December was originally the 10th month of the Roman calendar (until 153 BC). Hence, “December” comes from the Latin decem, meaning “ten.” In Roman times, the calendar only had 10 months. In our modern Gregorian calendar, December, our 12th month, has 31 days and is packed full of celebrations of different cultures and religions.
DEC. 6: The feast of Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas. The feast is celebrated annually on St. Nicholas’ Eve (5 December) by sharing candies, chocolate letters, small gifts, and riddles. Children put out their shoes with carrots and hay for the saint’s horse, hoping St. Nicholas would exchange them for small gifts. This is celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, western Germany, northern France and Hungary. The candy cane symbolizes St. Nicholas, representing his staff. Speculaas are spicy ginger cookies, often baked in a mold shaped like St. Nicholas.
DEC.7: Hanukkah (Chanukah) is an eight-day Jewish festival which begins at sundown. The festival commemorates 2,000 years ago, when the Syrian king Antiochus ordered the Jews to abandon the Torah and publicly worship the Greek gods. This act provoked a rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus, climaxed by the retaking of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the Syrians. In an eight-day celebration, the Maccabees (as the rebels came to be known) cleansed and rededicated the Temple (Chanukah means “dedication”). According to the Talmud, there was only enough consecrated oil to relight the candelabra for one day, yet, miraculously, it remained lit for eight days. The central feature of the observance of Chanukah is the nightly lighting of the Chanukiah, an eight-branched candelabra with a place for a ninth candle, the shammes, used to light the others.
DEC. 13: St. Lucia’s Day. St. Lucia’s Day, is a festival of lights celebrated in Sweden, Norway, and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland to honor St. Lucy. One of the earliest Christian martyrs, she was killed by the Romans because of her religious beliefs. Saffron Bread is prepared and there is a procession by young girls dressed in white and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads. Boys dress in white costumes and sing traditional songs. This festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season and brings hope and light in the darkest time of the year.
Dec. 25: Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration. The Renaissance humanist Sebastian Brant recorded, in Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Ship of Fools), the custom of placing branches of fir trees in houses. According to tradition, the Advent calendar was created in the 19th century by a Munich housewife who tired of having to answer endlessly when Christmas would come. In most European countries, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, December 24, in keeping with the notion that the baby Jesus was born on the night of the 24th. The morning of December 25, however, has become the time for the exchange of gifts in North America.
Dec. 26: Boxing Day is celebrated in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries. In the 1600’s, the arose because servants, who would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, were allowed to visit their families the next day, and employers would give them boxes to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and, sometimes, leftover food. In the Victorian Age, Boxing Day evolved becoming an occasion for church parishioners to deposit donations into a box that the clergyman put out for the purpose. The money in the boxes was given to the poor. In Ireland, Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen’s Day. St. Stephen is named in the Christmas song Good King Wenceslas. Its first line describes the king’s activities on St. Stephen’s day: “Good King Wenceslas looked out/on the feast of Stephen.”
Dec. 26: Kwaanza, created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a year after a historic rebellion rocked the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. It’s a week-long holiday held annually from December 26 to January 1. It celebrates family, culture, community, and the harvest. The word “Kwanzaa” itself comes from the Kiswahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits [of the harvest]. People traditionally decorate their homes with straw mats, ears of corn, and a candleholder called a kinara, which is adorned with red, green, and black candles. Red is said to represent ancestry and unity; black, the people; and green, the fertile land. A candle is lit for each day of Kwanzaa and celebrants may also exchange gifts. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, and families who celebrate Kwanzaa often celebrate it in addition to Christmas, Hanukkah, or another religious holiday.
Dec. 31: New Year’s Eve celebrates the new year ahead. While local tradition of Pennsylvania Dutch is to eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day, because they believe it brings good luck (viel glück in German). But there are many traditions around the world. In Spain, people attempt to eat 12 grapes during these 12 strokes of midnight! Tradition says that if they succeed before the chimes stop, they will have good luck for all 12 months of the coming year. In the U.S. South, black-eyed peas and port bring good luck. In Ireland, they enjoy pastries called Bannocks. Apples dipped in honey are a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) tradition. In Switzerland, dollops of whipped cream are dropped on the floor to symbolize the richness of the year to come, and they remain there! In Scotland, December 31 is known as Hogmanay. Along with fireworks, “First footing” (or the “first foot” in the house after midnight) is still common across Scotland. The first person to cross the threshold into one’s home, called the first footer, indicates the year to come. If the first footer is tall and dark, the year will be a good one. Of course, the entire spirit of a Hogmanay party is to welcome friends and strangers with warm hospitality.