In this season of celebration, it’s easy to disagree about what it is we’re celebrating. I think you’ll find that every single one of these December holidays has a fascinating story and an admirable reason behind it:
- Bodhi DayWhen: December 8th, 2015Why: This day commemorates the enlightenment of Siddharta Guatama, the founder of Buddhism.While many Westerners believe that “Buddha” is a proper name, it’s actually simply a noun or a title meaning “Awakened One.” Siddharta Guatama was a prince born in a kingdom in India who, after finding palace life morally lacking and existing mysticism unfulfilling, resolved to set out on his own to discover how to cure the world of its ills.
Finally, on the day commemorated on December 8th, he attained enlightenment and became an Awakened One by understanding the true nature of reality. He did this while meditating under what is now revered as the Bodhi Tree, which he had sat under resolving not to get up until he had found the answer to his quest.
Guatama would go on to teach a small group of disciples, and then much larger groups, techniques for understanding reality and ending suffering in the world, including meditation. His teachings were so successful that they were sometimes banned in Asian countries because their followers tended to refuse to engage in enterprises, such as consumerism or war, which caused suffering.
The power of Buddhist meditation to literally re-wire the brain to promote well-being and thoughtful decision-making has subsequently been confirmed by a number of brain imaging studies in the modern era, leading several high-profile neuroscientists to adopt Buddhist practices themselves.
Buddhism also enjoys a high degree of synergy with Christianity – some high-profile figures of both faiths have gone on record as stating that their values system and codes of behavior are extremely similar, and that practices of one faith can be beneficial to practicioners of the other.
- HannukahWhen: December 8-December 14, 2015
Why: Everybody knows that the Jews have had a rough time throughout history. Their refusal to pay tribute to any gods other than their own has been particularly problematic for empires, which tend to maintain control of their massive populations by convincing them that the Emperor is a living representation of divinity.The Jews’ refusal to have any of that made them a major problem for empires over the years, including the Egyptian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman Empires, all of whom conquered the hotly contested territory of Israel at some time or another. These guys couldn’t have a sizeable minority running around denying the divinity of the Emperor; it might give their many other oppressed and dissenting peoples ideas.The events commemorated at Hannukah happened under the Seleucid Empire, a Greco-Roman empire that briefly tried to turn the Holy Temple of the Jews into a temple to the Greek god Zeus, to demonstrate the superiority of their imperial religion.
The Jews who had built the Temple and worshipped at the Temple were about as thrilled by this as modern Catholics would be if ISIS stormed Vatican City and dedicated it to Allah.
A group of militant Jews, the Macabees, subsequently re-took the Second Temple through armed revolt against the Empire. But there was a problem; the Jewish holy scriptures mandated that the Temple’s menorah be kept burning at all times. The scriptures also mandated that this especially sacred menorah be fed only with a specially prepared consecrated oil; the oil was almost gone when the Temple was re-taken, and the process of preparing more would take eight days.
The miracle of Hannukah, then, was that the remaining oil – normally enough for only one day – kept the lights of the Second Temple burning for the full eight days required to make more fuel for them. This miracle was seen to affirm God’s presence in the Temple and His dedication to not allow the light of the Jews to be extinguished.
- YuleWhen: December 21st, 2015
Why: Yule (spelled “Jul” in the old Nordic alphabet) is the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun god, Baldr, after his slaying six months earlier at Midsummer.The significance of the date was obvious to pre-industrial Europeans, for whom the cold and dark of the winter months was arguably the biggest threat to life. Northern European plants shut down during winter, meaning there will be no more food coming up from the ground until the return of the Sun in the spring.In Norse mythology, Baldr, the embodiment of the Sun, was a son of Odin the Allfather and was loved by very nearly everyone. In fact he was so loved that when a prophecy surfaced that he would be killed, his mother, the goddess Frigg, successfully procured vows from everything in creation to never harm him.
Everything, that is, except one harmless-seeming, fragile plant. The heather moss, which was soft and cushioning even when frozen, was deemed too harmless to be worth extracting a vow from.
Enter Loki, the god of fire and lies, who by this point had a very serious bone to pick with Odin about the banishment of several of Loki’s own children over fears that they were too dangerous to be allowed to live among the gods.
Loki’s solution? Send Odin’s favorite Sun to join Loki’s own daughter in the underworld, of course. To accomplish this, he made an arrow out of heather moss, and convinced a blind god who couldn’t see what he was aiming for to shoot it at Baldr. In this way Loki kept his own oath – he technically never raised a hand to Baldr – and sent Baldr to the underworld for half the year.
Yule is also connected with the Wild Hunt, in which Odin and his spectral hunting party were thought to ride through the skies, preying on unwary souls who were not well-protected. Souls of extraordinary strength and bravery were said to be able to avoid the hunters and themselves become members of this divine hunting party, dedicated to rooting out evil and weakness.
It is now thought by scholars that many traditions surrounding Christian Christmas were likely adopted from European pagan festivals, including Yule. Santa’s flying host of reindeer and his rewarding of good children are said by some to be reflections of the Wild Hunt tradition. This is reinforced by the presence in some European countries of a companion demon, Krampus, who abducts and punishes bad children. In some traditions, Krampus is said to be the daughter of Loki’s own daughter Hel, who received the less honorable souls just as Odin received those who died bravely in battle.
- SolsticeWhen: December 21st, 2015
Why: Solstice is an astronomical term for the extremis of the seasons; as the Earth turns, different hemispheres face towards and away from the Sun at different points throughout the year. The Summer and Winter Solstices are the points at which the hemispheres are in their extremis – pointed most directly towards the Sun at Summer Solstice, and most directly away from it at Winter Solstice.The Solstices are thought by historical scholars to be the reason why so many holidays across the globe cluster in June and December. The changes in the length of nights and days, and the accompanying warm and cold weather, would have been noticeable – and extremely important – to any pre-industrial farmer. At least three distinct pre-Christian European festivals are known to fall around Winter Solstice, each celebrating the return of the Sun against some mythological backdrop.
The objective reality of Winter Solstice – a turning point which can be observed in the stars and its effects easily measured – have made it the December holiday of choice for atheists and agnostics to celebrate the supremacy of physical reality and the gifts of the human intellect.
On December 21st, a growing community of atheists celebrates the human ingenuity which enabled our ancestors to survive the deathly frigid winters of the north, and which today has made the weather of so little consequence that many of us do not realize how important it was to ancient peoples.
Celebrations often include discussions of the state of modern science and technology, and how our intellect can continue to make the world a kinder place for life. Discussions of the human needs for community and emotional, as well as physical warmth at this darkest time of year, are also common.
A different sort of “festival of light,” the atheist Solstice celebration celebrates the creation of warmth by human hands, instead of by the gods.
- Mawlid al-Nabi
When: December 23rd, 2015Why: Coming from the Arabic “Mawlid” for “birthday” and “al-Nabi” for “the Prophet,” Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birth of the prophet Mohammed.Like all Muslim religious holidays, Mawlid al-Nabi is marked on a lunar calendar that does not quite sync up with the Gregorian calendar which measures time based upon the movements of the Sun instead of the Moon. As a result, Mawlid al-Nabi moves around the Gregorian calendar each year; this year, it just happens to fall in late December.The Prophet Mohammed holds a place of unique importance to Muslims compared to the importance ascribed by other religions to their prophets. While Muslims recognize many prophets, including Jesus Christ (who is the second-most important figure in Islam), to them, Mohammed is the final and greatest prophet who delivered the “whole package” – the Word of God in its final and completed form.
According to tradition, Mohammed was a trader in 6th century Arabia who was visited by the archangel Gabriel, who recited for him the whole Qu’ran from start to finish. Mohammed was commanded by Gabriel to memorize the Qu’ran and spread it, so as to restore the peoples of the world to their originally intended relationship with God, which had become corrupted across the centuries.
The Qu’ran included many stories from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as some new depictions of Heaven and Hell that are not found in either book. Muslims believe that the Qu’ran is the Word of God as it was originally intended, and as it was followed by Adam and Eve, Abraham, and other Jewish and Christian figures.
However, Islam teaches that the Word of God became corrupted over the centuries and it was necessary to restore it through Gabriel’s verbatim recitation and commandment to memorize it. To this day, faithful Muslims are taught to memorize the Qu’ran word-for-word and be able to recite it, and translations of the Qu’ran into other language as treated as “translations” and not the true Qu’ran because some meaning is inevitably lost or changed in the translation process.
Mohammed went on to become an effective peacemaker in the Arabian peninsula, and was often called in to resolve disputes between its many warring parties including Christians, Jews, and Arabian pagans. In a region torn by tribal and religious warfare for scarce natural resources, Mohammed was widely regarded as a uniquely trustworthy figure without vested interests in either side of these disputes.
With his message of the ultimate unity of humanity as children of God and a moral code that was far superior to others existing in the region at that time, Mohammed ultimately recruited many followers and was able to gain control of key strategic cities without shedding a drop of blood through sheer popularity and psychological tactics.
Islam eventually spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and beyond, becoming the religion of a series of empires which, true to Mohammed’s vision, promoted the advancement of the sciences as God’s work.
Unfortunately we cannot talk about Islam or the Middle East without reference to the large amount of violence there today. From a historical perspective, this cannot be fully blamed either on Islam or on Western colonialism- Mohammed attempted, through the unifying agent of Islam, to put a stop to exactly the same kind of violence which was terrorizing the Arabian peninsula long before Islam’s creation or the coming of Western colonization.
- ChristmasWhen: December 25th, 2015
Why: This date was chosen by the Emperors who spread Christianity north throughout Europe to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Biblical scholars generally agree that, based on the description of the event in the Bible, Jesus was not born in late December – but the date was probably chosen by the first Roman Emperors to convert to Christianity to co-opt the traditional Return of the Sun celebrations that were found in cultures throughout the northern hemisphere.According to Christian tradition, Christ was no less than God himself – who chose to take on human form for a time in order to bridge the gap caused by human failings and re-unite God and man.The title “Christ,” which stems from the Greek “Khristos” for “annointed one,” refers to the belief that Jesus was the “messiah” prophesied by Jewish texts.
Born a Jew himself, Jesus began to teach lessons on morality and compassion that amazed even well-respected religious teachers at an early age.
Although he would eventually profess to be the Son of the Jewish God Himself, Jesus prioritized compassion in his teachings, often scandalizing existing religious authorities by suggesting it was acceptable to break some commandments in the higher name of love – he famously prevented the execution of an adulteress, which was commanded under Jewish law, and suggested while teaching in a synagogue that it was alright to work on the Sabbath if it was to help someone in need.
By the age of thirty-three, he had amassed such a following among Jews and non-Jews alike that both Jewish and Roman authorities wanted him gone, seeing him as a threat to the stability of their own religious systems.
Although it is often taught that Jesus was killed by the Jews due to what they considered his blasphemous claims, this is a bit of historical revisionism which stretches back many centuries – the bigger influence in his execution was likely the threat he posed to the Roman Empire as a wildly popular teacher who denied the divinity of the Roman Emperor.
This is also likely the reason why early Christians were forced to go underground, and were often executed if discovered. Like Jews, early Christians denied the divinity of the Roman Emperor. And unlike Jews at the time, Christians inspired by Christ’s example of unselfish compassion were converting others to Christianity so quickly that stamping it out was ultimately a losing battle for the Romans.
The idea that it was the Jews who were primarily responsible for Jesus’ death probably stretches back to the third century, when a Roman Emperor adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. It is perhaps understandable that a Roman Emperor who believed Jesus was on his side would not want it to be remembered that a Roman Emperor was the one who killed him.
- Zarathustra no DisoWhen: December 26th, 2015Why: The prophet Zoroaster founded what is arguably the world’s oldest surviving monotheistic religion. A dweller of the Persian desert sometime around 1700 B.C., Zoroaster taught “good thought, good word, and good deed” based upon the revelations of the One Spirit of Truth which he said visited him during his meditations.
Zoroastrianism has been credited with making significant contributions to Christian and Muslim thought, because it includes things found in Christian theology that are not found in Jewish theology. Whereas the Jews had a very different understanding of the afterlife, Zoroastrianism has a vision of a Heaven for those who are agents of truth, and Hell for those who are agents of deception.It also likely gave rise to the idea of “guardian angels,” in the form of divine “fravashi” who are said in Zoroastrian teachings to guide individual souls through earthly life and attempt to aid them in making the best decisions.
Zoroaster’s ultimate teaching was that all of life was a battle between opposing forces – Ahura Mazda, who was the force of goodness, creation, and truth, and Agra Mainyu, who was the force of evil, destruction, and deception. Any untrue thought, word, or deed was considered to contribute to the destruction of the world; any true thought, word, or deed was said to contribute to its creation.
Today, modern Zoroastrians teach that Ahura Mazda, the entity which is ultimate Truth, is a complex truth which may manifest in many forms. This has led to Zoroastrianism sometimes having the appearance of polytheism, as it was considered acceptable to venerate different aspects of Truth under different names.
Zoroastrianism was the religion of a thriving Persian empire for many centuries before it was conquered in pieces by practicioners of other religions, including Hellenistic polytheists like those who attempted to take over the Second Temple before Hannukah, and Muslims who considered Zoroastrians to be “dhimmis” who taught a flawed and imperfect version of God’s word.
The simplicity of “true thought, true word, true deed,” is not unlike the teachings of Eastern philosophers who counsel us to turn our attention to our minds before we turn them to the outside world, or the modern practice of cognitive-behavioral therapy which seeks to change damaging behaviors by first addressing damaging thoughts.
- KwanzaaWhen: December 26th 2015-January 1st, 2016
Why: Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Like the atheist celebration of Solstice, this holiday was created in modern times to meet modern needs: in Karenga’s case, he sought to unite African American communities during the very hard times that were the 1960s.He also sought to revive consciousness of African heritage, which had been almost entirely lost to African Americans due to measures such as the forced conversion of slaves to Christianity, the intentional separation of slave families, and the prohibitions in many cases against teaching slaves to read or write.
Named for a river in Africa, each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is devoted to rededicating oneself to one of the seven virtues Karenga identified as having been common to the many peoples of African:
- Umoja, or Unity – A sense of solidarity within the community – in this case, the African and specifically the African American community.
- Kujichagulia, or Self-Determination – The right and responsibility to determine one’s own identity and destiny, including to create and speak for oneself.
- Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility – The responsibility to act in the best interests of the community, building things that will benefit the community and caring for members of the community.
- Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics – The responsibility to participate in the economy, while behaving in a way that is ultimately beneficial and empowering to the community instead of detrimental to it.
- Nia, or Purpose – The responsibility to build and develop a great community and civilization, specifically to restore the African American community to greatness from the place of subjugation experienced in the Americas.
- Kuumba, or Creativity – To do as much as one can, in the ways that one can, to always create your community – leaving it more beautiful and beneficial than the way you inherited it.
- Imani, or Faith – To have faith in the abilities of ourselves and those around us, and in the righteousness of the struggle to create a great community.
While these values are specifically intended to bring together the African American community to overcome the effects of centuries of oppression – but they sound to me like a set of good ideas for everyone!