The winter holidays are linked to many religious and cultural festivals that are celebrated in a unique ways all over the world. With human history going back five thousand years, perhaps even more, it has resulted in the winter being garbed with rich traditions, with many layers of folklore, customs and celebration.
Holidays and the Winter Solstice
Most winter holidays are linked to the winter solstice in some way. On that day, because of the tilt of the earth's axis, the days are short and the nights are long.
And this is the reason that most wintertime seasonal holiday traditions have their roots in the northern hemisphere. But these holidays are also associated with religiously linked holy days. In fact, the word 'holiday' has been derived from halig (holy) plus daeg (day), because originally holidays demarcated special religious days.
The Winter solstice is a celebration in some parts of the world, which marks the transition of longer nights and shorter days to longer days and shorter days. It is part of a number of cultures. In India and South Asia, there is 'Festival of Lights', called Diwali, celebrated to herald the start of winter.
There is a 'Harvest Festival', which is celebrated in India and some parts of South Asia, which is referred with different names in different parts. The different names with which it is referred to with are Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Uttarayan, Magh Bihu, Maghi, Songkran, Thingyan, etc.
Diwali is also known as the festival of light, which is celebrated at the start of winter in India, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Fiji.
It is one of the most important festival of the Hindus, which is celebrated over a period of five days, which are named as Dhanteras, Narak Chaturdashi, Lakshmi Puja, Padava and Bhai Dooj.
Each of these days has its own significance. Before the start of the festival, 'spring' cleaning is undertaken, which is done to welcome Goddess Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth). Rows of clay lamps filled with oil are lit, which stands for good winning over evil.
Crackers play an important part of the Diwali celebrations. It is said that the bursting of crackers helps in driving the evil spirit away.
Also known as Channukkah is a 'Festival of Lights'. This is one of the most important Jewish holidays, particularly due to the significant connotations of its proximity to Christmas.
The history of this festival chronicles the Jewish people celebrating the revolution against the suppression and assimilation of the Jewish religion. It is an eight night and day long holiday that begins on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar, with the menorah, or eight candles, being lit.
Only one candle is lit on the first day and the number increases with each passing day. Other than the eight lights, there is one light known as Shamash, which is placed above the eight lights. This light is available for use, as the other lights cannot be used.
Christians all over the world celebrate this winter holiday on December 25, on which day Jesus Christ was born. Preparations for Christmas begin way before the actual day by cleaning the house and decorating it.
They go to church, decorate a Christmas tree, give each other gifts, have a traditional dinner, with families spending the day together. In certain parts of Europe, star singers also sing Christmas carols walking behind a large star strung on a pole.
There is a belief, in almost all parts of the world of Santa coming on a sledge to deliver gifts. There are certain customs, which are special for a certain part of the world. For example, in Brazil Santa Claus has an assistant named Magi, who assists Santa in distributing candy.
St. Stephen's Day
Also known as St. Stephen's Day, is celebrated on 26th December according to the Latin Church and on 27 December according to the Eastern Gregorian calendar. On this day it is common to give gifts to the poor and needy.
In some places, there is also the tradition of gifting people in service positions. The traditions followed in different parts of the world are different. In countries like New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Britain, etc., it is jokingly often referred to as 'Shopping Day', for there are great items for grab at discounted prices.
There are various sporting events, which especially take place on this day. Hunting has been a tradition, which has been a part of celebration on this day. Although this practice is now discontinued owing to the ban on hunting in most parts of the world.
This is a traditional winter holiday celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala and Southern parts of the United States of America, between December 16 and December 24.
The nine day celebration symbolically represents the months of pregnancy. In English, the term Las Posadas translates to 'the Inn', therefore, is a re-enactment of Joseph searching for a room at the inn.
Hence, every Christmas, there is a procession carrying a doll, which represents the Christ as a child, and the images of Mary and Joseph riding a small donkey, which goes through the streets. Many houses have a nativity scene, where the hosts enact the roles of innkeepers.
This is a Scottish word which means, the last day of the year and is basically celebrating the New Year, according to the Gregorian calendar, in the Scottish way.
It begins on the night of December 31, lasting all through the night and carrying on until the 'Ne'erday' or January 1, and sometimes even carrying on until January 2, which is a bank holiday in Scotland. The customs associated with Hogmanay are different for different parts of Scotland.
There is the fireball swinging custom in Stonehaven, in north-eastern part of Scotland. Burning of the clavie common in Burghead, Moray etc.
St. Nicholas Day
This day is celebrated on 6th December in Western Christianity, 5th December in the Netherlands and on 19th December in Eastern Christianity. St. Nicholas was a protector of the weak against the rich and the strong.
He was known for his kindness and for helping people in distress. He is often said to be the patron saint of unmarried girls, children and sailors. St. Nicholas is treated like Santa Claus, and in fact is thought to be a Santa Claus' original name.
Children place boots on windowsills or at the fireplace so that St. Nicholas can fill them with candy. However, the boots of naughty children were filled with coal, so that they can learn from their mistakes.
St. Lucia Day
This winter holiday is celebrated on December 13 in Sweden in honor of St. Lucia, who lived in the third century and is regarded as the patron of light. In Sweden, the St. Lucia's day is seen as the start of the Christmas, although it is not a part of Advent.
On this day, young girls bedeck themselves in white colored long dresses with red sashes, and wear a wreath made of lit candles on their heads. They sing songs in order to wake their families up and bring them twisted saffron buns, known as 'Lucia cats' and coffee.
This is celebrated by the Buddhists on 8th day of the 12th lunar month according to the Chinese calendar and on December 8 in Japan in commemoration of the enlightenment of the Buddha.
Before the enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama (earlier name of Buddha) is said to have undergone extreme ascetic practices and yet continued his meditation under the Pipal tree. He continued with his meditation till he was able to find the cause of suffering and how to liberate a person from it. This is considered the most important holiday for the Buddhists.
This is a feast that is celebrated by Muslims, to commemorate Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at the behest of God. Therefore, it said to be a 'Festival of Sacrifice' or 'Greater Eid'.
This festival begins on the 10th day of the Dhu al-Hijjah lunar month, by the Islamic lunar calendar. The celebrations start after the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims consider Ishmael to be the Arabs' forefather.
Lunar New Year
This is a two-week winter holiday celebrated in the latter part of January or early part of February, or during the first lunar moon, by the Vietnamese, Koreans, and Chinese.
In China this celebration is called Spring Festival, where it is marks the end of the winter season. It starts on the first day of the Chinese New Year and ends after fifteenth day, when the Lantern Festival is celebrated. The Korean New Year falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice.
It lasts for three days and is a family oriented celebration. In Vietnam, like in China it heralds the arrival of spring. It is based on the Chinese calendar. Practices common to this celebration are visiting friends and family, worshiping the ancestors, exchanging gifts, etc. People wear their best clothes and exchange gifts and food during this period.
Literally meaning 'first fruits of the harvest', this has its basis on an ancient harvest festival in Africa, which celebrates ideals like collective responsibility and work; self-determination; co-operation; purpose; creativity; faith; and unity.
The celebration starts from December 26 and culminates on January 1, during which time African-Americans bedeck their homes with vegetables and fruits, don special clothes, and light the 'Kinara' which is a special candle-holder.
There are also other symbols, which are a part of the celebration, namely corn and other crops, gifts, a poster of the seven principles, a black, red and green flag and a communal cup for pouring wine (or alcoholic beverage). Families pay their respects to ancestors along with the children of the family.
Which is actually 'Fat Tuesday' in French and 'Fasching' in German, occurs one day prior to Ash Wednesday, and is also known as 'Pancake Day' or 'Shrove Tuesday'.
Mardi Gras is the last day of Carnival, which begins twelve days after Christmas, hence is also referred to as Twelfth Night, which falls on January 6 and ends on Mardi Gras day, exactly forty-six days before Easter. It is said to be the last day of eating some fatty foods, with the fasting season of 'Lent' beginning the next day.
Some of the cities that are famous for celebrating Mardi Gras are: Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; Marseille in France; New Orleans in Louisiana; Cologne in Germany; Italy; and Venice. However, in Milan, Mardi Gras is celebrated on the Saturday following Ash Wednesday.
Japanese New Year
It is one of the major events in Japan. New Year's Eve is known as Omisoka in Japan. The Japanese spend a lot of time shopping and cleaning their houses in preparation for the new year. This symbolizes getting rid of the past and starting afresh. It is known as Shogatsu. They decorate houses, give gifts to children and greeting cards to friends and family.
There are certain delicacies, which are a part of the festive spread, like fish cakes, boiled seaweed, mashed sweet potato with chestnut, soybean preparation, etc. At the stroke of midnight on the 31st December, there are bells ringing in the Buddhist temples for a total of 108 times. After that, there is a feast of soba noodles, which everyone partakes.
There may not be a part of the world, which does not have any festival, celebration or event around the winter. Therefore, winter is often said to be the travel and holiday season, as people make the most of the holidays.