The headlong rush into the Winter Festivals is always something of a panic, but this year as well as numerous projects which need reaching a suitable state before I can take a week off, my wife has fallen sick with a stomach virus (picked up from one of her friends, visiting the UK from Atlanta) which I stand an excellent chance of catching myself. Therefore, some reduced blog service is to be expected.
I just thought I'd take a moment to talk about why I choose to talk about The Winter Festivals, rather than single out one in particular. Please note that when I talk about the Winter Festivals, I do not include festivals that generally land in November such as The Wheel of Fortune and Diwali (the Hindi Festival of Lights) - nor drifting festivals such as Ramadan that land at a different point each year.
I'm just taking about festivals that congregate near the end of December.
Winter Solstice (Yule)
This is, as far as I know, the oldest of the Winter Festivals, and responsible for a number of the traditions associated with this time of year, such as the burning of a yule log, having a winter feast and the hanging of boughs (holly and mistletoe in particular).
The Jewish Festival of Lights. This one actually sometimes hits late November, but it pretty much corresponds with the timing of the madness of the season and therefore fits. At its heart, Hanukkah is celebrating the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem when it was liberated around 200 BC. It is a nice touch that rather than expressly celebrating military victory (Jews do not, generally speaking, glorify war), the festival celebrates a miracle told in the Torah of sacred oil burning for eight nights when there was only enough for one.
The celebration of the birth of Jesus is a religious festival which historically may have less to do with the birth of the Christian saviour (which almost certainly did not happen at this time) and more to do with organised religion trying to exert excessive cultural influence in the past. Although the origins of Christmas are disputed, it looks likely that it is positioned here in order to absorb and take over Yule and similar non-Christian Winter Festivals. Although I feel Christians have every right to celebrate the birth of Jesus whenever they wish, I would like to note that excessive focus on the Nicene creed - which chooses to focus on the fantastical birth and gruesome death of Jesus instead of his central message which was that we should love one another - is one of the principle blights affecting modern Christianity and separating it from its spiritual and religious roots.
A cultural rather than religious festival that runs in the week up to Gregorian New Year. Founded in 1966 it is one of two Winter Festivals aimed at opposing the growing commercialism of the Winter Festivals. It is principally concerned with celebrating African-American heritage and is therefore only widely practiced in the United States.
Swik is the name some people use to describe the cultural festival of Greed and Commercialism which descends at this time of year. Swik is at its heart a pressure valve for the many people who are not enjoying this time of year, that they might feel free to say 'Merry Swik!' with a certain bitterness and cynicism, thus relieving their own tensions. Some people observe that more people celebrate Swik (i.e. Greed and Commercialism) than Christmas (i.e. the Birth of Jesus), although they do not necessarily call their activities 'Swik'. This year is Swik 16.0.
Gregorian New Year
It's the day we celebrate the Catholic Church's calender rolling over. Perhaps we should see this as a thank you to all the monks and similarly dedicated individuals who have developed and maintained the calendar many of us use from day to day. Since we clearly are using their calender, I have never really understood the need to introduce phrases like BCE (Before Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ). I presume such measures reduce cognitive dissonance in people who don't like to thank religion for anything.
Other New Years include Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year; first two days of Tishrei/between September and October Gregorian), Chinese New Year (between January 21st and February 21st Gregorian), Tet Nguyen Dan (Vietnamese New Year - same range of dates as Chinese New Year), Losar (Tibetan New Year - occurs between January and March Gregorian), Naw-Rúz (Baha'i New Year; on the Vernal Equinox/21st March Gregorian), Norouz (Iranian New Year; also on the Vernal Equinox), Teluga New Year (between March and April Gregorian), Thai New Year (13-15 April Gregorian), Cambodian New Year (same dates as Thai), Poila Baisakh (Bengali New Year; 14-15 April Gregorian), Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year; 11 September Gregorian), Havvoth Nar (1 The Fool/5 May Gregorian), Hindu New Year (usually two days after Diwali i.e. in Gregorian November), and Sunni Muslim New Year (on 1 Muharram in the Islamic calender).
For anyone who wonders why I slavishly refer to January 1st as Gregorian New Year, it is in part a recognition that it is not "The" New Year but "A" New Year, but also because it is my birthday and not when I choose to celebrate new year at all.
Happy Winter Festival of your choice to everyone!