08 December 2011

The Many Various Religious and Secular Winter Festivals of Light

Technology has enabled modern humans to send information around the globe at mind-boggling speeds, and that information has the power to divide and separate mankind. Yet every culture and religion has a tradition surrounding the arrival of winter and the impending darkness — traditions that have endured despite the world's technological changes.

To ancient humans, winter was cold, dark and dangerous, and they faced the threats of hunger, exposure and roaming wild animals. The sun meant light, warmth, plant growth and survival.

During the winter, humans looked to the return of the sun each year as a celebratory event, a symbol of hope that life would return to the landscape and families would thrive again. This "birth of the sun" is celebrated as winter solstice.

The night of winter solstice is the longest of the year. After this date, the sun spends a few more minutes each day above the horizon. This year, winter solstice is Dec. 22.

Another name for the winter solstice is Yule, a pre-Christian European holiday that held many practices that remain in Christian celebrations today. The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving and gatherings to fend off fears of the dark.

Other feasts of light include:

Diwali

Known as the "festival of lights," Diwali is one of the most important annual observances in India. The festival commemorates Lord Rama's return to his kingdom after completing a 14-year exile. During this celebration, people clean and decorate their homes, light thousands of lamps and give out sweets.

The name Diwali translates into "row of lamps" and involves the lighting of diyas, or small clay lamps, filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. These lamps are kept on during the night as houses are cleaned and firecrackers are burst outside in order to drive away evil spirits.

Diwali is an official holiday in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Surname, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji. It is observed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists.

Celebrations begin on the new moon night between mid-October and mid-November and continue for five days according to the luni-solar Hindu calendar. This year Diwali began on Oct. 26.

Loy Krathong

Loy Krathong is a Thai holiday celebrated on the full moon in the 12th lunar month (November) each year. "Loy" means "to float" and a "krathong" is a lotus-shaped vessel made of banana leaves and usually contains a candle, three joss-sticks and some flowers and coins. The festival starts at night when people carry their krathongs to the nearby rivers. After lighting candles and making wishes, they place the krathongs on the water and let them drift away, carrying away bad luck. It is the time to be joyful and happy as the sufferings are floated away. This year, Loy Krathong was celebrated on Nov. 11.

St. Martin's Day

Saint Martin's Day or Martinmas is a Christian feast held on Nov. 11, and it is celebrated throughout Europe as well as Latin America. The feast coincides with harvest time, the time when newly produced wine is ready for drinking, and the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals.

Because of this, St. Martin's Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving — a celebration of the earth's bounty, with great feasting. In many countries, Martinmas celebrations begin at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Bonfires are built, and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy.

Martin was a Roman soldier before he was baptized and became a monk. The story goes that one winter night he was returning home during a snowstorm wearing a cloak.

A beggar came to him, and Martin cut his cloak in half to share with the man to save him from dying of cold.

St. Lucia Day

Dec. 13 is known in Scandinavian countries as St. Lucia Day, and it originally coincided with the winter solstice.

While this does not hold consistent with our current Gregorian calendar, a discrepancy of eight days is from the use of the Julian calendar during the 14th century, resulting in the solstice falling on Dec. 13. The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century shifted these dates to the current Dec. 20.

Lucia is venerated in a ceremony where a girl is elected to portray the saint (originally, the eldest daughter in a family, eventually a girl to represent the village). Wearing a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head, she walks at the head of a procession of women, each of whom holds a candle.

The women sing a song describing the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness. A similar version occurs in churches in the United States.

On the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Dec. 13 is celebrated as National Day. The National Festival of Lights and Renewal is held the night before the holiday in honor of St. Lucy of Sicily, the saint of light.

In this celebration, decorative lights are lit in the capital of Castries, artists create decorated lanterns for competition, and the festivities end with a fireworks display.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated for eight nights and days around the globe.

In 165 B.C., the Jewish Maccabees won a great battle over the Syrians. When the victors went to their temple, they found that the Syrians had allowed their sacred light to go out. There was only enough oil to burn their lamp for one day.

The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted eight days. Hence the menorah, a special candelabrum used for the Hanukkah ritual that holds nine candles. One candle, a "shamash," is used to light the others, while the other eight represent the eight days the oil burned. One additional candle is lit each night until all eight are lighted on the eighth night.

Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals performed every day throughout the eight-day holiday, some family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.

Special foods fried in olive oil, including latkes (potato pancakes), are served, songs are sung, and games are played in celebration.

Since Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew calendar, it can occur any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The Jewish day begins at sunset, whereas the Gregorian calendar begins the day at midnight. This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset on Dec. 20.

Christmas

Christmas, the best-known winter holiday in the United States, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Prior to Christmas, there are four weeks of Advent, during which a candle is lit each Sunday. Around the world, families decorate the tree and home with bright lights, candles and stars. On Christmas Eve, many people attend candlelight services.

Christians around the world have their own ways of celebrating Christmas.

In Egypt, many Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Before Christmas, Christian homes are decorated with lights, Christmas trees and small mangers. Advent is a 45-day fast, and the observant do not eat meat, poultry or dairy products. Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 6 and 7, when the churches are decorated with special lamps and candles. Copts also give candles to the poor.

The Philippines is the only country in Asia that is predominately Christian. The Philippine festival of light is marked by the sight of "parols," or star lanterns. Nine days before Christmas, a special Mass is celebrated in which the story of the birth of Jesus in reenacted.

Parols of all sizes can be found decorating the homes, and fireworks are heard over the next nine days. On Christmas Eve, a procession is held reenacting Mary and Joseph's search of shelter. Members of the procession carry parols to light their way.

Christians in China celebrate Christmas by lighting their houses with paper lanterns. They also have "Trees of Light," with paper chains, flowers and lanterns.

During the nine days prior to Christmas, Mexican families gather together and march with candles looking from house to house for a room at the inn, replicating Joseph and Mary's search for shelter.

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration starting on Dec. 26 and lasting seven days. Light is used in this celebration as a symbol of seven principles, each of which is symbolized by a black, red or green candle, held by a "kinara." Families gather together and with friends to exchange gifts. Each night a candle is lit and families talk about one of the seven principles until all the candles are lit.

These seven candles represent "mshumaa," meaning the seven principles. These principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Chinese New Year

The main winter festival in China is the Chinese New Year, which takes place between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, based on the Chinese lunar calendar. This is when children receive new clothing, eat fancy meals, receive new toys, and enjoy fireworks.

Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. Visits to friends and family take place during this celebration. The color gold is said to bring wealth, and the color red is considered especially lucky. The New Year's Eve dinner is very large and includes fish, noodles and dumplings.
While our outside rituals and festivals might differ, the winter holds hope for peace and renewal in cultures around the world. As Edith Wharton wrote, "There are two ways to spread the light: One is to be the candle, the other is to be the mirror."

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