The holiday season is the time year for fighting off the winter blues. People can distract themselves by celebrating a variety of things. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are just some cultural faith-based practices that go back to ancient times.
But, that doesn’t mean others can’t get creative and make ways to celebrate life when the days are short and the weather sucks. Fear not, because these traditions for the holiday season have nothing to do with religion.
Celebrating The End Of December
Across the Northern Hemisphere, our ancestors marked the winter solstice with festivals. They acknowledge the cycle of life: death, birth, darkness, and light. A few days after the solstice, the days begin to lengthen visibly, and bring promise for another spring.
Today, mid-winter celebrations in the month of December include Buddhist Bodhi Day and Hannukah. The Winter Solstice itself has many different interpretations. Hindu Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa, and of course, Hogmanay.
Candles & Lights
Since ancient times, man-made lights symbolized the light of the sun, and the promise of better days to come. Early Christians imitated their neighbors by decorating their homes with candles and laurel at the turn of the year. In Northern Europe, Germans tie candles to evergreen branches, with fruit attached to it.
Hanukkah even uses candles for its tradition. It’s centered around the menorah, which is also known as the Festival of Lights.
For many Pagan people in Europe, evergreen trees were a symbol of enduring life. Their branches had the power to fend off evil spirits. Cutting trees and bringing them indoors may have been too destructive. Since trees are heavily used with Pagan celebrations, some Christians have been opposed to having them being a part of Christmas festivities.
The first record of a decorative Christmas tree dates back to 1521 in Germany.
In Scandinavia, the traditional Yule wreath symbolized the “Wheel of the Year.” Some ancient groups believed that the great wheel stopped turning at the point of the winter solstice and each equinox. For Germans, wreaths were decorated with small candles, which encouraged the return of spring.
The circle and the candles represent the warmth from the sun. When made of holly and ivy, a wreath was thought to provide protection for any household.
Given his ethnic roots, the form of the jolly old fat man and his origins may have been shaped out in the 19th century. Since then, many media and marketers have helped shape his form, including the Bon Marche Department in Liverpool, Disney Studios, and Coca-Cola. They then turned to Scandinavian images of elves with red tunics and pointed hats.
Before that, some European stories of St. Nicholas and the German god Odin appear to have merged to create the Dutch figure, Sinterklass.
The magical status of the mistletoe goes so far back that it’s lost some of its history. It played a role in Greek mythology, and was likely the Golden Bough in the story of Aeneas.
Some versions of the story say that the goddess Frigga makes a promise to each element and plant so that it will not harm her son, Balder, the god of the summer sun. The other version is that her tears turn into the mistletoe’s white berries.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the red berries and spiny leaves of the holly plant became spiritual symbols. They represent the red blood of Jesus and his crown of thorns. But, Holly already had a special meaning for local people. The Christmas jingle “The Holly and the Ivy” contains references to the Celtic tradition.
Males and females were dressed in Holly and Ivey leaves and then danced as a repristination of male and female energy.
The Roman feast of Saturnalia lasted from December 17 to the 23. But most of all, people ate. They ate at public banquets and private parties. Slaves ate foods normally reserved for the wealthy, and everyone ate well. Saturnalia recreated a mythical past in which bounty was the norm and all were free to indulge.
The reality is that people feast together in every culture and religion, and feasting is a part of many mid-winter traditions.
Mulled Wine & Cider
Some people believe that wine is wasted during the heating process to make mulled wine. However, the hot spiced wine and cider are long-standing staples of winter feasts. Spiced wine dates all the way back to the 1500s. A version called “Hippocras” was sold to help heal muscle injuries.
By 1600, King Gustav I of Sweden was drinking a version of mulled wine called “glodgad vin” which translates to “glow.”
Gift-giving is a long-standing tradition. For agricultural people, mid-winter can be a time of scarcity, so gift-giving was a way to help each other out during Saturnalia. They redistributed bounty from those who had excess to those who had practically nothing.
Giving gifts during celebrations is a tradition that has roots in a variety of cultures. The urge to give gifts is fascinating for anthropologists because many people tackle the experience with great enthusiasm and exasperation.
Nothing spreads holiday cheer like having friends and family around a warm fireplace. The tradition of choosing a hard large log to burn is called the Yule log. It’s a long-endured English tradition that was adopted to the English tradition.
In the mid 17th century, British clergyman Robert Herrick wrote that the young men who carried the log into the farmhouse were rewarded with beer, which is a great way to get any young person to do anything.
The Twelve Days Of Christmas
The classic jingle likely has its roots in ancient star worship. The number twelve is of special significance in Judaism and Christianity. There are twelve tribes of Israel, and there are twelve disciples, and 12,000 from each tribe will be sealed into heaven.
Even if the mythical significance of the number has older roots, it probably contributes to other things like the twelve signs of the zodiac and twelve months of the year!
Sharing Annual Family Recipes
The holidays are a time to make and share traditional meals! Even if you don’t have a traditional family favorite, it’s still worth giving a try. There are plenty of options, from sweet potatoes to marshmallows to turkey dressing made with toasted bread. Those are just some of the delicious delights people can indulge and enjoy during the season.
Oh, and for dessert, a log cake or even green Jello embedded with a pear can evoke the spirits of loved ones from the past.
Watching College Football Games
Mark your calendar for December 19. Why? well, for the college football fans, it’s pretty much playoff time! That means plenty of chances for family and friends to watch over 40 different football games. The games go right up until the first week of the New Year, when it’s the national championship game.
For the non-sports fans of the family, these high-stake games have exciting commercials, or you could spend that quality time planning a getaway.
Taking Holiday Getaways
No, this is not a trip to grandma’s house. However, it’s a time to take the kids on a trip since school is out for two weeks. The most popular locations to go on vacation are the ones with a warmer climate. Mexico, Florida, California, and the Dominican are some of the winter hot spots.
If you don’t have kids, don’t worry, traveling over the holidays still applies to you too!
Playing Board Games
Having no homework or actual work can sometimes be kind of boring. But, why not beat the blues with board games? The long dark nights of the winter season are an excellent time for you and the family to whip out the board games.
There are great new games that can become a holiday tradition too, if you can remember them that is. But, a classic game of Monopoly or Clue will get the whole gang involved.
Caring For Wildlife
Feeding birds isn’t just a hobby for old people. Many people enjoy the activity because it gives them a chance to see nature up close. Because winter has cooler conditions, it makes treks for bird watching rather pointless. However, it’s more important that wildlife still have access to fresh food and water.
Be careful though, bird lovers are usually prone to putting out extra special treats during the holiday season that other, wilder animals might be interested in as well.
Donating To Food Banks
While shopping for gifts is fun, not everyone can afford or enjoy it. Some struggle to put food on the table or a roof over their family’s head. This is the time of year for giving back, so you might want to make a new family tradition.
Volunteering or even donating items to a food bank during the holiday season will go a long way. It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone to finish the year on a strong note.
Learning About Another Culture
Most cultures are full of plenty of traditions. Unless you are apart of that particular culture, it can sometimes be difficult to attempt to learn those practices. Some families, or even classrooms, use each new season to select a new culture to help educate a new generation.
You can even read up on these other traditions and incorporate them into your very own traditions or activities for the next holiday season.
Throw An Ugly Sweater Party
There’s a big opportunity for anyone to throw this kind of party. To wear something ugly intentionally has found its purpose, all thanks to the ugly sweater party! It might seem a little mean to poke fun at anyone who buys one, but it’s all apart of the fun. There are sweaters covered in cartoon reindeer, snowmen, Santa, and elves.
Just make sure that you don’t wear the same one as someone else.
Creating Homemade Gifts
Crafting your own gifts can be more meaningful than buying one. It’s a way to get the little ones involved too! Together, you and your child could write, illustrate, and stitch together a lovely picture book.
Or, if that’s not the case, you can get more creative with a little DIY. You could make a calendar for the coming year, complete with little hand-drawn pictures. With the holidays comes extra time, so be thoughtful with your gifts to the family.
Annual Christmas Bird Count
Yes, there is an actual Christmas bird count event. And yes, it’s been around for 118 years with 2018 marking the 119th National Audubon Society bird count. It’s held every December for three weeks until the first week of the New Year.
Birds within designated areas are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in one location. Certain methodologies must be followed, so you’ll need to sign up in advance.
Holiday Gifts For Four-Legged Family Members
Most holiday traditions include inviting friends and extended relatives. But, there’s one other guest who needs to be included — pets! They’re usually present or involved in some sort of way.
In fact, almost three-quarters of dog and cat owners purchase gifts for their pets. They treat them like little humans, and they deserve it because they love us. Anything from toys to treats to new dog bones is perfectly acceptable. The possibilities are endless!
Make Some Fruitcake
I bet you didn’t know that fruitcake is just as old as ancient Egypt. Later on, it was the Romans one went one step further with the treat. What they did was prized the baked good for their shelf life. Throughout centuries and across a whole variety of cultures, fruitcake became a repository for plenty of things.
Anything from sugar and preserved fruits would be packed into the cake so nothing would go to waste.
Plan An Achievable New Year’s Resolution
It’s very difficult for anyone to save money over the holidays. With that in mind, why not go ahead and start planning for the New Year? In 2018, the top two resolutions in the United States were losing weight and getting in shape.
Yeah, those are some cliche resolutions, but it’s good to know people are motivated to get in better shape. Who knows, maybe this might inspire you to do the same!
Full Moon Skiing
Okay, not everyone can have access to snow or slopes like Lindsay Vonn. But, for those who have started this particular tradition, skiing under a full moon is breathtaking. This can certainly be done in a variety of ways. The full moon usually falls on the 21st or 22nd of December.
But, even if you aren’t a winter-sports fanatic like hockey fans in Canada, just stare up at the moonlight instead!
Traditional Foods For The New Year
Ringing in the New Year means a fresh start and New Years resolutions. Foods used to smooth out the transition are certainly a must. For instance, black-eyed peas are associated with African-American traditions. Meanwhile, foods like pork have a different meaning to it.
It’s been said that pork is a traditional New Year’s meal specifically since pigs have a forward, snout-first method of grazing. I guess it’s always important to be looking forward.
The $20 Challenge
The rule is that you must purchase a least four presents and spend no more than $20. It might sound difficult at the start, but if you think about it, there are endless possibilities for you to get creative on a budget.
This certainly can lead to hilarious gifts from the dollar store, such as kites or anything for cheap. But, don’t be like that, lottery tickets and craft projects will do the trick.
Stockings Filled With Swag
Stocking stuffers don’t have to be all about socks or chocolates. It’s time to get more creative with the stockings for you and your family. Why not get your parents a gift card to a restaurant so they can dine out?
Or, get your sibling a gift card to one of their favorite stores. Or, just get them anything they like. Trust me, it’s not that hard to be thoughtful.
This particular holiday is celebrated on December 23. Of course, it’s the holiday from Seinfeld. The non-commercial holiday includes a dinner, an unadorned aluminum pole, and a practice that includes “airing out your grievances.” After that, family members can gather for the Feats of Strength.
It’s the perfect theme for an all-inclusive December gathering, and, if you’re lucky enough, you might embrace the meaning of a “Festivus for the rest of us.”