When I was a kid, this time of year was about one thing only: Christmas. All Christmas, all the time. Decorating the tree with ornaments that were comforting in their familiarity; writing detailed missives to Santa; visiting John A. Brown department store in Oklahoma City to ogle the dolls, trains and games; sitting on Santa's lap and refreshing his memory about the contents of that letter I'd sent him.
I wasn't the only one who got swept up in the holiday spirit. My parents did Christmas big. They crafted candles that looked like snowballs, whipped up batch after batch of cookies, fudge and divinity (a confection that belied its name, as far as I was concerned—I never could stand the stuff) and filled nearly every horizontal surface in the house with elves, reindeer, sleighs, crèches, holly and other icons of the season.
Then there were the outdoor decorations, my dad's territory. His was no blow-out-the circuits Griswold family Christmas display; his style was more subtle, with tiny white lights outlining the bay window, topiary flanking the front door, ribbon candy-striping the lamp post, and candles floating on poinsettia-shaped rafts in the courtyard fountain. One year his artistry even won the city-wide house decoration contest, besting showier arrays with rooftop Santas and plywood carolers.
Everyone we knew celebrated Christmas much as we did, except for the one Jewish family in the neighborhood, and even they engaged in some Christmas customs. But as the years went on and my world expanded, I met people who celebrated Yule, Kwanzaa and other holidays at this time of year. Everything I learned about their rituals enriched my appreciation of the season.
Recently, I learned about still more traditions from—of all places—a mail-order catalog that had descriptions of winter celebrations from many cultures sprinkled among its product offerings. In the spirit of giving, I'd like to share a few tidbits about some of the special days that captured my attention.
Bodhi Day—December 8
On this occasion, Buddhists commemorate the day when Siddhartha Gautama, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, attained enlightenment and became the Buddha or "Awakened One." Buddhists consider Bodhi Day a time to renew their dedication to wisdom, compassion and kindness, keystones of their spiritual path. They celebrate with meditation, chanting and performing acts of kindness.
Winter Solstice—December 21
In prosaic terms, winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marked by the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, this happens in December; in the Southern Hemisphere, in June. But since ancient times, people have attributed deeper significance to this event. While interpretations vary, many cultures consider it a time of rebirth and new beginnings—an opportunity to examine the deeper parts of one's being, to reflect on untapped potential and bring it into the light.
Among the many celebrations that coincide with winter solstice are these:
Pancha Ganapati—December 21-25
This modern Hindu festival honors Ganesha, lord of success and remover of obstacles. The festival focuses on mending past mistakes and making a new beginning. Each day, the whole family engages in a different sadhana or daily spiritual practice, centered on creating love and harmony in relationships or in the world. A statue of Ganesha is placed in a shrine in the living room, and children dress or decorate it each day in different colors representing Ganesha's five powers or shaktis.
As I read about these observances and consider what we can learn from each of them, I notice not only their rich diversity, but also their common threads. No matter what or how we celebrate, there's value in taking time out to gather with people we love, to share stories and wisdom, to reflect on days gone by and days to come, and to rededicate ourselves to kindness, compassion, love and harmony.
Some information in this post came from:
"Celebrating Bodhi Day for the 21st Century," by Lewis Richmond, The Huffington Post
"Soyal Ceremony: Hopi Kachinas Dance at Winter Solstice," by Jack Eidt, WilderUtopia
"Celebrating Yalda Night," by Firouzeh Mirrazavi, Iran Review
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.