Westerners of all stripes are probably looking forward to Friday this week: with Christmas now only a week away, and most people anticipating some well-earned time off work, even those with no religious conviction have a reason to celebrate time with friends and family.
In fact, it’s often forgotten that people of all stripes and beliefs will be celebrating at this time of year, even in parts of the world with little or no Western influence: that’s because historically, mid-winter, and especially the solstice on 21st December, have always been a time of festivals and feasts.
Even more than mid-summer, the heart of winter can truly be said to be the one time everyone around the world comes together to celebrate, making the world bright and warm at the darkest, coldest time of the year, and give thanks that the days are finally beginning to lengthen. The word ‘solstice’ literally means ‘sun stands still’, coming from the fact that the sun appears to stop at its southern limit for around three days, before reversing its direction – in some cultures, adding to the significance of the date.
For the Romans, celebrations spanned the whole month before the solstice, during ‘Bruma’. In China, the winter solstice is called ‘Dongzhi’, literally translating as ‘the arrival of winter’; in Peru, they celebrate Inti Raymi, although in the southern hemisphere it is celebrated on June 24th. In Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the celebration is the triumph of Mithra on Shab-e-Yalda (‘night of birth’) or Shab-el-Chelleh (‘night of 40’ – the number of days in winter).
Elsewhere, Christians celebrate the birth of Christ; pagans gather at sacred sites; and for Jews, it roughly coincides with Hannukah (although never exactly, due to the Jewish lunar calendar). Similarly, for Orthodox Christians, Christmas falls on 7th January, due to their use of the Julian calendar.
Of course, this time of year is also commercially significant: many businesses rely on the winter festivals to bolster their earnings, particularly small shops and family firms but also big corporations. This is part of the reason that traditions associated in the West with Christianity have spread to places where this religion is not common: in Japan, Christmas is celebrated as a time to spread happiness, with fried chicken the most popular meal on 25th December, and KFC taking advance orders. Other global variations are in countries such as Brazil and India, where the traditional Christmas tree (a German innovation) is replaced with a decorated palm, mango or banana tree.
And in Korea, children receive gifts not from Father Christmas, but Santa Kullosu (or Grandfather Santa).
The diversity of celebrations around the world at this time of year is so breath-taking it would be impossible to list them all – especially when you consider that even in the West, every family has its own rituals and traditions for marking the season. But whatever reason you have for marking this time of year with light and kindness, we can truly wonder at the universal scope of the joy it brings.