placed at the foot of Lord Ganesha.
What do you do to build up to the holidays?