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Decor and Culinary Traditions for 9 Winter Holidays

Dec 13th, 2017

Around the world, people of different religious faiths and cultures celebrate important holidays in winter. And just about all of these holidays are celebrated by at least one subset of America’s multicultural population. The occasions these winter holidays commemorate differ, but there are common threads between them. These include gift-giving rituals, holiday-specific decor, and time-honored culinary traditions. Today, we examine the raison d’etre for eight winter holidays. We also take a look at the snacks, sweets, and decor observers prepare, hang, and eat in celebration.


Tuesday, December 12 – Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Approximately 10 million Americans celebrate Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. This rededication marked the end of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. According to holiday lore, the victorious Jews only had enough oil to burn a lamp for one night following their victory against the Syrians. But the lamp burned bright for eight straight days. An eight-holder candelabra called a menorah is the most essential decorative element for this winter holiday. Each night, a new candle is lit via the flame of another in a tradition called the Festival of Lights.

Other essential Hanukkah decor include dreidels (DIY tutorial here) and the emblematic Star of David. White, blue, and silver is this winter holiday’s color scheme. One of the most iconic Hanukkah dishes is latkes (savory potato pancakes) served with applesauce. Other customary foods eaten by Hanukkah observers include jelly-filled donuts called pontshkes or sufganiyah (if deep-fried), and bimuelos. Jews of European origin have long gifted and received gelt (coins and money) during Hanukkah. Over the past half-century, the giving of other gifts has gained prevalence.

Las Posadas

Saturday, December 16 – Sunday, December 24, 2017

Between 15 and 20 percent of Americans celebrate Las Posadas, a nine-day commemoration of Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge where Mary could give birth. The nine-day duration also signifies the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. Traditionally a Catholic holiday with origins in Spain, Las Posadas is today more widely celebrated by Latin Americans.

The largest meal of Las Posadas is enjoyed just after midnight on December 24. But observers indulge in delights such as glazed ham, empanadas, tamales, and chipotle cranberry sauce throughout the Posadas holiday period.  On the decorative front, nativity scenes and Latin-inspired Christmas decor are common.

Winter Solstice

December 21, 2017  (northern hemisphere)

To some, the winter solstice is nothing more than the shortest day of the year. To others, including pagans and members of many polytheistic faiths, it’s one of the most sacred days of the year. It is also celebrated by members of the New Age movement whose spirituality revolves around the sun, moon, and stars. Rituals observed include reflection, the release of negative energy, and the setting of intentions for the new year.

Modern winter solstice celebration decor includes winter solstice trees with sun ornaments. Some observers burn a yule log (see Yule below) and eat a candlelit feast with winter wassail. Yule log cakes and nutmeg yule log cookies are the holiday’s customary sweets.

Pancha Ganapati

Thursday, December 21 – Monday, December 25, 2017

Pancha Ganapti was created in 1985 by Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a Westerner who embraced Hinduism and sought a Hindu alternative to the Judeo-Christian winter holidays celebrated in the West. The modern-day Hindu festival, dedicated to family and new beginnings, honors the Hindu deity Ganesh, patron of arts and guardian of culture.

One of five spiritual disciplines (family, friends, associates, culture, religion) is assigned to each day of Pancha Ganapti. The colors yellow, blue, red, green, and orange correspond to the spiritual disciplines. These colors also drive Pancha Ganapti decorating rituals. The focal point of this winter holiday’s decor is a shrine dedicated to Ganesh, with a statue or image of the deity at its center. Each morning, children in the home decorate the Ganesh imagery with garlands of that day’s color. Parents set presents at its base for the children. Observers of all ages set out offerings of Hindu sweets, fruits, and incense for Ganesh. Following a ceremonial puja, everyone in the home shares the sweets and fruits. On the fifth day of Pancha Ganapti, children are opened in culmination of the winter holiday.


Thursday, December 21, 2017 – Monday, January 1, 2018

An extension of the winter solstice, Yule is a 12-day pagan festival honoring the rebirth of the sun. Its origins lie in the Nordic regions, where the sun doesn’t even emerge on the shortest day of the year. The 12 days of the festival represent the length of time for which some Yule logs burn. Modern celebrants feast, decorate solstice trees, and give gifts to loved ones.


December 25, 2017

The most widely celebrated holiday in the United States, Christmas is observed by nearly 90 percent of Americans. For just over half of observers, the winter holiday commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. For the rest, it is a cultural holiday that revolves around spending quality time with loved ones. While the Christmas holiday lasts only one day, many observers have Christmas Eve traditions and celebrate the three weeks leading up to Christmas as the Advent.

The Christmas tree, traditionally topped with an angel or star, is probably the most popular of Christmas decorations. Other common decorative elements include ornaments, nativity scenes, representations of Santa Claus, and myriad red-and-green decor. The traditional Christmas dinner usually consists of a turkey or ham meal, and is somewhat similar to the American Thanksgiving spread. Christmas cookies abound in most households that observe the winter holiday.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017 – Monday, January 1, 2018

Like Pancha Ganapti, Kwanzaa is a modern holiday. Africana studies professor Dr. Maulana Karenga created the winter holiday in 1996 to celebrate African heritage in African-American culture. An estimated 2 million Americans celebrate the winter holiday, which is also celebrated in Canada and other western countries with West African diaspora communities.

Each night of Kwanzaa, family gathers around a candelabra called a Kinara. After a child in the home lights a new candle, a discussion around one of Kwanzaa’s seven ideals ensues. In addition to the Kinara, typical Kwanzaa decor includes green, red, and black ornaments and flags. African music, poetry, and dance are integral to the cultural celebration of Kwanzaa, which is not an overtly religious holiday. Kwanzaa observers who identify with a particular religious faith celebrate Kwanzaa in tandem with Christmas or another religious winter holiday.

Bodhi Day

Thursday, January 5, 2018

This Buddhist holiday commemorates the day on which the Indian Prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment under a bodhi (ficus) tree. Many Buddhists observe this winter holiday with quiet meditation and reflection. Some observers take a more celebratory approach, stringing colored lights that represent the different paths to enlightenment. Ornaments representing Buddhism’s Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) are also common. The traditional Bodhi Day meal consists of rice and milk, followed by a dessert of Bodhi-leaf shaped cookies, which look like hearts. This winter holiday is celebrated by an estimated 5 million Americans.

Chinese New Year and Spring Festival

Friday, February 16, 2018 (Spring Festival: February 16 – March 2, 2018)

The Chinese New Year marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The winter holiday is also a time to honor deceased relatives and cherished deities. The Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China and much of East and Southeast Asia. The first new moon of the new lunar year marks the New Year, but the celebration lasts 15 days, culminating with the first full moon of the new lunar year.

While few observers in the United States manage to get the entirety of the 15-day festival off work as is common in the East, there is no shortage of celebration stateside. Red is the color of the Chinese New Year, with red paper cutouts and lanterns adorning private and public spaces. Decor changes annually, depending which year of the Chinese zodiac is being heralded in. The year of 2018 is the year of the dog. Most observers celebrate the Chinese New Year with at least one large, family-oriented dim sum feast. At least 5 million Americans observe the Chinese New Year, with large-scale celebrations held in dozens of American Chinatowns.

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