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Winter Holidays Around the World

Winter Holidays Around the World. holidays after 50, holidays in middle age
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BY MARY JANE HORTON

Sunrise, sunset Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears

These words from Fiddler on the Roof are a reminder about how things change as we get older.  During the holidays this is more apparent than ever, as children grow up, some have their own children, and morphing families gather all around the world to celebrate. Families change but the traditions remain the same and we look forward to the holidays more and more as a time to come together. Here, in the United States, we are celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa. But families all over the world – people of all ages – celebrate their own traditions in their own way. Here are some other ways that people revel in the coming together of families throughout the world.

St Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated in Sweden Norway, and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on December 13. One of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Lucia was killed by the Romans in AD 304 because of her religious beliefs. In Scandinavian countries each town elects its own St. Lucia. The festival begins with a procession led by the St. Lucia designee, who is followed by young girls dressed in white and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads and boys dressed in white pajama-like costume singing traditional songs. The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia, and it is meant to bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year. Schools generally close around noon on the day of the festival so that families can prepare for the holiday. Families observe St. Lucia’s Day in their homes by having one of their daughters (traditionally the eldest) dress in white and serve coffee and baked goods, such as saffron bread (lussekatter) and ginger biscuits, to the other members of the family. These traditional foods are also given to visitors during the day.

Buddhists in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China and other places celebrate Bodhi Day on December 8th. It was on this day in 596 BC that the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.  Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become the Buddha, was a prince who left his home in Nepal at the age of 29 to search for the meaning of life.  His family had protected him from the cares of the world, but Siddhartha began to travel, and he saw the misery of old age, sickness and suffering.  Because this profoundly affected him, he chose to leave his comfortable surroundings and seek meaning. After spending six years living the life of an aesthetic and serving under six teachers, Siddhartha still did not find what he was searching for and vowed that he would sit under the Bodhi tree until he had his answers.  He meditated under this tree for a week, and on the morning of the eighth day came to several realizations that became the traditions of modern Buddhism — The Noble Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths. From this point forward he was referred to as the Buddha — The Enlightened One.  To the Buddhist, Bodhi Day it is a day of remembrance and meditation. Often, colored lights are strung about the home to recognize the day of enlightenment.  They are multi-colored to symbolize the many pathways to enlightenment.  The lights are turned on each evening beginning on December 8th and for 30 days thereafter.  A candle is also lit for these 30 days to symbolize enlightenment. Buddhists will display a a fiscus tree and beginning on Bodhi Day, these trees are decorated with multi-colored lights, strung with beads to symbolize the way all things are united, and hung with three shiny ornaments to represent the Three Jewels – The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A meal of rice and milk is significant on this holiday.  According to Buddhist legend, Sujata offered this to the Buddha upon his awakening to help him regain strength.

Diwali, which also known as the festival of light, is celebrated at the start of winter in India, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Fiji. It is one of the most important festivals of the Hindus and is celebrated over 5 days. On the first day of Diwali, people consider it auspicious to clean the home and shop for gold or kitchen utensils. On the second day, people decorate their homes with clay lamps or diyas and create design patterns called rangoli on the floor using colored powders or sand. This is the main day of the festival when families gather together for Lakshmi puja, a prayer to Goddess Lakshmi followed by feasts and firework festivities.

This is the first day of the new year when friends and relatives visit with gifts and best wishes for the season.

On the last day of Diwali, brothers visit their married sisters who welcome them with love and a lavish meal. Crackers are also an important part of the Diwali celebrations. It is said that bursting of crackers helps in driving the evil spirit away. And many sweet treats are also offered. Indian sweets or mithai are sugary, soft and very sweet. Popular desserts during diwali are made with sugar, milk ingredients and flour and are usually flavored with coconut, nuts and saffron.

Shab-e Yalda, (Yalda Night) celebrated on December 21, has great significance in the Iranian calendar. It is the eve of the birth of Mithra, the Sun God, who symbolized light, goodness and strength on earth. Shab-e Yalda is a time of joy. Yalda is a Syriac word meaning birth. Mithra-worshippers used the term yalda specifically with reference to the birth of Mithra. As the longest night of the year, the Eve of Yalda (Shab-e Yalda) is also a turning point, after which the days grow longer. In ancient times it symbolized the triumph of the Sun God over the powers of darkness. Nowadays, Yalda has become a social occasion when friends and family gather to eat, drink and read the poetry of the highly respected mystic Iranian poet, Hafez. Each member of the family makes a wish and randomly opens Hafez’s book of poems and recites the poem. Fruits, particularly pomegranates and watermelons, and nuts are served in this night. The fruits signify the hope for having a fruitful spring and summer. The red-colored fruits are believed to symbolize the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life, invoking the glory of Mithra. Pomegranates with angelica powder are also believed to protect individuals against the Devil. Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and some Caucasian states like Azerbaijan and Armenia share the same tradition as well and celebrate Yalda Night annually at this time of the year. Yalda Night was officially added to Iran’s List of National Treasures during a special ceremony in 2008.

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