December Holidays Around the World

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

December is a popular month for celebrations. There are many different holidays celebrated in December. This lesson explores some of the December holidays around the world.

December Holidays

No other month offers as many different holiday celebrations as December. Countries and cultures across the world hold observances, ceremonies, and festivals.

Several December holidays are religious, but many are secular, meaning they are not tied to a particular spiritual or religious meaning. Of these, some are based on the winter season, on long-standing cultural practices, or family values.

You're likely familiar with many December holidays, while others are new to you. Some of the more popular December holidays from around the world include:

  • Christmas
  • Kwanzaa
  • Chanukkah
  • St. Lucia Day
  • Boxing Day
  • Yule

Let's take a closer look at each of these, though there are many other December holidays around the world.

Christmas and Chanukkah

There are several Christian religious holiday celebrations held throughout the winter season. The most popular is Christmas, held each year on December 25. Christmas marks the birth of the Christian savior Jesus Christ. Many families celebrate by recognizing the mythical figure, Santa Claus, who visits homes in the night to leave gifts for the children.

Santa Claus is also known as Saint Nicholas in some parts of the world, which is why many countries also celebrate Saint Nicholas Day as part of the Christmas season. Saint Nicholas arrives to place candy and small gifts in children's shoes on either December 6 or December 19, depending on the country. Saint Nicholas Day is part of Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas. Advent marks the season of expectancy and anticipation leading up to the birth of Christ.

Though both Christmas and Saint Nicholas Day have Christian origins, the arrival of Santa Claus is a secular practice and observed in many non-Christian households.

Chanukkah, or Hanukkah, is also a religious holiday. This Jewish celebration spans eight days, beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev. Using our Western, or Gregorian calendar, this means the holiday falls anywhere between late November to late December each year.

Chanukkah commemorates a miracle that occurred when one day's worth of oil burned for eight days in an ancient Jewish temple. Jewish families light a candle on each of the eight nights, using a menorah, which is a special, symbolic candle holder. Families also exchange small gifts on each of the eight days, and share a Chanukkah feast of traditional Jewish foods.

A menorah holds one candle to represent each of the eight days of Chanukkah, plus one main candle.
Menorah and potato latkes

Kwanzaa and Yule

Kwanzaa is a secular celebration of African-American heritage, meaning 'first fruit of the harvest' in Swahili. It starts each year on December 26 and lasts for one week.

The celebration is based on several different African harvest celebrations and recognizes a long-standing African principle on each of the days. The principles are known as the Nguzo Saba and include beliefs such as unity, faith, and creativity. Each day, one of the principles is discussed while a candle is lit. A special candle holder, known as a kinara, holds all seven candles.

The seven candles of the kinara are red, black, and green in the tradition of African and Pan-African flags and other symbols.
Kinara for Kwanzaa

Yule is also a secular holiday. It celebrates the winter solstice, or the beginning of winter and the day the sun is the farthest away from the northern hemisphere. This day varies, but falls in late December.

Though Yule is an ancient holiday with German and Nordic origins, it is now sometimes known in the U.S. as a pagan holiday. Paganism can refer to several different religious practices and traditions. Generally, pagan holidays honor nature and incorporate the worship of a variety of gods and goddesses in the tradition of Greek mythology.

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