December is rife with holidays — but how come? In the Northern Hemisphere, this month is the darkest 🌑, and one of the coldest ❄️. Holiday celebrations may have come about to make December a little more bearable.
Here’s a rundown of what December holidays mean around the world — including some you may not have heard of.
Hanukkah – November 28 to December 6 in 2021
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish celebration that commemorates the victory of the Maccabee freedom fighters over the Seleucids in 139AD. Following their big win, the Maccabees sought to light a menorah (candelabra) at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but only found enough oil to burn for a single day. Miraculously, the menorah burned for eight. To celebrate the oil that just wouldn’t quit, oily foods like donuts 🍩 and latkes 🥔 are enjoyed throughout the Hanukkah holiday.
Krampusnacht – December 5
If St. Nicholas Day (see below) is a day for good children, Krampusnacht is for the bad ones. But unlike St. Nick, the mythical Krampus doesn’t deliver gifts. In Germany 🇬🇪 and other continental European countries, he is believed to arrive on Dec. 5 to steal bad kids away to the underworld. Kind of like the Elf on the Shelf, if he were a demonic entity 👹.
St. Nicholas Day – December 6
St. Nicholas of Myra was an ancient Greek bishop who serves as the inspiration for Santa Claus. Many people in Europe commemorate him on December 6, the anniversary of his death in 343AD, due to his reputation for generosity 🎁. The Dutch brought their name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, to the New World in the 17th century. That gave us both “Santa Claus” and a tradition of giving gifts in December.
St. Lucy’s Day/The Feast of Saint Lucy – December 13
The December holidays come fast and furious in Europe. St. Lucy’s Day honors Lucia of Syracuse, who was martyred under Roman emperor Diocletian on December 13, 304AD. The date coincides with many pagan rituals in Northern Europe in which lights 🕯 are used to ward off the winter darkness. Today, St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated in Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Italy, with candlelit processions a “highlight”.
Yule – the 12 days following the winter solstice
Today, Yuletide refers to Christmastime. But it’s a holiday with deep pagan roots in Northern Europe. The word Yule comes from the Old Norse for Jól — an abbreviation of Jólnir, the Norse god of war ⚔️ and poetry 📖 we know as Odin. In ancient Norse mythology, Odin is said to have led a procession of spirits at Yule-time called the Wild Hunt. Not all of these spirits were friendly, so it was recommended to stay inside during this time. But things weren’t all bad: Yule was also a time to feast. Our Yule logs and Christmas hams 🍖 come from this feast tradition.
Christmas – December 25
Maybe you’ve heard of it? In present-day America, Christmas is a time for gifts, food, and family. But why is it always on Dec. 25? The reason has to do with some historical confusion 😵. Early Christians believed the world was created on the spring equinox, which, at the time, was thought to fall on March 25. They mapped this date to the nativity of Jesus Christ, claiming it was the day he was conceived. Exactly nine months later – Dec. 25 – he is said to have been born. That this day was seen as the winter solstice may have been a contributing factor.
Boxing Day – December 26
Boxing Day, celebrated in the UK, isn’t about fisticuffs 🥊. Instead, it’s a day for “boxing up” gifts for the poor. It’s also a time for British churches to provide cash gifts to needy parishioners. Boxing Day may have originated in the time of English nobility 👑, when wealthy people had servants — who were traditionally given the day off and a gift box on Dec. 26.
Kwanzaa – December 26 to January 1
Kwanzaa is the newest holiday on this list, having only been created (in California!) in 1966 to connect African-Americans to their heritage. The word itself comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits,” and the day’s rituals are drawn from African traditions celebrating the harvest 🌾. Not unlike Hanukkah, there is a candleholder involved — but with two fewer stalks. Fun fact: the original Jewish menorah also had just seven stalks.
New Year’s Eve – December 31
NYE, for most of us, means fireworks 🎆 and champagne 🥂 to ring in the New Year. But the practice of staying up all night on the last day of the year is an ancient one. Dec. 31 is also St. Sylvester’s Day: the anniversary of the death of Pope Sylvester I, who was responsible for the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity. Devout Christians have long attended midnight Mass on Dec. 31 to honor Sylvester — even lighting off fireworks in celebration.
Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald on Unsplash.