I grew up in a strict, religious Greek Orthodox family. We went to service every Sunday (and on holidays) unless we were bleeding from the eyeballs.
Trying to explain my religious upbringing caused a lot of confusion among those unfamiliar with the Eastern Orthodox faith; throughout the years, I have been asked many bizarre questions: “What it is like to worship Zeus?” (We don’t.) Or, “Do you participate in animal sacrifice at Christmas?” (That’s a big no.)
I finally started explaining to people that the Eastern Orthodox religion is a very strictly regimented Christian faith — sort of like Catholicism on steroids — and they seemed to understand that.
Many of us have clients who belong to different religions and cultures, and it’s easy to accidentally offend someone when you know nothing about his or her background. So, as an early holiday present from me to you, I have created a basic multicultural cheat sheet for you detailing all the major December holidays.
December 1: Milad un-Nabi
This holiday is the Islamic faith’s celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. The day varies from year to year in the Gregorian calendar, but it is always celebrated on either the 12th or 17th day of the Islamic month of Rabi’ al-awwal, depending on the culture.
Different areas celebrate this day in different ways, but most celebrate by decorating their mosques with lights, gift giving and giving alms to the poor. Many Muslims also celebrate by having parades and holding community meals, often inviting non-Muslim friends to join their feasts.
In Pakistan, they also raise the flag on their national monuments and have a gun salute at dawn. This is a public holiday in most Muslim countries.
December 6: St. Nicholas Day
St. Nicholas lived in the third century in a Greek-speaking area of what is now the coast of Turkey. Born to wealthy parents and orphaned at a young age, he gave everything he owned to the poor.
He became known for his exceptional generosity and love of children and is also the patron saint of sailors as well as the protector of the Greek Navy.
One of the most famous stories of St. Nicholas is the story of a poor man who had three daughters. He had no money for a dowry, and the young women would never be able to marry without one.
On three separate occasions, bags of coins were tossed through an open window and landed in stockings and shoes that had been left near the fire to dry. This is how the tradition of hanging stockings came about.
Saint Nicholas is always dressed as a bishop — not as Santa Claus. In many Eastern Orthodox churches, services are held the night before, or special services are held the Sunday before December 6.
Gold foil wrapped chocolate coins are often given to the children as gifts and often left in their shoes or stockings to be found in the morning.
December 13-20: Hanukkah
This holiday starts at sundown the evening before the first recognized day. Also known as The Festival of Lights, Hanukkah commemorates the miracle that happened after the Jewish people’s successful rebellion during the Maccabean War in 162 B.C.
It is said that during the rededication of the temple, a small bottle of consecrated oil used to light the lamps lasted for eight days, despite being enough to have lasted only one day.
Over the years, this holiday has also become a time to celebrate the Jewish faith’s ability to survive despite many centuries of persecution throughout the world.
Hanukkah is a holiday with dates that fall differently each year as it’s based on the Jewish calendar and not the Gregorian, much like Milad un-Nabi follows the Islamic calendar.
Many Americans of Jewish faith celebrate through prayer, feasts, lighting the menorah, singing and playing games with a four-sided toy called a dreidel. Hanukkah is also a time of gift giving, especially for the children.
December 21: Solstice
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and for those living south of the Equator, it is the longest day of the year. The solstice can fall anywhere between December 20-23 each year.
The date changes are due to the differences between the Gregorian calendar and the tropical (or solar) year, which is the “length of time the sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons.”
According to timeanddate.com, it is extraordinarily rare to have a December equinox on the 23rd; the last one we had was in 1903, and there won’t be another until 2303.
The winter solstice has been celebrated throughout the world for thousands of years. This day commemorates the start of the solar year with the rebirth of the sun and is a celebration of light called “Yule” in Old Europe. This is where we get our “Yuletide” traditions, most notably, the “Yule log.”
Solstice celebrations focus on being thankful for our friends, family, nature and the planet. It is a time for mindfulness and becoming aware of our many blessings.
Celebrations often include sharing food: a willingness to share provisions is symbolic of our trust in Mother Earth to continue providing for the next year’s harvest. Evergreens and seeds, often used as decorations at this time of year, are symbols of fertility and prosperity.
December 25: Christmas
Christmas isn’t just a day to celebrate; it’s nearly an entire month’s worth of festivities all culminating on the big day — December 25.
Advent is the period of the four weeks before Christmas, and it’s the time many people use to spiritually prepare for Christmas Day. Many cultures fast from meat and dairy during Advent, much like many cultures fast during Lent before Easter.
The period of Advent is often counted down with the help of calendars, wreathes and candles.
Popular now are Advent calendars, which have a surprise treat behind each day, ranging from a piece of candy to jewelry. There are Advent calendars out there for every budget. There are also Advent calendars for pets, so they can get into the holiday spirit too.
Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and always falls on December 25. Many Christians will attend Christmas Eve service at midnight or worship on Christmas Day.
Traditions can range depending on individual families, but most celebrants enjoy the day with their family and friends, feasting, exchanging presents and decorating with candles and lights of every color of the rainbow.
December 26: Boxing Day
While not largely celebrated in the United States, Boxing Day is widely observed in the U.K., Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other predominantly British commonwealth countries.
It is a legal holiday in most of these countries, and if it falls on a weekend, it is usually observed on the Monday of the following week.
December 26 is also St. Stephan’s Day, which dates back to the middle ages when the contents of church collection boxes were opened and distributed to the poor. Throughout time, this became a day when gifts of food and clothing were boxed up and given to servants. It was also an opportunity to have a day off to celebrate Christmas, as people typically worked on Christmas Day back then.
Today, gifts are also exchanged, and Boxing Day is often a day devoted to charity, giving to the needy and volunteering.
December 26-January 1: Kwanzaa
A seven-day celebration based on the first African-American harvest festivals, Kwanzaa is Swahili for “first fruits” and was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga.
Kwanzaa’s focus as a celebration of life and unity has much more in common with Thanksgiving than Christmas.
Kwanzaa centers on the seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. A different principle is highlighted each day and, much like in Judaism, candles are lit in a candle holder called a kinara in accordance with the day.
There are over 2,000 different languages spoken in Africa, but Swahili was deemed the official language of the celebration as it is most widely spoken. The colors black, red and green are used for most decorating, and respectively symbolize “black for the people, red for the noble blood that unites all people of African Ancestry, and green for the rich land of Africa,” according to PBS.org.
The use of crops and other natural items are also used as decorations. On December 31, large banquets are held where celebrants feast on a wide variety of African cuisine from around the continent. Gifts are also exchanged during Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa celebrants do not need to be of African descent to participate, and men, women and children of all races are invited to take part in the festivities.
Regardless of creed, culture, race or sex, the holidays should be a time of peace, goodwill, generosity and joy. All of these holidays have one thing in common: the desire to unite mankind in joyful thanks for our past, our present and hope for the future.
So here is my holiday wish for you: May this holiday season bring you the joy of Milad, the prosperity of St. Nicholas Day, the miracle of Hanukkah, the solstice’s respect for Mother Earth, the rebirth of love of Christmas, the generosity found on Boxing Day and the unity of community of Kwanzaa.