December is jam-packed with celebrations—maybe even more than you might have been aware of. It’s possible your friends, neighbors, and co-workers may be celebrating something different from you. Asking about their traditions could be a great opportunity to connect with them. Plus it gives you an opportunity to share your celebrations and why they’re important to your beliefs. So here’s a (partial) list of holidays and celebrations that someone you know may be celebrating this month, in the order they happen:
Advent: November 27, December 4, 11, & 18
We’re a little late to the party on this one, which actually began last Sunday thanks to Christmas itself falling on a Sunday this year. Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before Christmas; the word “advent” stems from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus) and points to the coming of the Savior, Jesus.
Many churches incorporate Advent wreaths into their services; some families often celebrate at home with Advent wreaths of their own. The “wreath” can be any kind of circular decoration that includes four candles. Traditions vary, but . . .
- The first candle, which is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, represents the hope of Jesus’ arrival and is sometimes called the prophet’s candle—remembering those people centuries earlier who foretold of his coming. The first candle is relit each week.
- The second candle, which is lit on the second Sunday of Advent—along with candle #1—is generally called the Bethlehem candle—remembering the little town where Jesus was born.
- The third Sunday of Advent is observed with the shepherd’s candle (lit along with candles 1 & 2 . . .), and reminds of the shepherd’s in the field who first learned of Jesus birth in a stable.
And the fourth Sunday of Advent is observed by the lighting of the angel’s candle (plus the other three), celebrating the good news the angels shared with the shepherds. Think of the classic scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Linus stands on stage during the Christmas play and tells the story from the book of Luke in the Bible:
Some use a center candle, generally white, which is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and which symbolizes Jesus’s birth. There are numerous Advent devotionals available that can be used as part of an advent celebration. So if you see a wreath with candles in it on your neighbor’s table—especially if the candles aren’t burned to the same height—they might just be celebrating Advent.
World AIDS Day: December 1
It’s not so much a celebration as a day of awareness and support. While the World Health Organization says it has “achieved the global target of halting and reversing the spread of HIV” there is still a long way to go. At the end of 2015 there were nearly 37 million people living with AIDs and 1.1 million had died of AIDS-related causes. So if you see someone wearing a red ribbon today they may have lost a friend or loved one, may be suffering from AIDS themselves, or might just be supporting WHO’s efforts to “end AIDS by 2030.”
Eid Milad ul-Nabi: December 12
If there’s a parade passing by and the crowd is holding green banners and wearing green or pink, they might be celebrating the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. While some Muslim denominations discourage celebrating this (or any) birthday, many U.S. Muslims mark the occasion by fasting or holding communal meals, special prayers or outdoor celebrations. So if you’re thinking of asking a Muslim co-worker out to lunch, it’s probably best to choose a different day, because they might just be fasting to celebrate Eid.
Hanukkah (Chanukah): December 24 – January 1
Like Advent, Hanukkah—sometimes known as Chanukah—is celebrated over multiple days, though in this case it’s 8 days in a row. Known as the Festival of Light, Hanukkah commemorates an event from more than 21 centuries ago, when—with God’s help—a small band of Jews defeated a mighty army, reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, and rededicated it to God. When they went to relight the Temple’s menorah (7-branched candle stand) they only had a one-day supply of oil. It took 8 days to ritually prepare new oil—but that one-day supply kept the light on the whole time. Celebrations include:
- Enjoying foods fried in oil, like latkes(potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts)
- Playing with a dreidel (a spinning top decorated with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin—an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there.”
- Lighting candles: at sunset each night, candles are lit on a menorah that holds 9 candles in a straight line. On the first night three blessings are read and two candles are lit. An additional candle is lit each night, but only two blessings are used after that first night. The candles are meant to be placed in a window and lit from left to right, then left to burn themselves out each night.
So if you see a row of candles in a window, the folks inside might just be celebrating Hanukkah. Or possibly Kwanzaa . . . .
Christmas: December 25
Here in the U.S. Christmas is both a religious and a federal holiday so celebrations come in both sacred and secular varieties:
Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God who came to Earth as a baby. Jesus grew up to offer himself as a sacrifice to secure eternal life for those who believe in him, dying on a cross and rising from the dead three days later . . . but that’s another holiday (Easter). As shared in the Advent tradition celebrations, the birth took place in a stable (the only space available in overcrowded Bethlehem) marked by a special star and was announced to shepherds via angels—which is why you’ll often see all of the above in nativity scenes. Magi (wise men) also arrived with gifts (though probably not on the same night) and are often included as well.
Faith-centered celebrations include church services, especially on Christmas Eve, with carol singing, candles—the flame is often passed from person to person until the entire congregation holds a lit candle—and reading the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible, usually from the second chapter of Luke (as Linus did in the video above).
Many non-church-goers also celebrate Christmas with parties, visits to/from Santa, lights and decorations, ugly sweaters, and gift exchanges. Not to mention all those holiday TV shows and the movies running continuously on the Hallmark Channel. So if you see a tree by the fire or a Nativity scene in the front yard, that household might just be celebrating Christmas.
Kwanzaa December 26 – January 1
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, this week-long African American and Pan-African holiday celebrating family, community, and culture was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community after the Watts riots in Los Angeles.
Kwanzaa is centered around seven principles: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Like both Advent and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa celebrations involve lighting candles each night of the festival. Kwanzaa colors are black, red, and green and so are the candles. Various objects, including ears of corn, African art objects, and books on the life and culture of African people are placed near the candles on a piece of African cloth. Celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal. So if you see someone wearing African-style clothing, especially in colors of black, red and green, they might just be celebrating Kwanzaa.