Winter Holiday Cultural Traditions in the United States

During the winter/holiday break, the average American celebrates Christmas and New Year’s, but there are other winter holiday celebrations that are time honored and carry major cultural significance. America is a “melting pot” of all cultures, races, and religions. It is important to educate oneself on the different cultures, celebrations, and traditions of the holidays that people from other walks of life celebrate all around our country during the winter holidays because education is one step closer to uniting people from all different backgrounds.

No matter how you choose to celebrate the holiday season, the one thing all of these traditions have in common is togetherness.

Las Posadas, December 16 – 24

Las Posadas, celebrated chiefly in Latin America, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Spain, and by Hispanics in the United States, is Spanish for “The Inns.” It honors the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of lodging. During each night of this nine-day festival, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession through towns and cities. Children wear gold robes and carry candles along with pictures of Mary and Joseph. Adults follow, many of them playing music, as they stop at houses to ask for lodging. When they are refused lodging per the original story, they read Bible passages and sing Christmas carols.

Winter Solstice / Yule / Christmastide, December 21

One of the oldest recorded winter holidays in history, the winter solstice marks the end of fall and beginning of winter. This year, on Tuesday, December 21, at 2:02 a.m. PST and 5:02 a.m. EST, that’s what will happen for us Northern Hemisphere folks. Originally called Yule, it’s also referred to as Yuletide or Christmastide and is viewed as a time for energy renewal and introspection. The occasion is marked with sweet traditions — from brewing up mulled cider to lighting lanterns to setting intentions for the season ahead. It is also the basis for the modern yule log that’s decorated with candles and berries, and generally placed on a mantle or placing large oak logs into the fireplace. (MotherMag.com How to Celebrate the Winter Solstice).

Soyal, December 22

Zuni and Hopi (inhabitants of northern Arizona for over a thousand years) Native American tribes in the southern U.S. honor the Winter Solstice on Tuesday, December 22. The Soyal begins on the shortest day of the year with a ceremony to lure back the sun god, who is believed to have traveled away from the tribes during the winter. It also marks a new cycle of the Wheel of the Year. Traditionally, it’s viewed as a time for purification and, for the Hopi, it’s a festival that lasts 16 days and includes prayers, supplications, a passing down of stories from elders in the tribe, and concludes with a feast. Tribe members dress up in masks and costumes to represent Kachina spirits — spirits believed to guard over the Hopi — and perform dances, the Soyal Ceremony (Soyaluna or Soyalangwul), understood to mean “Establishing Life Anew for All the World.” Traditionally, children are given dolls that represent the Kachina spirits as gifts.

Hanukkah, December 22 – 30

Hanukkah — Hebrew for “dedication” — is a Jewish holiday; an eight-day long celebration known as the "festival of lights," Hanukkah is rooted in Jewish beliefs and can be traced back to 200 B.C. Based on the story of the menorah in the Second Temple of Jerusalem that burned for eight days in spite of only having a single day’s supply of oil. During each of Hanukkah’s eight nights, one candle on the menorah is lit by the Shamash candle — the ninth candle used to ignite all of the others. A recitation of special blessings accompanies the nightly lighting ceremony followed by the singing of traditional songs. The Hanukkah story is retold. Traditional food dishes, such as potato pancakes called latkes and jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot, are fried in oil to honor the initial oil-based miracle. Many Jewish families exchange gifts — one per night for eight nights — wrapped in traditional silver and blue paper or gift bags.

Christmas, December 25

Primarily a Western holiday, Christmas in the United States is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. It originated with the story of Jesus’ being born in a manger. For many Christians across the world, that remains the reason for the season. Christmas Eve begins on the evening of December 24. During the night, gifts from Santa Claus will mysteriously appear in many households, delighting children on the morning of December 25. Most Americans love Christmas — 93% report celebrating the holiday while only 65% define themselves as Christians. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. It has also come to symbolize family, love, coziness, and expressions of joy. It’s the time of year we all stop and come together, with 67% of workers taking at least part of Christmas week off of work.

Kwanzaa, December 26 – January 1

A relatively new holiday, Kwanzaa, a Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," or "first fruits" in English, was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at CSU, Long Beach. Kwanza honors African-American culture and beginning on December 26 each year, this holiday is a weeklong celebration during which each day a single candle is lit in the kinara, a holder containing three red candles on its left side, three green candles on its right side and one black candle in the center. It highlights one of the seven core principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). The celebration is intended to reflect upon and celebrate the community’s culture and contributions to society at large.

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