Winter Festivals/Festivals of Light

Prepared by Loren Madsen (just for fun)
Some of these holidays have "too" many possible sites to which one could link on the Web. For others, I found none worthy of links. No commentary on the value of the festivals themselves is intended. They appear here in alphabetical order.

Butter Sculpture Festival - Buddhist New Year

To celebrate the New Year in Tibet, Buddhist monks create elaborate yak-butter sculptures depicting a different story or fable each year. The sculptures reach 30 feet high and are lit with special butter lamps. Awards are given for the best butter sculptures.


An eight-day Jewish festival that commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists in 165 B. C. E. and the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. The holiday, which begins this year (2000) on the evening of December 21 (the 24th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar), is celebrated by lighting one candle on the 1st night, two on the 2nd, three on the 3rd, until all eight are lit.

Chaomos - Pakistan Winter Solstice

The ancient traditions of Pakistan pre-date the Christian era. During winter solstice, an ancient demigod returns to collect prayers and deliver them to Dezao, the supreme being. During this celebrations women and girls are purified by taking ritual baths. The men pour water over their heads while they hold up bread. Then the men and boys are purified with water and must not sit on chairs until evening when goat's blood is sprinkled on their faces. Following this purification, a great festival begins, with singing, dancing, bonfires, and feasting on goat tripe and other delicacies.


Christmas was once a moveable feast celebrated many different times during the year. The choice of December 25 was made by the Pope Julius I in the fourth century C. E. because this coincided with the pagan rituals of Winter Solstice, or Return of the Sun. The intent was to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one.

In 1752, 11 days were dropped from the year when the switch was from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The December 25 date was effectively moved 11 days backwards. Some Christian church sects, called old calendarists, still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (previously Dec. 25 of the Julian calendar.) Many of the traditions associated with Christmas (giving gifts, lighting a Yule log, singing carols, decorating an evergreen) hark back to older religions.


A five-day festival that celebrates the homecoming of Prince Rama and his wife, Sita, after 14 years of exile, a story told in the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text. The "Festival of Lights" is one of the most popular Indian festivals, a time for family gatherings, sweets, and fireworks that takes place between late October and mid-November.

Dosmoche - Tibetan Celebration of the Dying Year

Lasting five days, this festival centers around a magical pole covered with stars, crosses, and pentagrams made of string. Dancers dress up in hideous masks to frighten away the evil spirits for the coming year. Feasting and prayers fill the days and the finale is when the pole is torn down by the townsfolk.

El Dia de Los Tres Reyes - Three Kings Day

A traditional day of gift-giving in many Latin cultures that recalls the legend of Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior, three kings who, it is said, traveled to Bethlehem with gifts for the baby Jesus. Also known as Old Christmas or the Epiphany, the occasion is a special one for children who, on the evening of January 5, place straw or grass under their beds to attract the camels carrying the kings. The gifts left the next morning are said to come from the kings themselves.

Feast of the Ass - Middle Ages Christian

At one time this was a solemn celebration reenacting the flight of the holy family into Egypt and ending with Mass in the church. The festival became very popular as it transformed into a humorous parody in which the ass was led into the church and treated as an honored guest while the priest and the congregation all brayed like asses. The Church surpressed it in the fifteenth century, although it remained popular and did not die out until years later.

Ganna - Ethiopian Christmas

Legend has it that the shepherds rejoiced when they learned of the birth of Christ and they waved their hooked staffs about and played Ganna. This is the origin of the game called Ganna that is traditionally played on Christmas Day (January 7 -- the older date of Christmas) by all the men and boys in Ethiopia.

Hari-Kuyo - Japanese Festival of the Broken Needles

This is a Buddhist celebration held on December 8 each year throughout Japan. It is a tradition that has been carried on since at least 400 C. E. Once only observed by tailors and dressmakers, today anyone who sews participates.

A special shrine is made for the needles containing offerings of food and scissors and thimbles. A pan of tofu (soybean curd) is the center of the shrine and all the broken and bent needles are inserted into it. As the needles go into the tofu, the sewer recites a special prayer in thanks for its fine service over the year. The needles find their final resting place at sea, as devotees everywhere wrap their tofu in paper and launch them out to sea.


An African-American holiday created in 1966 by Doctor Maulana Karenga, Professor at the California State University, Long Beach, California. [then Ron Karenga a student at California State College [now University], Los Angeles, California - I (MH) was there. ] and patterned after the African harvest festivals. Kwanzaa, or "First Fruits" in Swahili, is celebrated from December 26 to January 1, with each day devoted to the observance of a different principle. Among the principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, creativity, and faith.

La Befana - Italy's Santa Claus

La Befana, a kindly witch, rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into the stockings of Italian children. The legends say that Befana was sweeping her floors when the three Wise Men stopped and asked her to come to see the Baby Jesus. "No," she said, "I am too busy." Later, she changed her mind but it was too late. So, to this day, she goes out on Christmas Eve searching for the Holy Child, leaving gifts for the "holy child" in each household.

Midvinterblot of Sweden

Before Christianity the Swedish people celebrated "midvinterblot" at winter solstice. It simply means "mid-winter-blood", and featured both animal and human sacrifice. This tradition took place at certain cult places, and basically every old Swedish church is built on such a place. The pagan tradition was finally abandoned around 1200 C. E., due to the missionaries persistence. (Of course they were sacrificed too, by the Vikings, in the beginning.) Midvinterblot paid tribute to the local gods, appealing to them to let go of the winter's grip. The winters in Scandinavia are dark and grim, and these were the days before central heating. And the Gods were powerful. Until this day Thursday is named after the war god Thor. Friday after Freja (fertility) It is interesting to note that to this day the Swedish name for Christmas is Jul (Yule), and the Jul gnome has a more important role than Christmas father or the Christchild. You don't kill those pagan tradition easily. The old Viking religion with Thor and his friends is still practiced by some people, somewhat less bloodily.

Night of the Radishes

This unusual event takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico on December 23 each year. It dates to the mid-nineteenth century and commemorates the introduction of the radish by the Spanish colonists. Radishes in this region grow to the size of yams but are not the rounded shape we usually see. They are twisted and distorted by growing in the rocky soil. These unusual shapes are exploited as local artisans carve them into elaborate scenes from the Bible, from history, and from the Aztec legends. Cash prizes are awarded and the evening culminates with a spectacular fireworks display.

Northern European Pagan Celebrations

Winter Solstice celebrations are held on the eve of the shortest day of the year. During the first millennium in what is today Scotland, the Druids celebrated Winter Solstice honoring their Sun God and rejoicing his return as the days got longer, signaling the coming of spring. Also called Yule, this tradition still lives today in the Wiccan traditions and in many cultures around the world.

A huge log -- the Yule Log -- is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a great bonfire. Everyone dances and sings around the fire. All the noise and great excitement is said to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep, hurrying spring on its way as the cycle begins once again and the days grow longer than the nights.


A Babylonian winter observance deriving from Zagmuk. The sacrifice in Sacaea was explicit: the king was to be ritually killed to secure continuity and renewal. As the loss of a king was a serious matter (not least to the king) a substitute king was invested with all the trappings and regalia of power and was celebrated for a month prior to being sacrificed after which there was great celebration and jollity.


A Roman winter celebration loosely modeled on Sacaea via the Greek observance of the triumph of Zeus over the seed-time god Kronos. The sacrifice of a substitute king ( a 'scapegoat') was part of the observance and, among Roman legions stationed far from Rome itself, a legionnaire was elected to be 'king,' roughly feted and honored for a time and then killed by his fellows. Saturnalia was marked by much partying, exchanging of good-luck gifts, the display of winter greens (evergreens, bay leaves, etc.). The later Christian church, failing to eradicate these pagan festivities, incorporated some of them into its own ceremonies.

Snap Dragon - A Christmas Game

Here's a fun one to try at your next Christmas Party. It was popular in England during the 1800's. Set brandy on fire in a bowl. Throw raisins into the flames. The party guests then take turns snatching the flaming raisins and popping them into their mouths. The flames go out as soon as the mouth shuts, so speed and dexterity are essential.

                                 SNAP DRAGON
                      Here he comes with flaming bowl,
                       Don't he mean to take his toll,
                             Snip! Snap! Dragon!
                     Take care you don't take too much,
                        Be not greedy in your clutch,
                             Snip! Snap! Dragon!
                      With his blue and lapping tongue
                         Many of you will be stung,
                             Snip! Snap! Dragon!
                       For he snaps at all that comes
                      Snatching at his feast of plums,
                             Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Wassailing the Apple Trees

This humorous tradition was documented in 1851 in a London Newspaper. In Devonshire, England, on Twelfth Night (January 7), the farmers get their weapons and go to their apple orchard. Selecting the oldest tree, they form a circle and chant:

                       Here's to thee, old apple tree
              Whence thou mayst bud and whence thou mayst blow
                   And whence thou mayst bear apples enow:
                           Hats full, caps full,
                        Bushels, bushels, sacks full,
                          And my pockets full too!
                               Huzza! Huzza!

The men drink cider, make merry, and fire their weapons (charged only with powder) at the tree. They return to the home and are denied entrance no matter what the weather by the women indoors. When one of the men guesses the name of the roast that is being prepared for them, all are let in. The one who guessed the roast is named "King for the Evening" and presides over the party until the wee hours.

Winter Solstice

The point during the year when the sun hovers lowest in the sky, generally on December 21. The daylight is shortest and the nights longest at this time of year. The word "solstice" literally means 'sun-standing-still.' For a few days prior to and after the actual solstice, easily determined scientifically, it is difficult to measure by eye whether the sun is changing its position in the sky, whence came the fear that the long and fruitful days of summer might never return.


The oldest winter festival for which there is a written record, Zagmuk is an ancient Mesopotamian winter celebration in which is reenacted the god Marduk's victory over the forces of darkness and disorder. Marduk's success resulted in a world born of a chaos which was "without form and void." The order thus won was tenuous and had to be recreated each year as darkness recaptured the earth. Marduk used any available allies among whom the king, as the embodiment of the state, was foremost. The king retired each December, was disinvested by Marduk's priests in order to do battle, and was reinvested as king after a new victory over darkness and chaos. In its essentials this was a sacrifice and rebirth to insure the continuity of the world.

© Mark Hurvitz
Despite Everything - Davka
Last modified (Web links added) 14 December, 2000