Winter Holiday Traditions Around the World
America is the land of diversity, a melting pot of many cultures with varied traditions reflected in food, language, dress, beliefs, ideas, relationships and life experiences. One area in which this is most apparent is our many multi-cultural holiday practices. Now that we are approaching winter, as storeowners it is good to understand some of the traditional winter practices so that you can increase your holiday sales by providing for these many ways of celebrating.
Winter celebrations generally center around the winter solstice that marks the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. In the northern hemisphere, this is around or on December 21 and the southern hemisphere around or on June 21. People across the world have historically found meaning in the solstice as the planet turns from darkness to light, as the sun’s ebbing presence begins to reverse. Accordingly, the year was seen as reborn and the event was celebrated with references to life-death-rebirth deities and themes, as well as of new beginnings. Also important, the winter solstice preceded the time of deep winter until the beginning of spring, when people had to rely on stored foods in order to survive. As such, it was also a time for feasting before the last meats and other foods were stockpiled and the majority of beer, wine and other fermented drinks were finally ready to drink. Not only was it a time for feasting, but also for singing, dancing, and visiting loved ones before hunkering down inside for winter’s cold. Whether celebrating Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, Indian Diwali, the Pagan Yuletide, the Iranian Yalda, the Chinese Dongzhi, the African Kwanzaa, the Humanist HumanLight, or the many other traditional holidays, midwinter time is a time to be merry, to come together for feasts of food, to give gifts, to dance and sing, to meditate on winter’s darkness and the coming of light. It’s a time to celebrate the interconnectedness and cosmic patterns of all life, to cherish our ancestors and families, and to enjoy the special magic of the earth’s turning once again toward the light and the corresponding illumination of our consciousness.
Winter Holidays Around the Globe
Though Christmas tends to be the largest celebration in the U.S., but depending where you live, your customers may come from many other traditions, especially because those who are drawn to your store often have alternative ways of believing and experiencing the world. In order to properly stock your store with product that reflects these various traditions, it is important to know something about them. Here are some of the most prevalent traditions (which will vary depending on the communities that you serve):
Christmas – Though Christmas is the predominant western winter celebration of today, and most of us know its story, it was actually birthed from many ancient midwinter customs, especially the earlier Pagan traditions. As Christianity spread throughout the world, in order for it to be more easily accepted, rather than doing away with the old customs, it often meshed with the local rituals and festivals so that converts could continue their celebrations, though infused with new beliefs and meaning. Instead of the worship of solar deities or celebrating the sun’s gradual awakening to banish the darkness of the lengthy night, the birth of Jesus could now be experienced as the dawning of God’s light that banishes the darkness of evil. Jesus’s promise of rebirth and everlasting life replicates ancient ceremonies representing the promise of green life in the midst of winter, and the continuance of life with the dawning of the sun’s light. It was even more so after the fourth century when the Christian holiday of Christmas was “officially” begun by the Catholic church, setting December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity, replacing a plethora of other Roman festivities, such as the honoring of Saturn with its midwinter feasts and gift exchanges. In Northern Europe as well, many familiar Christmas symbols and customs replaced those that came from earlier Pagan Yuletide winter solstice festivals, both cherishing the promise of enduring life. Other customs also became part of today’s Christmas tradition, one being the Celtic, Pagan and Scandinavian custom of using mistletoe. The notion of Santa Claus, too, springs from ancient tradition, being based on the Greek bishop, Saint Nicholas, who was known by his generous gift giving to children.
Hanukkah – Though not obviously based on the winter solstice, nonetheless is a festival of light that also usually takes place in December (or late November). Like the miracle of the lengthening of the light that will eventually dispel the darkness of winter, Hanukkah, celebrates the miracle of the light’s return as well. According to the story of Hanukkah, in the second century BC, the Jewish people had built their temple in which to celebrate their faith. In there, a candlelit menorah was always kept lighted, welcoming the worshippers into the light of God. When the king outlawed their religion and defiled their temple, Judah Maccabee raised an army and successfully defeated the king. When they returned to the temple, however, not only was it in ruins, but when they went to light the menorah again, only one small jar of pure oil in a sealed bottle remained that was barely enough for one night. New oil would take eight days to make, so it seemed that the light of the sacred menorah would be extinguished. However, a miracle occurred. Instead of going out, the menorah burned for eight days, enough time to make the new oil so it could remain lit. Today, not only do Jews remember Hanukkah as their triumph from oppression, but also as a promise and continuance of God’s light and blessings. On Hanukkah, for eight days Jewish people light a candle in the menorah, exchanging gifts wrapped in blue and white paper. A dreidel, (a Jewish variant on an earlier European gambling toy,) is spun, accompanied with joyful singing and laughter. Not only is this fun, but the symbols on it remind the one spinning of the continuance of the Jewish culture. On the eighth day, families continue to celebrate with more singing and praying, exchanging gifts, and eating foods that contain oil and cheese. Though not obviously springing from the solstice tradition, the motifs of the renewal of light and the recovery from the darkness (of oppression) suggest similarities.
Yule or Yuletide – is a very important winter solstice holiday not only celebrated by contemporary Wiccans but also by a variety of Pagan cultures throughout the ages. Within the New Age or alternative consciousness community, this holiday is important to be well represented in your store since a large number of your customers celebrate this holiday instead of traditional Christmas. Like other winter solstice celebrations, Yule or Yuletide is when the dark half of the year begins its transition to the light half. During the longest night of the year, known as Solstice night, the rebirth of the Oak King, the Sun King, or the Giver of Life that warms the cold earth is celebrated. In the past, bonfires were lit in the fields and crops and trees were “wassailed” with toasts of spicy cider. Children traveled to every house while caroling and carrying gifts. The gifts usually included clove spiced apples and oranges representing the sun, which were placed in evergreen boughs representing immortality, and wheat stalks portraying the harvest, dusted with flour representing the triumph of light and life over darkness. Holly and ivy decorated the inside of homes, attracting the Nature Spirits to join in the celebration Mistletoe, representing the seed of the Divine, was kept near the door all year long to attract constant good fortune. The blazing of the ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Solstice festival. Harvested from the householder’s land or given as a gift, (never purchased,) the log was decorated with greenery, lightly covered with flour and doused with cider or ale. Then it was set on fire with last year’s Yule log to burn brightly in the fireplace throughout the night and the following 12 days. Then it was extinguished and saved for the next year. Ash was the traditional wood used for the Yule log since it was known as the sacred world tree, or the herb of the Sun that brings light into the hearth and the world. As light, it symbolized the newborn sun or Divine Son. Kris Kringle, the God of the Yule was honored during Germanic ceremonies.
Native American – Though their specific practices differed according to tribe, for all Native American tribes, the winter solstice was, and still is, a time for thanksgiving. As with other world cultures, the winter solstice was a deeply important celebration signifying life and marking a time of change and renewal. Like the world’s Pagan cultures, cattle and other animals were killed to stock food for the winter, (since they would likely not survive the winter anyway,) so it was also a time of feasting with fresh meat and other ceremonial foods. As with other civilizations, the winter solstice marked and celebrated the return of the sun to the sky. Often this was memorialized as the Sun God returning to the people bringing light, illumination and rebirth. Each tribe had their own traditions centered around this astronomical event, but usually all involved prayers or prayer offering ceremonies, songs, complicated chants and various forms of art. As with other world cultures, this was a time to wish others good health and prosperity for the New Year, often accompanied with gift giving. Some tribes also used dreaming on this special night, opening themselves for Mother Night to “walk though their dreams” to bring them messages and visions. These auspicious dream messages were then shared with tribal members.
Kwanzaa – Is a new African based celebration that is rapidly gaining in popularity in the U.S., especially in African American communities. Beginning December 26 and culminating on January 1, Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Based on the agricultural celebrations and harvest festivals of Africa, Kwanzaa notes the midwinter or winter solstice as a time to feast and be thankful as the darkness of winter first begins to transition to the increasing light of the sun. Kwanzaa basically honors five themes: the gathering of clan, family and friends, the reverence for the creator and creation, the honoring of ancestors, a renewal of commitment to higher ideals and consciousness, and the honoring of the good life. Kwanzaa is also a time for African Americans to gather in celebration of their heritage and their achievements and to focus on the fundamental collective values and best practices that are rooted in African culture. This is a cultural festival rather than religious, so all people can celebrate Kwanzaa no matter what their religious beliefs. It, too, is a time for gift giving and to wish others well.
Other Midwinter Celebrations
Though there are probably as many ancient winter solstice celebrations as there are ancient peoples, here’s an additional list of others important to note as your customers may be searching for these representations of the midwinter or winter solstice celebrations.
Bodhi Day in early December celebrates Siddhartha’s awakening and his role as the Supreme Buddha. Though characterized with a personalized representation, Buddhahood is actually a state of enlightened consciousness illuminating an awareness of ultimate reality that directly experiences the illusory nature of physical existence while at the same time acknowledging its relative reality. Like the coming of the sun, the dawning of the realization of Buddhahood can be seen as the dawning of the light of awareness. Buddhists meditate and stay in prayer on Bodhi Day. Images of Buddha under a fig or bodhi tree are placed in homes and candles and lights are lit every night for 30 days as a symbol of enlightenment. A small ficus tree is decorated with colored lights and beads, representing the understanding that all things are connected in the oneness of ultimate reality.
Dongzhi a winter solstice festival celebrated by the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, also marks the winter solstice. It takes place every year on December 21 or 22. The Dongzhi Festival celebrates the winter solstice as an understanding of nature’s harmonious balance of yin and yang energy. During the longest night of the year, the extreme of winter (dongzhi), passes and the negative yin qualities of darkness and cold give way to the positive yang qualities of light and warmth. The Dongzhi Festival was a day to gather with family, to get together before embarking on the last leg of winter. Traditionally, sweet, glutinous rice balls are served, signifying family togetherness and reunion. Lamb or pork dumplings are also served. Today, as then, celebrating the Dongzhi festival is a time for the family to gather at a table set with hearty, warming foods, raising the hopes for spring’s arrival.
Yalda or Shab-e-chelleh is a festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year by the ancient Persian or Iranian peoples. It, too, is a time for family to gather to eat, drink, and read poetry. As midnight passes, fruits and nuts are eaten along with watermelon and pomegranates, the red symbolizing the crimson dawn and the glow of life.
Diwali celebrated all over India and in Hindu communities worldwide, takes place in November as a five-day ceremony. It, too, is a festival of light, awash with strings of multi-colored lights, firecrackers, rockets and brightly lit oil lamps. Replicating the winter solstice cycle, it is a time of throwing out the old and welcoming in the new. After bathing in fragrant, oil-scented water, and dressed in new clothes, celebrants visit each other offering gifts. Offerings are made to Ganesh, the elephant god of new beginnings and to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Fruit, a gold or silver decorative object soaked in milk, money, sweets and flowers are placed on their altars. People light earthen oil lamps in their homes, believing that if the lights stay lit all night, the goddess Lakshmi will come to the home and bring prosperity, abundance and blessings for the upcoming year. It, too, is a time for joy, renewal and hope.
HumanLight celebrated on December 23, is a rather new secular holiday created for those who want to connect with the December holiday season as secular Humanists. Rather than being a religious holiday, HumanLight celebrates the positive values of compassion, hope, humanity and secular reasoning. It is non-supernatural, but uses light to symbolize human reason. While there is no one way to commemorate the holiday, HumanLight typically involves a communal meal among family or friends. The use of three or four candles to symbolize reason, hope, compassion, and humanity, however, is more often than not employed in the ceremonies. Often, those who celebrate HumanLight observe this holiday by doing charity work, exchanging gifts and employing other ideas often associated with the more traditional holidays that are celebrated at this time. HumanLight ceremonies vary widely, but central to them all are promoting the positive values of humanism while avoiding any negative messages related to other religions. They are always family and child friendly. The December 23 date allows those who celebrate HumanLight to also celebrate the other traditional holidays as well.
Stocking Your Store
Ultimately, there are probably as many ways to celebrate this season as there are people and traditions to celebrate them, yet whatever the particular type of winter celebration, they all seem to have some motifs in common that you can have in your store. Central to most all of these ceremonies is the use of light to represent the solstice transition, the coming of the sun and the dawn of awareness and rebirth. When you fill your stores with light, you are appealing to most of the traditional ceremonies of this solstice time. It works well, then, to fill your stores with candles, strings of gold lights and anything that sparkles. Be sure to also feature a menorah with menorah candles.
There are many ways to appropriately feature stones in conjunction with these holidays. Place stones associated with light like clear quartz, gold rutilated quartz, yellow calcite, yellow jade, gold tiger-eye, yellow citrine or amber around your store. Golden stones can also represent the harvest time – so important to many of these holidays, especially when it is combined with other harvest motifs. Use quartz spheres to represent the interconnectedness of all life, the illumination of awareness, Siddhartha’s enlightenment, and the oneness of all manifest and unmanifest phenomena. You might place an Om symbol next to the sphere. Have a display of green stones like green malachite, green tourmaline, green jade, or green serpentine to signify holly and other evergreens, representing endless life or the continuing presence of life force in the midst of winter. Place red stones like garnet, red quartz, red jasper, red tiger-eye, red rubellite, and red coral or red tourmaline in a display to represent the rising crimson light of dawn. Since the red pomegranates and other fruits eaten in many of the traditional ceremonies are round, a grouping of red quartz or other red stone spheres works well. For those celebrating Hanukkah, display royal or sky blue stones like sodalite, lapis, celestite, or blue calcite, combined with white stones like marble, milky quartz or white howlite, centered around a Menorah and an assortment of dreidels.
Surround your store and displays with the herbs and greenery that are central to many of these traditions. Good selections are holly, mistletoe, bayberry, laurel, pine, sage, cedar and oak leaves. Weave these around the stones and candles. Be sure to include traditional incense, again pine, bayberry, cedar work well and cinnamon might be considered too. Light this in your stores for their scent and have it available for purchase.
Have pictures of some of the most popular deities, not only for display and purchase, but also to bring their particular energy and blessings into your store. You can include pieces of jewelry as well as pictures, as your customers often buy more jewelry than anything else. Goddesses may include Isis, Demeter, Gaea, Diana, the Great Mother, Brighid, and Mother Mary. Include any Gods that are associated with the sun like Apollo, Ra or Ram. Other Gods to include are Odin, Lugh, The Oak King, The Horned One, The Green Man, Mabon and The Divine Child. Of course include images of Jesus, including those that are more realistic than those depicting Jesus as looking somewhat like a California surfer.
Set up a display of traditional harvest images and items, perhaps small sheaves of wheat or straw, nuts and berries. (Be careful, however, not to make them appear to be celebrating Thanksgiving.) Perhaps find and include some representations of feasting along with a few goblets.
Important to all of the ceremonies are family, clan, ancestors and friends, for this is a time of gathering. Perhaps find small sculptures representing families, including the family of Jesus since many of your customers will be oriented towards Christmas. Include crystals that are twins (two growing together), or clusters of many connected crystals. Include anything that represents interconnectedness.
Of course, be sure to have a selection of cards that represent as many of these traditions as possible. Your selection doesn’t have to be large, but it should include many of the holidays. Cards that contain blessings and positive prayers are great to include because they appeal to the secular as well as the religious and spiritual.
As most of these holidays include gift giving – sometimes many gifts during the course of the celebration – have a good assortment of small, inexpensive, yet meaningful gifts. (This doesn’t mean that you can’t have expensive gifts as well.) This way, your customers can afford to buy the many presents for their loved ones that are required in some ceremonies. Along with this, it is wonderful to include other opportunities for giving, especially since all cultural solstice and holiday traditions stress the giving to the less fortunate. For example, have a container for collecting food for donations. Perhaps collect toys for needy children or for those in hospitals. You can have signups for food kitchens that serve during the holidays or collect clothes for thrift stores and other organizations. You can also think internationally by providing people an opportunity to donate to helpful organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross and others. After all, not only is this the time for giving, but practically speaking, your customers will feel good when they give. All of this will reflect positively on your store.
Round out your displays with appropriate books and inspirational music from many traditions. Informative signage is especially important, both to convey information as well as to be inspirational. To improve your displays of stones, lights, plants, incense, herbs and greenery, then, add small explanatory signs among or beside them. Let your customers know why you have green stones surrounded by holly, for example, or why you have clear stones among your candles. Finally, since there is such religious/ political conflict in the world, you might consider having signs around that remind people to seek peace, which is the heart of this season. The co-exist sign or bumper sticker is great, the occasional heart, or the peace symbol, are wonderful to include in your displays. Any sign that reminds your customers to leave the limitations of the divisive mind behind and instead, seek the oneness and community of the season is helpful. A “Be Here Now” sign is great, because in the present moment there is only love and communion with all life.
Finally, besides helping your customers to find gifts to express themselves in this holiday season among a variety of multicultural expressions and meanings, help them become informed. Above all, in this season, as well during the rest of the year, if your customers feel informed, included, welcomed and peaceful when they are in your store, not only will you sell more, but you will have contributed to their lives and, by extension, the lives of their families and communities. As a store creatively opening consciousness, this ultimately fulfills what you are all about.