Think December and the chances are, you’ll think of Christmas. It’s the most universally recognised religious festival in December on the planet. However, it’s not just the Christians that have a monopoly on this particular month, and many other belief systems host celebrations at this time of year. But why should this be? What is it about this month that makes it particularly important?
The short answer lies with the ancient Pagans. Although they might have been, by our standards, relatively primitive in their scientific approach, they were far more connected with the natural world than we are today.
The hours of daylight were particularly important to these cultures, all of which were reliant on agriculture and farming for their food. During the spring and summer, they would tend their crops and livestock, preparing them to be harvested and slaughtered. However, these people knew enough to prepare for colder months ahead; the months when farming was practically impossible and food would be scarce. As a result they would stockpile crops, cure and store meat and set aside logs and fuel for warmth.
As part of their preparations, they would mark the passing of the warmer months with solstice celebrations. In addition to eating the last of the fresh produce, they would offer up prayers and thanks to their chosen deities and ask them for their aid and blessings during the winter.
The passage of darkness into light
These societies also knew enough to know that December is the tipping point for daylight. On December the 21st, the cycle renews itself. The 21st is the shortest day, giving the least amount of daylight hours. From that point on, the days lengthen and farming slowly becomes a possibility. As the daylight hours increase, crops are prepared for planting and livestock would be allowed to graze. To mark the passage of darkness into light, December the 21st was the focus of another important celebration: the Winter Solstice.
However, while the practical aspects of December and daylight are probably the driving forces behind the majority of religious celebrations during this month, over time, many of them have evolved and taken on new meanings. During December, while many are doing their Christmas shopping and ordering their turkeys, there are many other important religious celebrations taking place. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest:
1) Bodhi Day. You might not have heard of it, but for Buddhists across the world, December 8th is a very significant date. Celebrations on this day mark the moment where Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. Rituals and festivities vary between Buddhist sects, but are typically low-key. Some celebrate with a meal of tea and cake before reading religious texts, while others mark the occasion with additional meditation or by doing kind acts for other people. There are unlikely to be crackers involved!
2) Hanukkah. Although many of us have heard of this Jewish celebration, few of us know what it stands for. The story goes that, over 2,000 years ago, the Holy Land was ruled by Syrian Greeks, known as the Seleucids. As part of their rule, they decreed that everyone must follow the doctrines and teachings of their Hellenistic religion. A small band of faithful Jews managed to defeat their entire army and expel them from their Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
However, once the battle was over and the Jews decided to light their menorah in celebration, they found that there was only one day’s supply of olive oil left – the rest having been rendered impure by the Seleucids. To their amazement, that supply burned for eight days, until further supplies were sent. Today, Jews celebrate this date, eating food fried in oil and lighting the eight wicks of the menorah over eight days, to commemorate this miraculous event.
3) The Winter Solstice. This celebration predates the arrival of Christianity by hundreds of years and yet the Church absorbed a number of its traditions, which now make up part of our Christmas celebrations. As we have seen, the solstice was celebrated to mark the passage of the winter months and herald the arrival of warmer weather and longer days. As part of those celebrations, mistletoe would be cut and given as a form of blessing. Mistletoe was seen as a symbol of life in the dark winter months and was often accompanied with a kiss.
The Twelve Days of Christmas can also be attributed to the ancient Pagans. They held a belief that the sun stood still for 12 days and those days were marked with the giving of gifts and the lighting of a sacred log, to banish darkness, conquer evil spirits and to bring good luck. This tradition is also thought to be the origin of the Yule Log.
4) Karthikai Deepan is celebrated by Hindus in December, marking the occasion when the moon is fully in conjunction with the constellation Pleiades. The stars in this constellation feature in Hindu legends as six nymphs who reared six children who went on to form the six-faced Muruga, the god of war and victory.
Celebrations are marked by lighting candles every day for the whole month. In addition, Hindus read religious texts and fast until sunset, for the whole of December.
5) Many Roman Catholics celebrate St Lucy’s Day on December 13th. This tradition is used to mark the story of Lucy, a girl from Syracuse, who was tortured for refusing to renounce her faith in God. However, through each of her tortures, her faith in God was such that she emerged from each one, unscathed and unharmed. Her final ordeal saw her being blinded, but God restored her sight. As a result, Lucy is revered as the patron saint of the blind
. Interestingly, this tradition also has strong associations with light. In addition to eating traditional foods, Catholics believe that Lucy will appear to bring gifts to children. The focus of these celebrations, however, is the lighting of candles and fires to celebrate Lucy’s emergence from darkness and blindness into the light of God and being able to see once more.