A few days ago, exhausted from juggling family, holiday shopping and work, a customer, finishing her tasks at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY asked, “Why all these holidays in December?” We all just smiled since there was no time really to respond.
But it’s true, even retrospectively looking back at the month. Why are there so many holidays? Early in the month many Buddhists celebrate Bodhi day which commemorates Buddha’s moment of enlightenment that turned the wheel of Dharma and changed the world.
Hanukkah seemingly floats around December, based as it is on the luni-solar Jewish calendar and although it is a minor festival in that tradition, it has become more prominent because of it’s proximity to Christian holidays and because it’s themes also include increasing light AND the proclamation of religious independence.
Almost everyone from Zoroastrians to Hindus, with Vishu and/or Ganesh puja, Neo-pagans to Western Christians, celebrates something in December. Many Eastern Christians use a different calendar and the celebration gets pushed back into January, but the temper is the same. What is it about this time?
The answer is probably very easy. It’s the darkest time of the year. Because of the relationship between the tilt of the earth, the planetary revolution around the sun and the fact that most civilizations (and all the major world religions) originated north of the equator, most traditions will recognize an almost primordial significance to this time of year. It’s about the light, or the lack of it, how it gets colder and the days get shorter.
Considering how cold it gets and how dark it stays in many Northern Hemispheric locales for at least a couple months after the Winter Solstice, it does seem to make sense that the moment it is darkest, the days shortest, would be the crisis point to recall that the light will come again. It is probably no coincidence at all that the traditional Mayan calendar, which famously reset itself this last Solstice, was calculated to do so at that time.
Yes, they do celebrate Christmas, Yule and Yalda (the Zoroastrian festival celebrating the Winter Solstice) in Latin America and Australia, south of the equator. However, in many ways, these celebrations obviously have to be quite different. The Andean natives took to the story of Jesus quite readily because they could relate to the rural setting of the nativity story and they already had a festival celebrating the longest days of the year during the same period. Many Andean people still observe a version of the Inca festival Inti Raymi during their “winter solstice,” which of course, takes place during June.
In Australia, although there is the common heritage of Christmas carols, tinsel and gift giving, there are no blazing Yule logs (it’s the hottest time of the year) and generally folks like to go to the beach. There’s plenty of light around.
Because of the importance of this time of year, secular or cultural holidays have also grown up around it. Boxing Day, is celebrated by many British Commonwealth countries. Kwanzaa in the United States, commemorates the many achievements of diaspora African peoples in the Americas. And the New Year, which actually has it’s roots in the traditional European medieval observance of Epiphany, the date that Jesus was circumcised (being Jewish and all), turns the calendar over.
Our measurement of time, of history, our narratives of meaning are intricately linked to planetary motions. As our climate changes and the seasons begin to vary, indeed if something even more profound were to impact the earth and alter these common patterns, many, if not all of these practices might fall away. It’s interesting to think about how the mad purchasing of gifts is connected, via narrative, to the orbit of one planet around her star.