Here in Australia as we race through the last fortnight of work before winding down for a Christmas and summer break it can feel like all the world is shopping, decorating, baking and looking towards the Christmas holiday that begins on the 25th of December. Of course we know the reality is different.
Around the world different religious and secular celebrations are being held or looked forward to and even for those who celebrate the Christian festival there are many different dates and ways of celebrating.
The Jewish eight-day celebration of Hanukkah has already begun, celebrating the rededication of the Temple. This year it runs from the 6th of December through to the 14th of December with nightly lighting of the candles of the menorah. Known as the festival of lights it commemorates the miracle of the oil that kept the lights in the temple lit for eight days when there should only have been enough oil to last for one day. This miracle came at a time when the Jewish people had rebelled against oppression so the festival is often described as recognising the triumph of light over darkness and the strength and resilience of the Jewish people.
As with most celebrations there are traditional foods – foods fried in oil such as potato cakes and doughnuts and gifts of chocolate money (Hanukkah Gelt).
In many countries St Nicholas Day celebrated on the 6th of December (or the 19th in the Julian calendar) honours the saint whose example of giving to the sick and the poor began the modern Santa Claus tradition. In parts of France on the eve of St Nicholas Day children leave shoes or stockings for filling with small gifts and sweets.
In the Netherlands St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) rides a white horse through the streets or takes part in parades. He visits schools and hospitals in the lead up to St Nicholas Eve when families celebrate with parties, food and gifts. Children here also leave their shoes out for Sinterklaas to fill them with gifts and chocolates.
Back in our part of the world the Philippines Christmas celebrations also begin before the 25th with carols and decorations appearing in the shops from September onwards. The formal celebrations kick off with early morning Mass at 4:00am on the 16th of December. Known as Simbang Gabi the early Mass continues each morning for the nine days until Christmas Day. Large numbers attend these early celebrations and gather for special breakfasts afterwards. A unique local decoration is the parol a Christmas bamboo lantern in the shape of a five-point star.
Neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia will be celebrating the Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday on the 24th of December this year with public holidays in both countries. Known in the Muslim world as Mawlid and in Indonesia as Maulid Nabi the celebrations include carnivals in many of the major cities. Carnival rides and popular food treats such as salted duck eggs are enjoyed by adults and children. Special celebrations are also held at mosques, which are decorated with lights. As at many other Muslim celebrations, alms are given to the poor.
Kwanzaa is a secular holiday celebrated by African Americans in the USA and other nations with African diaspora beginning on the 26th of December and running through to the 1st of January. It celebrates what it means to be African and honours values supporting community and family. Like many other celebrations at this time, candles, feasting and gift giving are important parts of the celebration.
The Christian celebrations continue into January with the Feast of the Epiphany celebrating the visit of the Three Kings on the 6th of January often more important than the 25th of December celebrations for many branches of Christianity.
Around the world throughout December a number of different celebrations both religious and secular will draw people together to eat special food, decorate homes and communities and give to others.