Ask most youngsters to describe the holiday season and they are likely to share stories about celebrating Jesus' birthday with tree trimming and gift giving, or commemorating the Maccabees' victory by lighting a Menorah and giving gifts, or reflecting on the seven principles most valued by the people of Africa through the illumination of candles on a kinara and the exchanging of presents.
Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are the holidays American children observe during December. But do all children around the world participate in the same festivities?
Half of the world's population adheres to Christianity. Islam is the second most popular religion with more than a billion followers. Hinduism, which is mainly practiced in India, claims over seven hundred million members. There are close to four hundred million Buddhists, mostly in Asia. And fifteen million people are Jewish.
Facts and Festivals' Helene Henderson, editor of the Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary (Omnigraphics) says, "In December, Christmas is the most widely celebrated holiday in the Western world and in Japan. For many Asian and African countries, celebrations on this scale occur following the harvest season. Because Christianity is not the primary religion in Japan, the Japanese Christmas celebration is a nod to Western culture, more than a recognition of Christ's birth."
Significant Holidays Around The World
According to The DK Factastic Book of 1001 Lists (DK Publishing, Inc.), Islamic families exchange gifts on Islamic New Year's Day when they remember Muhammad's journey from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. However, the most significant holiday for Muslims is Ramadan, which can actually take place at any time of year depending on the Islamic lunar calendar. Although children are not required to participate, most Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire month of observance.
Dewali is the Hindu Festival of Lights and occurs in either October or November, according to the Hindu calendar. Gifts of clothing are often given during this time. Hindu brothers and sisters exchange gifts at Vaisakh, the Hindu New Year and harvest festival in April or May, and at the summer holiday of Raksha Bandhana, also known as Brother and Sister Day.
The date of the Lunar New Year, the most important Buddhist holiday, varies from country to country, but usually occurs sometime between January and April. Celebrations can last as long as a week and include giving money wrapped in red paper packets to the children.
The Many Faces of Christmas
Even in the countries where Christmas is celebrated, traditions differ. Santa Claus is not the only gift giver.
As described in The Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Tanya Gulevich (Omnigraphics), in Italy, La Befana drops off the presents on Epiphany, January 6. Black Peter, who is believed to travel with St. Nicholas from Spain to Holland, gives gifts to the children of the Netherlands on December 6, also known as St. Nicholas's Day.
In Brazil, Santa Claus is assisted by the Magi. The night before Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, Brazilian children leave their shoes beside the window or outside the front door. By morning the shoes have been filled with candy much as stockings hung by the chimney are here.
In the former Soviet Union, Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, distributed presents to Russian children on New Year's Eve as designated by the communist leadership. Since the fall of communism, Baboushka (or grandmother), the original gift giver, may return to her former role and deliver presents on Christmas Day.
English children send their wish lists to Father Christmas. But rather than use the postal service, they burn their letters in the fireplace and hope that the words will magically reach their benefactor. Le Pere Noel, Santa's French counterpart, is apparently also his neighbor at the North Pole. The German patriarch of Christmas, Weihnactsmann, is not too jolly. His appearance is similar to that of Father Time: a tired, old man on the verge of exhaustion. Because Christmas comes in the twelfth month, his visage is more representative of the end of the year than the joy of Christmas.
Unique U.S. Customs
In the United States, the holiday season varies from region to region.
Santas in sombreros adorn street lamps in Phoenix, Arizona. Midwestern communities reflect their Northern European roots in their displays and celebrations. It is an honor for a Minnesotan teenager to dress up like St. Lucia for Christmas festivities. Floridians may decorate palm trees instead of pines with balls and baubles.
From coast to coast, transplanted ethnic communities combine their national traditions with those of their new homeland to mark the holiday season.
When December 25 is Not Christmas
While December 25 is most commonly recognized as Christmas Day, some cultures celebrate Christ's birth on other days. Greeks extend Christmas greetings from December 24 through January 6. Norwegians add December 26 to their celebration. Christmas in Syria is January first, and Russian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Christmas is January 7.