Seasonal Traditions Light Up The World

A tapestry of cultures reflects many winter celebrations.
by : 

Deborah Wickering

October 1, 2013
Seasonal Traditions Light Up The World

Midwinter is a time to make merry. We come together and share feasts of food, song, and dance. We visit neighbors and friends and spread our wishes for peace and prosperity. To dispel winter darkness, we practice ancient rituals of lighting candles, remembering virtues, cherishing our communities, and enjoying the magic of the solstice time as the earth turns once again toward the sun.

People celebrate this cosmic event all over the globe in diverse ways. Many traditions include gift giving as a central custom. North American Christmas is an occasion of give-and-take on a grand scale. During the festival of Diwali, people encourage prosperity by giving household items. The celebration of Kwanzaa focuses on gifts that are educational and enlightening. In other traditions, gift giving is less emphasized. Gifts at Hanukkah have become more common because the holiday shares the season with Christmas.

Customers come to you from a variety of communities of belief. Yet, all find meaning in the cosmic pattern of the turning planet and the seasons of the year. You can help your customers find gifts to express themselves this holiday season. Display your appreciation of the multicultural variety of expressions and meaning and delight your customers with the special gifts they choose.


Central to the practices of ancient and contemporary Pagans is a belief in the interconnectedness of all nature. Hundreds of ancient megaliths, cairns, and stone circles across Europe, the Americas, Asia, India, and the Middle East were built by early peoples to mark the solstices and equinoxes. These structures testify to the sacred importance to our ancestors of marking the earth’s seasons.

Contemporary Pagans and Wiccans draw on pre-Christian symbols and rituals to renew a sense of living communion with natural cycles. Deep concern about global warming has given the term “Mother Earth” new and urgent meaning. Many of your customers are looking for gifts that show respect and reverence for this beautiful planet we live on. Green, sustainable, renewable, nontoxic, organic, and recyclable all indicate gifts people can buy and give with joy and a clear conscience.


Christmas serves as an overlay to many ancient midwinter customs. Symbols, stories, and practices common to our contemporary celebrations have deep roots in pagan peasant traditions.

The Christian holiday of Christmas began in the fourth century. The Catholic Church set December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity among a plethora of Roman festivities. For instance, pagan Romans honored Saturn, god of agriculture, with midwinter feasts and gift exchanges. During the annual Saturnalia, all business and warfare ceased and slaves were temporarily freed. As Christianity spread, it often meshed with local rituals and festivals around the world. Converts continued their ancient practices, infusing their new beliefs with magical meaning.

In Northern Europe, many familiar Christmas symbols and customs today come from the Yuletide festivals. Evergreens were cherished by people as a promise of rebirth and green life in the midst of the long winter. People celebrated midwinter by decorating pine with candles and colored ornaments. Prickly holly, when woven into door wreaths, warded off evil spirits or caught them before they could enter the house. When we sing “Deck the Halls,” we are calling the magic of this plant into our homes.

From the Celtic tradition comes the magic of mistletoe. Five days after the new moon following winter solstice, Druid priests once cut mistletoe from the oak on which it grew. They distributed pieces of the plant to people to place over doorways as protection from natural disasters and evil spirits. A sprig hung over a cradle kept the baby safe from mischievous fairies. In Scandinavia, mistletoe brought peace in situations of conflict. A kiss under mistletoe symbolized acceptance and reconciliation.

Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop of Myra (part of modern-day Turkey) who was famous for giving gifts to children. Santa Claus, as we know him today, is a recent caricature with a long ancestry of elves and fairies. No longer as mischievous as he was centuries ago, he still requires boys and girls to be good before he will fly down their chimneys to leave presents in their stockings.


All over India and in Hindu communities around the world, the five-day November festival of Diwali sparkles with firecrackers, rockets, oil lamps, and strings of multicolored lights. With each day dedicated to a god or goddess, Diwali is a home-centered festival. Houses are cleaned and their exteriors whitewashed. It is a time of throwing out old, unwanted stuff. After bathing in water scented with fragrant oil early in the morning, everyone dresses in new clothes to visit each other and exchange gifts, while those far away receive gifts and cards.

The market and its activity are celebrated during Diwali. Shopkeepers offer bargains on everything from saffron to silver, sweets, spices, and silks. People buy needed household items, large and small. Gifts of jewelry are popular.

Families make offerings to Ganesh, the elephant god of new beginnings and ventures, and to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Fruit, a gold or silver ornament soaked in milk, flowers, sweets, and money are laid on their altars. In homage to Lakshmi, people light earthen oil lamps in their homes. If the lamp stays lit all night long, the goddess will find her way to your house, and prosperity and abundance will bless the coming year.


Hanukkah means commemoration. The Jewish festival of lights, which usually falls in December, is a celebration and commemoration of a miracle. Long ago, in what is now Israel, the Jewish people built a beautiful temple, where a welcoming menorah always stayed lit. When the king outlawed their religion, Judah Maccabee raised a small army and fought the king for the right of his people to practice their faith.

After three long years of fighting, the Maccabeans won, but when they returned to their temple, it was in ruins, ransacked by the king’s soldiers. When they went to light the menorah once more, the lamp oil had been defiled. Only one small jar of pure oil in a sealed bottle remained, with barely enough for one night, but new oil took eight days to make. They lit the lamp anyway and began making new oil. To everyone’s surprise, the little lamp burned for eight days, enough time to make the new oil.

With prayers of praise, blessing, and thanksgiving, Jews remember their triumph from oppression during Hanukkah. On each of the eight evenings, families gather to light a candle in the menorah, which burns in the entryway of the house. After the lights are lit, families celebrate by singing songs, eating foods containing oil, such as latkes and cheese delicacies, and exchanging small gifts wrapped in blue and white paper.


A relatively new celebration, Kwanzaa is rooted in ancient African first-fruit ceremonies. The holiday begins on December 26 and lasts seven days. Its themes are virtues of collective life: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Like the first-fruit ceremonies, Kwanzaa honors five themes: gathering of family and friends, reverence for creator and creation, ancestors, commitment to high ideals, and celebration of the good life.

Bodhi Day

Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day in early December, this year on December 8. As the legend goes, thousands of years ago Siddhartha Guatauma, a prince in Northern India, sat meditating on the meaning of life under a fig tree and experienced perfect enlightenment. This important Buddhist holiday commemorates Siddhartha’s awakening and his role as Supreme Buddha, “the enlightened one.” Bodhi Day celebrates his generosity, compassion, and gift of finding the true nature of life.

Buddhists meditate and stay in prayer on Bodhi Day. Colorful images of the Buddha under a fig tree are displayed in homes. Candles and lights are lit every night for 30 days as a symbol of enlightenment. Buddhists decorate a small ficus tree with colored lights and beads, representing the belief that all things are connected. Traditionally, a meal of rice and milk is eaten on Bodhi Day, the meal the Buddha is believed to have eaten after his enlightenment experience.

Las Posadas

In English, Las Posadas means “the Inn.” For nine nights, December 16 through December 24, this traditional Mexican Christmas festival reenacts Joseph’s search for a room at the inn. Participants with candles walk through neighborhood streets, carrying a doll representing baby Jesus and images of Joseph and Mary riding a burro. The procession makes its way to a different home each night and a special song is sung. Those outside the house sing the part of Joseph requesting shelter, and those inside the house respond as the innkeeper, singing “There is no room.” The song repeats until finally the “innkeeper” relents and lets them in. Everyone goes inside for a celebration. The hosts give the guests food and piñatas for the children. The nine nights of Las Posadas is said to represent the nine-day trip of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

A season of joy

From the sacred to the secular, from historic memory to mythic stories, midwinter is a time of joyous promise. Offer your customers a gift to help pique their curiosity about the diverse celebrations of the winter season. Give them a haven from the often frenzied activities of this time of year with a cup of holiday cheer. Offer displays of candlelight and incense. And help customers remember that at the center of all its diversity, midwinter offers a deep pause as night gives way to light, birth, and triumph over darkness.

Why and how we give

In “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry tells the story of two lovers and their perfect gifts. She sells her hair to buy him a golden chain for his watch. He sells his treasured watch to buy a tortoise-shell comb for her hair. The objects turn out to be useless because of each of their sacrifices, yet in the exchange their love is perfectly expressed.

The most treasured gifts are those given from the heart. What is important is not so much what is given but the relationship that is maintained or established by the gift. The types of things given or received signal the identities of the participants and the kind of relationship that exists between them. Gifts are not limited to material goods. The exchange can involve service, or even emotion and sentiment. The important thing about a gift exchange is the thoughtful knowledge of the other’s needs and desires.

We exchange gifts with those we see often and those with whom we have spent considerable time, regardless of their proximity. During the holidays, some 90 percent of the gifts exchanged are among family. It is within the family and also within one’s closest circle of friends that holiday gifts are most important, and they express something of the history of each relationship.

In our holiday shopping rituals, we carry in our hearts those we love. We take time to find objects that both express our own identity and will fit the person who will receive it. We know they are doing the same for us. In the hectic days of holiday shopping, take a moment to ask your customers: Who are you buying this gift for? Finding out even a tiny detail about the receiver can help you help your customer find an ideal present.

A perfect gift is something the giver loves. The perfect gift fits the receiver, too, and acts as a symbol of the relationship in which it is given. How nice that at this time of year retailers have so many wonderful opportunities to connect givers and receivers in shared love and generosity.

Deborah Wickering, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist who teaches at Aquinas College, a liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Mich.