Monday, December 13, 2010

FF: Welcome to December- Holidays Around the World

An 1857 print by Japanese master, Hiroshige. It was believed that on Omisoka, fox spirits gathered to breathe fire at midnight. To find out more about Omisoka, read on!
 In the Northern or Western hemispheres, December is a festive time in which you cannot successfully stretch without hitting a holiday or celebration. But if you take into account other regions and faiths of the world, December is stuffed with festive occasions- some wild and rambunctious while others solemn and focused. So what would the people during the Age of Steam be observing around the world (... no, not Kwanzaa or Festivus...)? Well, let me show you some of these ancient holidays and their fascinating traditions, so that no matter where your airship may wander you can celebrate. Some of these holidays (such as Bodhi Day) are open to people of all backgrounds and religions, too!
Bodhi Day
When: December 8th, as of 1862
Where: Countries with Buddhist populations- but heavily celebrated in Japan and Korea.

Bodhi Day is a holiday that commemorates the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, a good chum of mine) reaching enlightenment after meditating under the bodhi tree for a full week back in the 5th century BCE. The different sects and divisions of Buddhism observe this occasion on different days and various degrees of importance. For our reference, we look to the Japanese- who declared that the day fell upon December 8 when they reformatted to a Gregorian calendar during the Meiji restoration of the 19th century. It is custom to spend the day in meditation, attending dhamma talks (sort of like an open service, anyone is welcome) and/or performing good deeds or gestures in an effort to emulate the Buddha and his mission to end suffering. Traditional food includes meals of rice and milk (what the Bodhisattva fed Siddhartha after awakening to help him regain his strength), tea, and cakes or cookies which are fashioned in the shape of the leaves of the bodhi tree.

Dong Zhi
When: December 21st/22nd
Where: China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, areas with populations of Chinese ancestry (such as San Francisco or New York City in the 19th/20th century).

Dong Zhi (dohng-jhee) is a solstice celebration that links back to the Chinese philosophy of I Ching and Neo-Confucianism. According to these philosophies, everything is assigned the essence of yin or yang- right down to food and weather. In this case, winter is the epitome of yin; cold, wet, and dark. With the winter solstice, the balance of the year tips once more and yang begins to gradually fill the world until summer. In the Age of Steam, the Qing emperors regarded Dong Zhi and NOT the current new year holiday in January to be the Lunar New Year.

It is traditional for extended families to gather together and pray for the good fortune they have received during the year at their local shrine, then partake in various delicacies like dumplings and a special dish called Tangyuan- chewy balls of rice flour suspended in broth. Tangyuan are sometimes stuffed with meat or vegetables or have dough made in a very bright pink to bring good luck. In some parts of China, the Tangyuan are served along a sumptuous feast comprised of hot, hearty dishes (yang food) in an effort to inspire balance.

A wealthy household's ancestor shrine of the period.
When: December 31st
Where: Japan

Omisoka is a New Year's Eve celebration that features a day predominately filled with work, a custom called osoji- the last good clean of the year. It's said to be obscenely bad luck to enter the new year in a state of dirt or disorganization so students clean out their desks and classrooms, families air out their entire houses, and even streets are sometimes swept. Traditionally, bundles of straw hang from doorways, so that evil spirit or bad luck will be deterred from entering the house. Of course, all of these chores pay off with a large familial feast often consisting of long udon noodles (so long that they bridge between years), mochi (a sweet, gooey rice confection), and tempura seafood. Later in the evening families will make their way to their local shrine to pray for good fortune and wait until midnight- when the large temple bells will ring in the new year. The bells will chime 108 times, a Buddhist tradition. It is customary (much like in China) to see the new year in by staying up all night, then spending the first day relaxing with family.

Again, we have the Meiji partially to thank for this holiday. While new years had been celebrated in Japan for centuries and in a similar manner, the Meiji gave it a specific date when they adopted the Western calendar in the 1860s. 
A painting of an omisoka osoji occurring- a pretty frantic scene

When: December 31st
Where: Ankh Morpork, Discworld

(.... All right, this one is fictitious- but Miss Kagashi is quite the fancier of beer and pork pie, so if there's a reason to partake all the better!)

When: Begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the traditional Jewish calendar and proceeds for eight days; traditionally in December or sometimes late November.
Where: All over the world and any place with a Jewish population.

Hanukkah is an ancient holiday that has its roots in Jerusalem, Israel in the 2nd century BCE when the occupying Greeks invaded the temple and decreed that Hellenic-style sacrifices of pigs had to be conducted. As pigs are not kosher, this outraged the Jewish population- who rose up in revolt against this spectacle. They succeeded, but when the temple was rededicated they found that there was very little lamp oil remaining that had not been tainted by the Greeks. They were able to find a little bit of oil, but only enough to burn for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that this oil burned for eight days and nights, and this is mirrored in the modern lighting of the menorah, or hannukiyah.

An 18th century painting of a family and their menorah.
In comparison to other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is minor in importance and was regarded thusly thoughout most of its history. There are several distinct traditions that come from Hanukkah however, such as the consumption of food heavy in oil or fried in it (such as donuts and latkes). Cheese-heavy dishes are also popular. It is also traditional to play dreidel, or a top spinning game that was invented by the 2nd century Jews to learn their religious symbols under the noses of the occupying Greeks.

Like many holidays, Hanukkah became the shape of how we know it today in the 19th century. Tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants came from all over the world to the United States in the 19th century- and they too wanted to be apart of a society that predominately celebrated Christmas. So, to fulfill this need and also ease childrens' feelings of alienation from their Christian neighbors small gifts began to be given each night  Most Jews in Europe and the Middle East observe Hanukkah as they did originally, however.

19th century Hanukkah menorah- Polish
Miss Kagashi is particularly lucky in that she has a few Jewish friends who are extraordinarily culinary-savvy and will be throwing a steampunk Hanukkah dinner (after the dates for Hanukkah, due to everyone's final exam schedules). If interested in learning more about the gathering and its menu, why not drop the chef a note over at his blog?

When: December 25th (Gregorian),
Where: Any country containing a Christian population, although in the modern age the secular aspect is celebrated amongst non-Christians.

I know what you're saying. Miss Kagashi, we already know about/are sick of Christmas! Well, while I do agree that the holiday has lost a lot of the original meaning to commercialism, it does make it a lot more accessible to those of us who may not necessarily BE Christian without alienating us horribly and I can't argue with a holiday that admonishes us to set aside our differences and come together. Modern criticisms aside, it's important to look at the holiday's history as it pertains to our timeline. Who knows- you might discover an old tradition or custom that might let you celebrate in a new way.

An engraving of Queen Victoria, Albert, and their children around a Christmas tree.
As most know, Christmas honors the day that Jesus Christ, the messiah of the Christian faith was born in Bethlehem, Israel. Over its long and tumultuous history it has possessed many meanings and traditions: from donning raggedy clothes and masks and singing songs door to door for food and drink (mumming or wassailing in Western Europe) to being outlawed altogether (17th century). Since the Germans seemed to have always been keen on Christmas (perhaps due to pre-Christian influences that pervade it to this day... but that's a can of worms, I'm not opening) it was of little surprise that when Prince Albert of Saxe-Corburg and Gotha- married Queen Victoria that he packed up his evergreen tree with him. The British became besotted with scenes of the royal family celebrating this very warm and cheerful holiday- this is the Victorian Christmas which we very much have inherited in the Western world.

Christmas Mummers- probably British
However, in the spirit of showing you other cultures, here are some less traditional Christmas customs and history:
- The Huron Carol: When Jesuit and Catholic missionaries were sent to Nouvelle-France (Canada) in the 17th century, they faced staunch refusal to convert from most Native American tribes in the region. In an effort to win the souls of more natives, they would often retell Christian stories in an indigenous fashion, such as referring to God as Gitchee Manitou- the Algonquin word for Great Spirit. This created an almost hybrid religion. The Huron in particular took to Christianity and this carol was developed for them- first in Huron and French, then in English. Heather Dale does a fantastic tri-lingual version.

-Las Posadas: In Mexico (and Spain in centuries past) there is a beloved Christmas tradition known as Las Posadas, a procession that commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. While the custom began as a liturgical ceremony in the 16th century, it became a staple of the people during our Age of Steam. A house or church is chosen in a neighborhood as the "inn" and each night for nine days delegation of costumed children (as angels or shepards) and their parents bearing the images of Mary and Joseph will walk door to door asking for shelter. They will be refused until they reach the "inn", where they will pray then have a festive party with seasonal baked goods and the opening of piñatas.

-Banana Trees: Christmas in India is a carryover from British rule, with Christians forming a small minority in the grand religious scheme. With evergreen or pine tree being near to nonexistant in India, both Brits and native Indians alike will decorate banana or mango trees instead.

- The Christmas Truce: Christmas inspired a beautiful, yet conflicting event in during World War I. In 1914, the Germans (as mentioned above, those Germans...) began to decorate their trenches with candles and makeshift ornaments for Christmas. What came next were volleys of carols and seasonal salutations- not bullets- between the two trenches. Slowly, the men of Germany, France, Britain, and Canada emerged from their trenches and gathered in No-Man's land to bury their dead at last, drink, exchange photographs of loved ones, and even barter for opposing side's rations. On Christmas Day there was a mass in Latin (so all of the soldiers could understand it) followed by a football game in No-Man's Land and even more merriment and carousing. However, the already dissapproving top brass wanted their war back. Several soldiers refused to fight now that they had seen the faces of their enemies- though orders from the top soon made them return to the bloodshed. It's a hopeful episode of putting aside differences in the depth of the world's first modern war.

The football game in No-Man's Land- 1914
 So there you have it- whether you celebrate one of these holidays already or are looking for a new reason to come together (and eat delicious food) here are just a few of the things people elsewhere in the world were (and still are!) doing this December. Perhaps below you could share some of your December holiday traditions.

No matter what you celebrate, have a wonderful holiday season and in the words of Bill and Ted, " Be excellent to each other."


  1. Oi, Kagashi. I have a mischievous and clever plan.

    When you're around, let's talk.

  2. Bad luck to enter the new year in a state of dirt or disorganization? I guess I'd better start cleaning--yesterday!

  3. Very cool, thank you for this post. It was much enlightening and educational. The Omisoka holiday, inspired me to make a metal foxfire charm.

  4. The Christmas Truce of 1914 involved over 110,000 soldiers who disobeyed orders that they continue to fight (from commanding officers some 25 miles from the front lines and safely away from long range artillery fire). In some places, the cease fire lasted into the new year and in one area it was still in effect at Easter. It was a brief moment in a long and brutal war, but a powerful symbol that "peace on earth" can overcome fear, predujice and hatred. You can learn more about the truce and read many firthand accounts of it in my book TRUCE: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting. Peace to everyone. Jim Murphy

  5. dong zhi (冬至) is actually pronounced 'dohng jher'. It is the winter solstice, hence it's celebration. The ancient Chinese, especially those who follow the Daoist path revere(d) nature and would celebrate holidays according to major changes in it. Really awesome explanation though!!! The rest was quite informative as well.

    (I'm a Daoist priest / I live in China)