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A Teacher’s Guide to December Holidays

You and your students have worked hard this fall semester. From the excitement of back to school to parent nights to fall breaks and midterms, you’ve got half a school year under your belt, and it’s time to celebrate.

Introduce your students to holiday celebrations from around the world with this brief guide to the December holidays.

The winter solstice is a natural phenomenon that has inspired celebrations around the world since the Stone Ages. As the longest night of the year, the winter solstice has often inspired festivals and ceremonies centered on light and fire as people anticipated the coming days of spring. Here are some ways the solstice has been commemorated throughout the centuries:

  • Neolithic period: Some of the earliest evidence we have of humans recognizing the winter solstice dates back to around 10,200 BC. According to History.com: “Neolithic monuments, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland, are aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Some archaeologists have theorized that these tomb-like structures served a religious purpose in which Stone Age people held rituals to capture the sun on the year’s shortest day. Stonehenge, which is oriented toward the winter solstice sunset, may also have been a place of December rituals for Stone Age people.”
  • Ancient Rome: The Romans celebrated three major festivals around the winter solstice: Saturnalia, Juvenalia, and Mithra. Saturnalia, honoring Saturn (the god of agriculture), was perhaps the most widely celebrated of these. Lasting a week leading up to the solstice, the holiday involved everyone—even slaves—laying aside their work and enjoying plentiful food and drink as equals, since class distinctions were temporarily suspended during the festival. Juvenalia, instituted by the emperor Nero, was marked by games and a feast honoring Rome’s youth. Finally, the upper classes of Rome also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, an ancient Persian god of light who appeared as an infant born of a rock.
  • Yule: The ancient Norse celebrated the winter solstice by burning huge logs (known as “Yule logs”) to light the long winter nights. The feasts and celebrations would last as long as the logs burned, which could sometimes take up to 12 days. After the Norse converted to Christianity around A.D. 1000, their Yule traditions expanded to include St. Lucia’s Day, a festival of lights honoring one of the earliest Christian martyrs, who secretly brought food to Christians imprisoned for their faith.
  • Inti Raymi: Being in the southern hemisphere, the Inca Empire celebrated the winter solstice in June by honoring the sun god Inti. For three days, the Incas would fast and then wait together for the sun to rise on the morning of the solstice. They would then make animal sacrifices (such as llamas) and offerings of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn), using the sun’s rays to light the ceremonial fire.
  • Dong Zhi: This Chinese celebration has its roots as both a harvest festival and a nod to the idea of balance in the universe (yin and yang) as the seasons shift to longer days again. Largely a family holiday, it is celebrated with foods such as tang yuan (brightly colored rice balls) and dumplings.
  • Toji: The Japanese celebrate Toji by lighting huge bonfires as a symbolic gesture to hasten the return of the sun. It’s a time focused on bringing health and good luck for the year ahead. To promote health, the Japanese take warm baths with yuzu (a citrus fruit), and for good luck, they eat kabocha squash (pumpkin).
  • Yalda Night: This Iranian festival has its roots in Zoroastrianism. Since the winter solstice is the longest night of the year, it is believed that evil spirits abound in the extended cover of darkness. Friends and families gather in one spot overnight to protect each other from evil. They pass the time by burning fires, reading the poetry of Persian poet Hafiz, and eating nuts, pomegranates, and other traditional foods. The rising sun the next day symbolizes the sun god Mithra triumphing over darkness.
  • Shalako: Shalako is a ceremonial dance practiced by the Zuni, a Native American tribe, to mark the coming of the new year. In the days leading up to sunrise on the solstice, the people fast, pray, and observe the sun’s movements until the Pekwin (“Sun Priest”) announces the onset of itiwanna (the rebirth of the sun). At this, the time of solemnity ends and the Shalako dance commences, lasting four days. Twelve dancers are chosen each year to wear elaborate celebratory masks and dance alongside the Shalako, 12-foot-tall effigies with the heads of birds.

It might surprise your students to learn that one of Judaism’s best-known holidays doesn’t appear in the Torah, nor is it a particularly prominent Jewish holiday. Rather, Hanukkah’s (or Chanukah) proximity to Christmas—and the exciting story behind it—has propelled it to greater fame in popular culture.

The holiday dates back to 164 B.C., at the close of the Maccabean Revolt. About four years earlier, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, King of Syria, had invaded Jerusalem as part of his crackdown on the practice of the Jewish religion. After slaughtering thousands in the attack, he dishonored the Jewish Temple by setting up an altar to the Greek god Zeus and offering a sacrifice of pigs (which the Jewish people considered ceremonially unclean).

In response, the Jewish priest Mattathias and his sons led a years-long rebellion against Antiochus and eventually drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. After their victory, the first order of business was to restore the Temple and light the menorah, which according to History.com was a “gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and were meant to be kept burning every night.”

The only problem was that, due to the war effort, the people only had enough oil to keep the candles burning for one night. However, miraculously, the candles continued burning for eight days, until fresh supplies came in. In honor of this miracle, the Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights, lighting one candle of the menorah each night and eating food fried in oil, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam-filled donuts).

Kwanzaa is the youngest of the December holidays, having come about in 1966. Unlike many other December holiday traditions, which developed and evolved over centuries, Kwanzaa is a thoughtfully planned holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

Dr. Karenga’s goal was to create a celebration that would unite African Americans around ancestral practices and virtues. After studying harvest celebrations from around Africa, particularly the Ashanti and Zulu, Dr. Karenga named the celebration “Kwanzaa,” which comes from the Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.”

Kwanzaa is commemorated over seven days. Each evening, families get together to eat a meal and enjoy music, poetry, and stories that have their roots in African culture. Each day also represents one of seven principles (called Nguzo Saba) developed by Dr. Karenga to emphasize the importance of community and virtue. Similar to Hanukkah, families light one candle on the Kinara (candleholder) each night and then discuss that day’s principle.

According to History.com, the seven principles include:

  • Umoja (unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Christmas is likely the holiday your students are most familiar with, even if their families don’t celebrate it. Though in many ways the day has become a secular holiday centered on gifts and big family meals, Christmas traditionally marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians around the world venerate as God come to Earth in human form.

Since your students have likely heard the Christmas story and seen many of the classic Christmas movies, here are some lesser-known Christmas facts you can share with your students—or turn into a trivia game!

  • Many historians believe Jesus was actually born sometime in the spring, but in the mid-300s, Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the day to celebrate, perhaps as a Christian alternative to the popular Saturnalia festival.
  • Many of the Puritan Christians who first came to the U.S. believed Christmas celebrations were a mark of sinful decadence, and actually outlawed the holiday in Boston from 1659 to 1681.
  • The modern, family-centered way of celebrating Christmas was popularized in the early 1800s by the writings of Washington Irving (The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol).
  • The United States declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870.
  • The real St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) was a Turkish monk born around A.D. 280 who gave away all his wealth to serve the poor and sick. His nickname came from Dutch families who shortened his name from “Sint Nikolass” to “Sinter Klass” (Santa Claus).
  • Our modern image of Santa Claus came about from a combination of two things: the 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore (which introduced the idea of Santa and flying reindeer delivering toys to children) and an 1881 drawing by political cartoonist Thomas Nast (who added the red suit and white beard).
  • There are around 21,000 Christmas tree growers in the United States, and they sell upward of 30 million trees each year.
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began as a marketing ploy when Robert L. May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, wrote a poem about him in 1939.
  • The tradition of erecting a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center began during the construction of the building in 1931, when workers decorated a tree with cranberries, paper garland, and tin cans.
  • The plant we know as a poinsettia comes from Mexico. It was named after minister Joel R. Poinsett, who first brought the plant to the U.S. in 1828.

Unlike what your students may think, Boxing Day has nothing to do with two men sparring in a ring with giant leather gloves. This holiday, celebrated on December 26 in the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, traces its origins back to at least the 1800s. Traditionally, Boxing Day has centered around charitable giving, but its exact beginnings are lost to history.

The first theory on how Boxing Day started traces its roots back to days of sharper class distinctions, when aristocrats and manor lords would give gifts to their servants and employees as a thanks for their work throughout the year (not to mention Christmas Day). These “Christmas boxes” (hence “Boxing Day”) might contain small gifts, cash, and leftovers from the previous day’s Christmas dinner.

An alternate theory on how Boxing Day started comes from the practice of churches setting out alms boxes in the weeks leading up to Christmas. People would donate money and goods, and the day after Christmas, the church would distribute the collections to the poor.

The origins of New Year’s celebrations are, in many ways, a study of astrology and horology. The calendar we use today (the Gregorian calendar) is based on the number of days it takes the Earth to rotate around the Sun. However, many cultures throughout history have marked the year using the 12 cycles of the moon—which total up to 354 days as opposed to 365. For example, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the new year in late March, at the first new moon following the vernal equinox, and the Chinese at the second new moon after the winter solstice.

The Romans were the ones who standardized and popularized the calendar we use today. Originally, their calendar consisted of 304 days divided into 10 months. However, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar commissioned the top astronomers and mathematicians in the empire to ensure the calendar matched up with the Earth’s rotation around the Sun. Caesar set New Year’s Day as the first day of January, the month named after Janus, the two-faced god who looks both to the past and the future.

Today, New Year’s celebrations around the world include fireworks, singing songs such as “Auld Lang Syne,” making resolutions, watching the ball drop in New York’s Time Square, and eating a variety of foods. Around the world, these foods include grapes (Spanish-speaking countries), lentils (Italy), black-eyed peas (Southern U.S.), pork (Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal), round pastries (Netherlands, Mexico, Greece), and rice pudding with an almond hidden inside (Sweden and Norway).

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