The holiday that most of us are familiar with — Christmas takes place on December 25 of every year, however celebrations begin for many as early as November. The ancient Romans had a week long holiday called Saturnalia from December 17-25, which included many dark traditions such as human sacrifice. When Christians converted many Pagans into Christians in the 4th century CE, they allowed the celebration of Saturnalia to continue. In order to make the tradition more Christian, they deemed the final day of the celebration, Dec. 25, to be Jesus’ birthday.
Today, Christmas is more of a happy celebration and isn’t focused around human sacrifice and other unlawful activities. Common traditions include Santa Claus, gift giving, Christmas trees and mistletoe. Gift giving also originated in the pre-Christian Rome era, where the Roman leaders would choose hated citizens and force them to give them gifts. After a while, the tradition carried over into the entirety of Rome handing out presents to one another. There is another dark tradition from this era that still exists in today’s Christmas celebrations. In that time, they used to eat cookies cut into the shapes of humans, which is why today we have gingerbread men.
Hanukkah, or the festival of lights, is an eight day Jewish holiday that begins on the eve of December 25. In the year 168 BCE, Syrian tyrant Antiochus desecrated the Temple, which was the holiest place for Jewish people. Antiochus also attempted to put an end to Judaism by offering the Jewish two choices: conversion or death. A resistance movement was then made by an army led by Judah Maccabee, where the Temple was reclaimed. Hanukkah is a celebration of the rededication of the Temple.
There are several main traditions that are celebrated during Hanukkah. The first is called Menorah, which is a nine-branched candelabrum that is lit throughout the eight days of the holiday. The dreydl game is another very common tradition. The game is played by spinning a dreidel, and depending on what side it lands on, the players either place or remove coins from a centre pot until one player has all the coins. Lastly, a common tradition is to purchase Gelt, which in English means money. Gelt are chocolate coins, and it is extremely common to give them to children during the celebration.
Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, back in 1966. The relatively new African holiday was created after the Watts Riots, a five day long unrest after an incident of police brutality was reported when an African-American man was arrested for drunk driving. The riots caused 34 deaths and more than 40 million dollars in damages.
Kwanzaa is a seven day celebration that lasts from December 25 to January 1 each year. On each of the seven nights, a child in the house lights one of the seven candles on the Kinara, the traditional candleholder. Each night when the candles are lit, one of the seven principles of African culture are discussed in detail. Kwanzaa is celebrated by each family differently, there are no traditions that are formally carried over from house to house. Celebrations usually include songs and dancing, and a huge meal called Karamu, that is eaten on Dec. 31.
Ramadan is the month long Islamic celebration of fasting, introspection and prayer. One of the five main principles of Islam, the second most followed religion in the world, is fasting. Throughout Ramadan, the Islamic followers do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. Once the sun goes down, they break their fasting by celebrating large meals with family and friends. The three days after Ramadan ends are celebrated in a tradition called Id Al-Fitr, where special prayers, meals and gift giving take place.
Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar each year, but since the Islamic months begin whenever a new crescent moon is spotted, their months are 10-11 days shorter than traditional months. As a result, there is no set date for Ramadan, it changes every year. By avoiding eating, drinking, smoking, sexual activity and unkind thoughts, Ramadan is a cleansing of the soul. Anyone that has gone through puberty and in good health are expected to fast throughout the month of Ramadan.
Diwali, the largest Hindu and Sikh celebration, is a four day long holiday that illuminates the country of India with a festival of lights. There are several beliefs when it comes to the origins of Diwali, including the celebration of the marriage between Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity, and Lord Vishnu. Others dedicate Diwali to Mother Kali, the Goddess of strength, and most also attribute the celebration to Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed God of auspiciousness and wisdom.
Each of the four days of Diwali have their own tale, legend and myth. Each of the legends that are told include some sort of story of good over evil. During the four day celebration, a festival of lights filled with candles and firecrackers is put on. The festival is a symbol of obeisance to the Gods in the heavens for giving them health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity. All around India during the celebration, the sights and sounds of Diwali can be noticed. Every street is illuminated with bright lights to go along with the smell of incense burning.