As the end of the year approaches there are many celebrations for all sections of the community. Christmas, of course, is one of them and there are many other seasonal festivals, which all have one thing in common – bringing people together to celebrate the year and to look forward to the new.
Also known as Festival of Lights, the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the Second (Holy) Temple of Jerusalem, which took place in the 2nd Century BCE. Officially it begins on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew Calendar. This year, it begins at sunset on Tuesday, 20 December, and ends at sunset on Wednesday, 28 December.
The nine-branched candelabrum known as Menorah or Hanukiah marks the passage of days with one candle lit each day up to eight on the final night. The extra candle, the Shamash, is usually higher or lower than the others and this is used for illumination as the Hanukkah lights are for publicising and meditating on the story.
Hanukkah customs include the singing of the Ma’oz Tzur hymn, which deals with events of Jewish history and divine salvation; the reciting of psalms, exchanging of presents and, particularly on the last day (Zot Hanukkah), prayers.
There are many Hanukkah songs and it is customary to eat foods fried or baked in oil, which alludes to an occasion in which a small flash kept the Temple alight for eight days. Some foods include potato pancakes (latkes), cheeses, fritters and deep fried sufganiyot which are a type of doughnut with jelly or custard filling. Yum! Traditional gifts include the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, which is involved in a game involving winning or losing nuts, raisins or chocolate. Another gift is Hanukkah gelt, money given in coins to small children.
Originating in Spain, the nine-day celebration is celebrated now mostly in Mexico, Guatemala and some southwestern parts of the United States of America. It begins on 16 December and runs until the 24th.
Historically, it is based around the nativity and the nine days represent nine months of pregnancy. In a given neighbourhood, nine different families will schedule a night to celebrate at their home, acting as the inn keepers from the famous Bible story.
Los peregrinos – the pilgrims – then parade each evening requesting lodgings and singing songs, whilst holding candles and holding statuettes of Joseph and Mary. The householders respond in song by refusing lodging, until the procession reaches the designated ‘inn’, into which the guests come and pray around a nativity scene. The procession can be musical and once the journey is complete kids get to smash open pinatas in the shape of the star, there’s a big feast and Christmas carols are sung. The Philippines has a similar festival called Panunulúyan; the songs are in a local language, perhaps Tagalog. Another regional variation is Cuba’s Parrandas, which is a complex Carnival-ish fiesta where our neighbours party in their own inimitable way.
This year, the winter solstice is on Thursday, 22 December. Also known as the longest night of the year, it occurs when the earth is furthest from the sun. Worldwide, this has historically marked a point of rebirth and various cultures have had their own way of marking the solstice. Amaterasu was a Japanese festival dating to the 7th Century CE, which marked the re-emergence of the sun goddess Amateras from her seclusion in a cave and therefore brings sunlight back to the universe. This tradition survives in part at New Year. The Saami of Finland, Sweden and Norway thread the meat of sacrificed white female animals onto sticks which they decorate with bright ribbons and cover doorposts with butter so the sun-goddess of fertility and sanity Beiwe can eat it and begin her journey across the sky, bringing back greenery for reindeer to feed on. The Kalash of Pakistan celebrate the arrival of a demigod who will deliver prayers to supreme being Dezao. A ritual purification precedes a festival of dancing, bonfires and feasting on delicacies. Dongzhì, in China, is one of the most important Chinese festivals and brings family together to celebrate positive energy which flows longer in daylight hours. The Celts, meanwhile, celebrate midwinter with a festival and gifts to the needy, and Kurdistan observe the Sewy Yelda holiday.
A five day Hindu festival, this begins on 21 December and celebrates Lord Ganesha, the Patron of Arts and Guardian and Culture. Each day has a different spiritual discipline to adhere to and the festival is important as a new beginning and erasing of past mistakes. The statue of Ganesha or Lord Pancha Ganapati is decorated in different colours each day; golden yellow, royal blue, ruby red, emerald green and brilliant orange. This celebrates his five powers or shaktis. Chants, songs, sweets and gifts are presented and opened on the fifth day.
And one from the past – first introduced in 217 BCE, Saturnalia grew from a day-long festival to a week’s worth of celebrations beginning on Saturday, 17 December. The Ancient Roman festival honours Saturn, son of Uranus and Gaia and father of Jupiter.
It involved a set of sacrifices and rites, holidays and private customs including school holidays, exchanging of presents, a special market and gambling for all, including slaves.
Whilst to an extent the social order was reversed in a slave banquet with their masters or served by their masters, in actual fact the slaves would prepare it. It’s thought that Saturnalia was one of the festivals that influenced the choice of the date of Christmas. So if you do happen to come across a toga-wearing Ancient Roman down the Kai this season, remember to wish them a hearty Lo, Saturnalia!
Whatever you are celebrating, have a great one – tis the season for friendship and understanding and the world is a rich and beautiful place for its diversity.