It was Mark Twain who said that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." Thus it was surprising in late 1993, when I was teaching at a Hungarian university, to experience an honored tradition that began long before the then-recently concluded 50-year Russian occupation, and endured throughout it. That tradition was separating the Christmas experience into two parts; the gift-giving material part on Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas Day) and the religious part on Christmas Day (Dec. 25). In that, and so many other ways, I was confronted during our several years there by my own narrow-mindedness. Imagine removing the material from the celestial! And in a communist country!
Most of us likely associate December with Christmas and all the material mischief that surrounds it. Except possibly for Hanukkah, we also likely cannot name even one other holiday that occurs in December! Yet, worldwide, December has more holidays than most other months of the year! Some of them are due to the winter solstice - the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Since ancient times and to the present, many cultures hold special celebrations on or around the winter solstice. Most, but not all, have religious significance.
Some examples include Bodhi Day on Dec. 8 when Buddhists commemorate the enlightenment of Buddha and celebrate with meditation and a holiday meal. During Dec. 16-24, Las Posadas (originating in Spain but now primarily celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, parts of the Southwestern United States and in the Philippines) celebrates the journey of Mary and Joseph and ends the celebration with a large feast on Christmas Eve.
Hanukkah (Dec. 16-24) celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple, and is observed by the daily lighting of one candle on the menorah.
Soyal (Dec. 21-29) is the winter solstice celebration the Hopi and Zuni Native American peoples have celebrated for over two millennia. It is celebrated by making prayer sticks to bless and purify the community.
Yalda (Dec. 21) is an Iranian festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year. It is
celebrated with feasts, acts of charity, and prayers to ensure the total victory of the sun.
Dongzhi (Dec. 21) is celebrated by Chinese and other East Asian cultures during the winter solstice. It is a time for the family to get together to make and eat rice balls, which symbolize reunion.
Finally, there is Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) whose origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. It seeks to emphasize African values and traditions of learning stressed since ancient Egypt, and to reaffirm and reinforce the African commitment to tradition and history.
These are just a small number of December holidays around the world, but they do demonstrate the diversity of the many holidays that take place this month. It is too easy to get exclusively focused on our own societal norms and sometimes forget the rest of the world which views things very differently from us. A part of that "rest of the world" may be living among us. For as President Jimmy Carter reminded us, "We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams." Nonetheless, we surely wish in this season and always that the importance of material gifts may diminish as the celestial or religious gifts are prioritized so that there may be peace on earth and good will toward all.