All the Days of December

Five mid-winter holidays celebrated right here.
By Nicola Ryan

While here in Newfoundland and Labrador, Christmas is the main draw in December, we got curious about how our friends and neighbours of other cultural backgrounds celebrate the Yuletide season. We checked out five other holidays happening this month and lo and behold, they’re all about spending time with family and friends, wishing for peace on earth and eating delicious snacks.

Las Posadas
December 16-24

Folks from Latin America, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and the Philippines celebrate Los Posadas. During the nine nights of celebration, processions of actors playing Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds and attendants recreate that night in Bethlehem when there was no room at the inn. The nine nights mark the nine months Mary carried Jesus in her womb, leading up to Noche Buena, Christmas Eve. The group travels to one house a night performing the posada litany and singing songs. Each of the nine hosts, or “innkeepers,” welcomes the pilgrims into their home and serves up hot Ponche Navideno, Mexican Christmas fruit punch sometimes served with a drop of tequila or rum; and snacks like steamed corn dough tamales filled with veggies, meats and cheeses. There’s music and dancing ,and children break open piñatas designed as seven-pointed stars full of candy and toys. On the final night of the festivities, all hands head over to midnight mass, Misa de Gallo, and gather together afterwards for dinner.

December 18-26

Around late November or December comes the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. The date varies since the Hebrew calendar, based on the lunar cycle, differs from the Gregorian one. This year it’s the evening of December 18 to the evening of the 26th. Hanukkah commemorates an event that took place way back in the 2nd century, when a small group of Jews in Jerusalem rebelled against the ruling Greeks and religious persecution. After the Jews regained control of their best Temple and tossed out the Greek’s blasphemous idols and altars, legend has it that there was only enough oil to keep the Menorah – the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation – burning for one day. Miraculously the flame stayed alight for eight days – hence the eight days of the “festival of lights.” Families celebrate by lighting the candles on the menorah, playing games with the dreidel and cooking or baking delicious foods in oil, especially sufganiyot (deep-fried jelly donuts) and fried potato pancakes called latkes. Happy Hanukkah!

Dongzhi Festival
December 21

For those from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the winter solstice brings the Dongzhi Festival. Originating in China during the Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago, the festival is rooted in the ancient philosophy of yin and yang. On the dark winter solstice, negative yin energy is at its peak, but as spring approaches, positive yang energy will grow. Chinese folks believe it’s an auspicious day, when the unhappiness of the past has gone and a new life begins. On this day, families put their ancestors’ statues and memorial tablets in the hall and set up altars with incense and offerings, and prayers for good weather and harmony in the coming year. It’s a time for bonding with your family while sipping mellow wine and eating dumplings, wonton soup and tangyuan – specially cooked balls of rice with a filling of bean paste or meat and fragrant herbs that symbolize family unity and prosperity.

Pancha Ganapati
December 21- 25

Hindu families have their own December holiday, the modern festival of Pancha Ganapati, where the focus is on sadhana – spiritual practice focusing on new beginnings and mending past mistakes. A shrine to Lord Pancha Ganapati, the five-elephant-faced form of Ganesh, is set up in the living room and decked with boughs, flowers and other ornaments, and each day a tray of sweets, fruits and incense is offered to inspire blessings. Each of the festival’s five days has its own colour and meaning related to Ganesha’s powers or shaktis: golden yellow, royal blue, ruby red, emerald green and brilliant orange. Children dress and decorate the statue each day while singing songs and saving up small gifts to open on the last day, when love and harmony are in abundance and everyone’s ready for a fresh start to the new year. Lord Ganesha loves sweets and his favourite treat is modak – festive dumplings made with dough and sweet coconut and sugar filling.

December 26 – January 1

Finally, another modern December holiday is Kwanzaa – a weeklong celebration honouring African heritage and culture. It was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 with the spirit of traditional African harvest festivals in mind. Homes are beautifully decorated with mkeka, woven straw mats; ears of corn representing fertility and hope for the future; fruits to symbolize joy and hard work; and a candleholder called a kinara adorned with red, black and green candles. Red is said to represent ancestry and unity; black, the people; and green, the fertile land. A candle is lit for each day and on the sixth day, family members sip from the unity cup to symbolize community and togetherness.
Kwanzaa focuses on seven essential principles for folks of African descent, known as the Nguza Saba. The principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith; each is represented by one day of the seven-day festival. And no festival is complete without a heaping plateful of tasty traditional food: jerk chicken seasoned with spicy Scotch bonnet chilies and aromatic spices; black-eyed peas; and steaming bowls of jollof rice – long-grain rice simmered with tomatoes, onions, meat and spices. Joyous Kwanzaa! Habari Gani!

There are lots of ways to celebrate the spirit of the season. December really is a month of happy holidays!

Picture of Downhome Magazine
Downhome Magazine

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