November 11, 2021

Culture Corner: Celebrating the Holiday Season All Around the Globe

Many of us are familiar with (or even celebrate) some of the more popular holidays that take place during the final months of the year, like Christmas and New Year’s. However, there are a wide variety of other holidays and festivals that are celebrated all over the world at the same time. Here are just a few of those holidays and the traditions that accompany them.

Diwali

Diwali or Divali is known as the “Festival of Lights” and is one of India’s biggest and most important holidays. It’s typically celebrated for five days during the month of Kartika, which is considered to be the holiest month in the Hindu lunar calendar. The celebration usually occurs between mid-October and mid-November on the Gregorian calendar, the most common dating system used today.

Little girl celebrating Diwali with rangoliDiwali symbolizes the spiritual “victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance” and honors different Hindu gods or goddesses depending on the region it’s being celebrated in. Some of the traditions you might take part in during Diwali include:

  • Cleaning and decluttering your home
  • Dressing in colorful clothing
  • Decorating the inside and outside of your home with rows of clay lamps, candles, and lights
  • Lighting brilliant displays of fireworks and firecrackers
  • Attending worship services
  • Eating sweets made of dried fruits
  • Exchanging gifts
  • Taking part in large, traditional feasts
  • Creating intricate sand or rice designs on the floor called rangoli—designs are often passed down through generations and are thought to bring good luck

Winter Solstice

Winter solstice marks the time of the year when one half of the Earth is the furthest away from the sun. It’s celebrated on the shortest day of the year, or the day when the least amount of sunlight is present. This typically occurs on or around December 22 in the Northern Hemisphere and on or around June 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. One common misconception is that winter solstice is the coldest day of the year—believe it or not, the most frigid temps of the season are still at least a month away.

Winter Solstice celebrationThe winter solstice is observed differently depending on where you’re located. Here are a few of the different festivals and ceremonies in which winter solstice is celebrated:

Soyal

Soyal is a ceremony of the Hopi and Zuni tribes of Native Americans. It’s focused on bringing the sun back from its long winter slumber and is celebrated with purification rituals, dancing, gift-giving, the creation of prayer sticks, a large feast, and the welcoming of protective spirits from the mountains called kachinas.

Saturnalia

Saturnalia is an ancient Roman celebration devoted to Saturn, the god of agriculture and time; it’s also the origin of many traditions now associated with Christmas. This week-long festival was celebrated in the Roman Empire with a halt of social norms. Gambling, drinking, singing, feasting, and gift-giving were all welcomed and slaves were treated as equals—some sources say that there was even a reversal of roles where masters served slaves. Today, it’s celebrated by Reconstructionist Pagans around the world.

Yule

Yule, a twelve-day winter solstice celebration originally celebrated by the Germanic peoples, is noted as one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. Like Saturnalia, many of today’s Christmas customs can be traced back to ancient Yule traditions. Traditions include building an altar to honor the return of the sun, decorating a tree with candles, burning a log for luck and protection (or eating a delicious log-shaped cake), singing, and eating a boar or ham. Yule is still observed today in Heathenry and other forms of Neopaganism, including Wicca.

Yalda or Shab-e Yalda

Yalda or Shab-e Yalda is a winter solstice festival in Iran dating all the way back to ancient times. This celebration of the victory of light over dark is celebrated by families with eating, drinking, reading poetry, and staying awake all night to welcome the rising sun.

St. Lucia’s Day

St Lucia’s Day is a Scandinavian winter solstice festival celebrated to honor St. Lucia, an early Christian martyr. Some of its traditions have been incorporated with early Norse practices including warding off spirits during the longest night of the year with fires. Today, girls wear white dresses with red sashes along with wreathes of candles on their heads in tribute to the candles St. Lucia wore to light the way as she carried forbidden food to persecuted Christians.

Member Recipe: Slow Cooker Bread Pudding

A warm treat for a chilly winter solstice.

BetterLife member recipe slow cooker bread puddingSubmitted by BetterLife member Gerald Barr | Turtle Lake, WI

You’ll need:
¾ cup packed brown sugar
6 slices white bread, buttered and cubed
½ cup raisins
4 eggs
1 quart milk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ½ teaspoons lemon extract
Dash of salt
Cinnamon or nutmeg

Spread brown sugar in bottom of slow cooker. Add bread cubes; sprinkle with raisins. Beat eggs well. Add milk, vanilla, lemon extract, and salt. Pour over bread. Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg. Cover slow cooker, cook on high or at about 300° for two hours. Do not stir. Brown sugar will form a sauce (knife will come out clean when done). To serve, take a spoon to the bottom, bring up to dish. Serve with whipped cream. Best served when warm.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah, meaning dedication in Hebrew, is a Jewish celebration that commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after Jews revolted against the Syrian-Greek army. It starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev and is observed for eight days—the celebration usually falls between late November and late December.

Children lighting the menorah for HanukkahIt is sometimes referred to as the “Festival of Lights” or the “Feast of Dedication.” Here are a few traditions you may see in a Hanukkah celebration today:

  • Lighting candles on the menorah, a seven-branched candelabra that once lit the ancient Temple in Jerusalem
  • Reciting blessings during the lighting of the menorah
  • Singing Hanukkah songs
  • Eating fried foods such as latkes, commonly known as potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, or jelly-filled donuts
  • Enjoying gelt, small discs of chocolate usually wrapped in silver or gold foil
  • Spinning the dreidel (a four-sided toy) in games of chance in which gelt or other candy and small items are won
  • Giving gifts, donating, and volunteering time to charities and nonprofit organizations
  • Exchanging gifts with family members—this is a newer tradition that started in the 1950s

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza meaning first fruits, is an annual celebration of African American culture first celebrated in 1966. This seven-day celebration, held from December 26 through January 1, was established to help African Americans reconnect with their African roots and heritage. Each day is dedicated to one of the seven principles:

  1. Umoja or Unity
  2. Kujichagulia or Self-Determination
  3. Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility
  4. Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics
  5. Nia or Purpose
  6. Kuumba or Creativity
  7. Imani or Faith

The traditions you see in Kwanzaa today are based on African harvest festival traditions. Some of those traditions include:

  • Assembling an arrangement of items representing the seven symbols of the holiday for the Kwanzaa display
  • Lighting a candle for the principle of the day and then reflecting on that principle
  • Decorating the home with art, colorful African cloth, and fresh fruits
  • Paying respect and giving thanks to ancestors
  • Sharing and celebrating talents through dance, poetry, narratives, drumming, and other music
  • Giving gifts to children to educate them on their roots
  • Preparing and sharing food with family and community

Member Recipe: Sweet Potato Pie

BetterLife member recipe: Sweet Potato PieTry pairing this traditional dessert with your Kwanzaa celebration!

Submitted by BetterLife member June A. Kucera | Nebraska

You’ll need:
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs
1 ½ cups mashed sweet potatoes
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup butter or margarine, melted
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 unbaked (9-inch) pie shell

Beat together sugar and eggs. Add potatoes, vanilla extract, melted butter, and cinnamon. Mix, then add milk. Bake in unbaked pie shell for one hour at 350°.

Las Posadas

Children celebrating Las PosadasLas Posadas, translated in English as “the inns” or “the lodgings,” is a Spanish holiday most popular in Latin America and the American Southwest. It’s celebrated from December 16 through December 24 with a series of small skits. These skits are a reenactment of Mary’s and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem in search of a place to stay before the birth of Jesus.

This pre-Christmas holiday has many variations in celebrations depending on the country you’re in. However, a traditional Las Posada is typically carried out as follows:

  • Children dress up and walk in a procession as angels, shepherds, Mary, and Joseph
  • Families, friends, and neighbors follow the procession through a designated neighborhood with candles
  • Carols are sung as Mary and Joseph look for a place to stay
  • The “inn of the night” will invite the group to come in and enjoy food, drinks, and festivities (sweets and piñatas are must-haves)
  • Each night, a different home accepts the group in for the celebration
  • On the final night of Las Posadas, everyone attends midnight mass and ends the nine-day-long festival with a celebratory meal

Member Recipe: Soft Cutout Cookies

Customize these with fun cookie cutters to enjoy during your holiday of choice!

Submitted by BetterLife member Mary Lou Paton | Canton, MI

BetterLife member recipe: soft cutout sugar cookiesYou’ll need:
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla

For the glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
5 teaspoons water

To top them off:
Colored sugars or sprinkles

Mix cookie ingredients well; divide into two parts. Chill one to two hours. Roll dough ¹⁄8 to ¼-inch thick. Cut out shapes. Bake at 375° for six minutes. Mix powdered sugar and water for glaze. Frost with brush. Sprinkle with colored sugars (or sprinkles).

Pro Tip: When rolling out dough, use powdered sugar instead of flour on the board. Flour makes the dough heavier and thicker while powdered sugar will help the cookies brown evenly!

Sources: history.com, wikipedia.com, nationalgeographic.com, britannica.com, rd.com, bbc.co