The year is slowly fading into darkness as per the Gregorian calendar (the most widely used civil calendar in the world today) and a new year is about to dawn. The last few days of the year are generally a time of celebrations and merriment across many parts of the world and these festivities have thrived for millennia.
Christmas which falls on 25 December is of course one of the most recognizable festivals and celebrations that symbolise this season – the arrival of Jesus, the ubiquitous Santa Claus’ and the Christmas trees and the spirit of giving. But there are many more traditions that imbue the last few weeks of the year with a special charm.
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights is celebrated for eight days in the winter months. The dates vary as per the traditional Jewish calendar. In 2016, it overlaps with Christmas after 1978. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees against the Seleucid monarch Antiochus and the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in the second century BCE. Traditionally the beautiful menorah, a nine branched candelabrum symbolises the festival. One candle is lit each night till on the eighth night, all the eight candles shine brightly exuding warmth and hope in the dark months. The holiday is replete with worship and blessings, playing with dreidels, giving gifts to children and eating food cooked in oil — latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).
The Chinese and Taiwanese just finished celebrating the Winter Solstice Festival or Dongzhi (extreme of winter). As the days become longer in the Northern Hemisphere, they believe that yang or positive energy will increase. Official celebrations of the festival date back to at least the third century CE. Ancestor worship, special foods and invigorating tonic foods are some of the traditions that form part of the grand family Dongzhi festivities.
The Winter Solstice is also special for Iranians who celebrate Yalda or Shab-e-Chelleh on the longest night of the year. Ancient Persians believed that the forces of darkness are active on this longest night and the new dawn would signify the victory of light over the evil forces.The next day, which is the first day of the month ‘Dey’ known as ‘khorramrooz’ or ‘khorerooz’ (the day of the sun), belongs to Ahura Mazda, the lord of wisdom. The The 13th-century Iranian poet Sa’di wrote in his book Boustan: “The true morning will not come until the Yalda Night is gone.” Yalda is a family celebration where friends and families stay awake during the night keeping vigil, listening to old poems and stories and both offering and eating nuts and fruits.
A lesser known family celebration at this time is of the Hopis in Arizona and is referred to as Soyal. The Hopis get together to persuade the sun to come back (the sun has travelled far away from the earth and hence the nights are longer) after the long winter slumber. Soyal lasts for nine days — sacred rituals are performed in chambers called kivas, there is singing and dancing, the elders narrate stories to the young ones and special prayers are offered for health and prosperity in the New Year.
There is a new tradition that deserves mention here. An innovation of the 21st century, Kwanzaa is a week- long festival (largely Afro-American) that begins on 26 December every year. 2016 marks 50 years of Kwanzaa. The tradition was started by Dr Maulana Karenga in 1966 in the United Stated and in his own words: “The holiday, then will of necessity, be engaged as an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people's culture.”
Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matundaya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Each family celebrates the festival in its own way — lighting of a candle on each night; singing and dancing and drums; reflections on the seven basic principles of African culture; a feast called Karamu on 31 December and reflections on the New Year are some of the common elements.
No discussion of the Winter Solstice celebrations are complete without a discussion of Saturnalia and Yule. It is accepted by many that the ancient Romans’ festival of Saturnalia is a closely linked precursor to Christmas. Saturnalia honoured Saturn, the God of Harvest and commenced a week before the Winter Solstice. The festival was characterised by revelry, games and feasts, exchange of gifts (especially candles) and role-reversals between slaves and those whom they worked for (referred to as social inversion). It is also believed that evergreens were hung on houses and temples to ward off evil spirits and illness. There is no clear agreement on the origin of the word ‘Yule’. Yule is believed to be a Germanic midwinter celebration lasting for three nights and it is still celebrated in parts. Some of the Yule practices like burning of the Yule log (Nordic in origin) have also merged with Christmas celebrations.
From Saturnalia to Christmas, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa; this is a special time of the year and festivities around the globe for millennia resonate hope, light and warmth. Irrespective of religious and cultural leanings…this is the season for family and friends, this is the season to be merry.
Seasons’ Greetings to you and your family.
(The author is an independent business consultant, mentors start-ups and is an Indic Studies enthusiast.)
Updated Date: Dec 26, 2016 01:14:36 IST