Ohioans are no strangers to winter weather. December means low temperatures, big sweaters, and sometimes even snow! This time of year, citizens of the northern hemisphere are bundling up and hunkering down. It’s the perfect time to cozy up and do some reading. Before modern heating, people would congregate around a fire or huddle close to share warmth. What better environment could there be for community storytelling? Beloved tales are retold and passed on, gradually becoming the folk tales still familiar to us today.
Despite, or perhaps because, this part of the year gets so dark and cold, December boasts a multitude of celebrations, traditions, and holidays. In America, Christmas has long taken center stage—but many of its iconic symbols have actually been borrowed from other, preexisting winter customs. Even now, one’s religious, ethnic, and geographical background might mean participating in more than one tradition. This melting pot of a country sees a truly vast array of holiday experiences.
Just why are there so many traditions, celebrations, and festivals around this time? Many of humanity’s oldest customs are related to seasonal changes. In what we now call December, the winter solstice signals that, at long last, days will once again become longer. Moving forward, the long, cold, dark winter will grow brighter day by day until spring arrives. Warmth and light means survival. It means things will become a little bit easier. It means that life will prevail. And that is certainly something worth celebrating!
There are many plants that have long been significant to the season. Holly and mistletoe have many uses in Celtic tradition, both practical and mystical. Perhaps my favorite bit of lore is the battle of the Holly King and the Oak King, who each have rule over half the year. And evergreens are revered in many cultures for its triumph over the harsh winter conditions. The Solstice Evergreen is an exploration of the tree’s history. A truly global selection of folktales are sprinkled throughout the book, most of them pourquoi tales about how the tree came to be evergreen.
Christmas alone has innumerable facets, depending on where in the world it’s being celebrated. The Mexican legend of the poinsettia tells of a little girl who is too poor to bring an offering. She gathers a bundle of weeds, having nothing else, and when she lays them on the altar, they miraculously grow beautiful red blooms!
Italy and Russia each have a folk story about a woman who meets the three wise men (she’s called Befana or Baboushka). So the story goes, she’s busy cleaning her house and declines to go visit the baby Jesus. She ultimately changes her mind, but can’t find her way. Every winter she wanders, giving gifts to children and searching for the baby Jesus.
Of course, our most famous gift-giving legend is Santa Claus! His current red-clad, jolly image was solidified by a Coca-Cola illustration from the 1930s, but his real-life inspiration is Saint Nicholas, a bishop who was known for giving gifts to the needy. Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas, is a holiday in its own right (December 6). Children look forward to finding a small gift in their shoes or under their pillow. There are other noteworthy parts of the Christian liturgical calendar, such as Epiphany (also known as Three Kings’ Day, January 6), and the Feast of Saint Lucy (December 13). Fans of American Girl might recall Kirsten wearing a candle wreath for this holiday. With so many to choose from, different cultures around the world put emphasis on different liturgical celebrations.
Christianity has existed worldwide for centuries, so it’s no surprise that every country has developed its own related traditions. Often, pre-Christian customs were repurposed or merged with the celebration of Christmas. A lot of American Christmas imagery is borrowed from Yule and Saturnalia, of the Germanic and Roman peoples, respectively. Caroling is the descendant of wassailing, when people would pour spiced cider on their trees and sing to scare off bad spirits. (Other merry-making spirits were often involved.)
Countries across Europe have many supplemental Christmas creatures and creeps. The horned Krampus, ancient in origin, has been enjoying increasing popularity in the recent years. Perchta, also from the Alpine region, might be a beautiful goddess or an old crone. La Befana and Baboushka are often considered to be witches. The unkempt Belsnickel (who may be familiar to fans of The Office) assists Santa Claus in Germany. Père Fouettard, a criminal-turned-assistant, accompanies Saint Nick in France. Iceland is on the lookout for Grýla and the Christmas Cat, who both like to eat naughty children. Grýla’s thirteen sons, the Yule lads, make mischief as well. They were recently featured in a charming episode of the Netflix series Hilda. And, finally, Welsh wassailing tradition involves the Mari Lwyd: a real horse skull carried through town! This fearsome roundup of folk characters seems to focus on scaring the naughty children into better behavior, though many are interpreted as having a kinder side as well.
Prominent children’s book publisher, editor, and author Arthur A. Levine points out that a lot of contemporary “Christmas” tales don’t have anything to do with the religious holiday. He writes:
I always felt, “Hey, these stories don’t even really have anything to do with religion!” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? “Frosty the Snowman”? SANTA CLAUS? Even How the Grinch Stole Christmas! They came out at Christmastime, but they were part of a whole wonderful supplementary mythology.Arthur A. Levine
And Levine is right! This odd collection of wintry songs, tales, and characters is truly home-grown American folklore. However, me must acknowledge that “Christmas” is often attached to these things (Christmas music, Christmas cookies, Christmas vacation, etc.), and a significant portion of the population can feel overshadowed. With his book The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol, Levine contributes to the growing body of seasonal stories that acknowledges a broader perspective.
Levine grew up celebrating Hanukkah, a Jewish celebration that most often occurs in December. Hanukkah commemorates the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem and the miracle of a single night’s worth of lamp oil lasting eight nights, thus giving the holiday eight days and the menorah eight candles. Chocolate gold, the dreidel game, latkes, donuts, and (at least in America) gifts make this a joyous occasion.
Kwanzaa is a different sort of holiday. It is not rooted in any faith; rather, it was intentionally founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a way to bring African Americans together. Kwanzaa is a time of remembrance, during which seven community values are taught. Not to be confused with the Jewish menorah, Kwanzaa’s kinara has seven candles. The central candle is black, representing Black people everywhere, while three red candles represent the past and three green candles stand for the hope of the future. Every day between December 26 and January 1, one more candle is lit as people spend time together and celebrate African American culture.
Even individual families have their own special winter traditions. It could be a specific recipe, game, display object, song, or something silly like wearing matching onesies. Our customs, great and small, shape our lives and add comforting familiarity to the ever-turning years. This winter, Do some exploring! Ask your friends what and how they’re celebrating, and take a moment to appreciate all the things that make this season so special.