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Winter Revels

December is our most celebratory month of the year

December is a month of contradictions. Here in the Northeast the bitter cold of winter starts in December and each day of the month gets shorter and shorter until Dec. 21, which is the winter solstice. On that day, we experience the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It’s when we really start to gird ourselves for the long, dark winter ahead. 

And yet, December is by far the most celebratory month of the year, especially in the U.S. 

While Christmas and New Year’s dominate our culture, there are several other major and minor holidays, both secular and religious, that occur in December. 


Christians throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. The holiday, however, is not believed to be the actual birth date of Jesus. Christmas Day,  Dec. 25, evolved from a pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice and many of the traditions of Christmas (Santa Claus, Christmas trees and the gift giving) also have pagan root. In Christian religious teachings it is the death of Christ (Easter Sunday) and not his birth that is considered the most significant of all the holidays.


Hanukkah, is the Jewish Festival Of Lights. The date it’s celebrated changes each year, depending on the calendar, but it usually falls in November or December. The holiday marks the ancient miracle of the lights of temple candles lasting eight nights, which is why the menorah is lit during Hanukkah. But it's not actually considered a major holiday in the Jewish religion. Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), are considered Judaism’s most important holidays, says Rabbi Kari Tuling of Congregation Kol Haverim on Hebron Avenue. “On Hanukkah we normally have a party at the synagogue, a dinner with a short service. It’s really fun, but it’s not a huge service,” she says. 


Held each year from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Kwanzaa celebrates African American culture. Celebrations often include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, African drumming, and feasting, culminating in a communal feast known as Karamu. The holiday was created in 1966 following the Watts riots in Los Angeles and was  intended to underscore the importance of black culture. It’s based on harvest festival traditions from various parts of the African continent, including West and Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa includes seven guiding principles (unity, self-determination, creativity, faith, purpose, collective work and cooperative economics) to be discussed during the week of Kwanzaa.

Three Kings Day

Three Kings Day commemorates the 12 days of Christmas, and culminates on Jan. 6 with celebrations. The holiday celebrates the birth of Christ and the presentation of the baby Jesus to the Magi, or the three wise men, who brought the baby Jesus gifts in the manger. Also known as the Epiphany, Three Kings Day is popular in Latin American countries and among Americans of Hispanic descent. The holiday dates back to the 4th Century and there are numerous traditions associated with it, including the exchange of gifts and an outdoor feast of traditional foods featuring and the “king’s cake,” shaped like a wreath. On Three Kings Day children leave their shoes out so that the wise men can fill them with gifts. 


New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

In December we say goodbye to the year with parties, fireworks and feasting and ring in the New Year at midnight with songs. Then we kiss whoever is around us with joyous shouts of Happy New Year! Purely secular in nature, New Year’s Day is the officially recognized holiday and in the U.S. it marks the end of the long Christmas season. Many families celebrate the day at home with a special dinner. New Year’s Eve is not officially recognized as a holiday but for many the festivities that take place that night are the biggest of the year. Some people get engaged or even married on New Year’s Eve to mark the event. 

There are also several minor holidays observed in December and early January that may also be celebrated as major holidays in other parts of the world. 

Las Posados

Translated into English Las Posadas means “The Inns” and it commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (where they were sent to a manger after being told there was no room at the town’s inn). It lasts from Dec. 16-24.  Las Posados is an important Mexican tradition going back 400 years.


Also known as the Winter Solstice, Yule is an ancient pagan festival whose roots go back to pre-Christian Scandinavia. The date changes slightly each year depending on the calendar, but is held on the shortest day of the year, usually around the third week of December. This year Yule falls on Tuesday, Dec. 21.  Observances of Yule often include fires that are intended to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. Wiccans and other pagan groups celebrate Yule.

Saint Nicholas Day

Also known as the Feast of Saint Nicholas, this Christian holiday is celebrated on Dec. 6 and commemorates the death of the 3rd Century Catholic saint who is said to have inspired the modern versions of Santa Claus. The story of Saint Nicholas says he sold all his worldly belongings and gave the money to the poor. He is believed to have dedicated his life to caring for the sick and poor. Like Christmas, Saint Nicholas Day emphasizes the act of selflessness, giving and helping others to honor the saint’s legendary generosity.


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  • Rabbi Kari Tuling of Congregation Kol Haverim