I am a lover of celebrations and traditions that still work. Just because we always did it is not a reason to keep doing it. Things change. There comes a time to reevaluate what we always did to see if it still means something. We may discover that certain customs, traditions, and ideas need to go or be modified. Since they no longer reflect our present understanding, we can graciously and lovingly make changes. Furthurmore, we might initiate new ideas that will evolve into traditions.
There are many different celebrations in the month of December and I am curious and interested in them all. Here are a few that I know about. Please correct me in the comments if I have the details wrong.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. This year that is the evening of Dec 18th and goes to Eve of Dec 26th. Celebrations revolve around lighting the menorah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown. The ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others. Typically, blessings are recited and traditional Hanukkah foods such as potato pancakes (latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are fried in oil. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with dreidels and exchanging gifts.
Starting on December 21 and running through January 1, there are many who celebrate Yule, a holiday with over a millennium of history and traditions, much of which formed the basis of what many know today as Christmas traditions. Each year, Yule is set to start on the day of the winter solstice
This day is often recognized by Indigenous people as a day of celebration, ritual, and tradition.
For many Indigenous cultures, winter is a time to connect with the spirits of the past. The December solstice became a time to reflect on and thank their ancestors, share stories, honour their origins, and set intentions for themselves in preparation for the cold months ahead. It’s also a time to recognize everyone’s fundamental interconnectedness—with each other, nature, and the cosmos.
The Winter Solstice occurs on either December 20, 21, 22, or 23 in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is the shortest day of the year. People all over the world participate with festivals and celebrations. Long ago, people celebrated by lighting bonfires and candles to coax back the sun.
is celebrated December 26 through January 1. It is a holiday to commemorate African heritage, during which participants gather with family and friends to exchange gifts and to light a series of black, red, and green candles. These candles symbolize the seven basic values of African American family life: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
First celebrated in 1966, Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday, with each day highlighting one of the Nguzo Saba — or “seven principles of African Heritage.” Celebrants also mark Kwanzaa with a kinara, a special candelabra with seven candles, one for each day.
New Year’s Eve, is considered the second-most important day in Japanese tradition and I am saving this for my end of year post.
My own tradition is Christmas and the centrepiece for me is the tree, highlighted by ornaments, each overflowing with meaning, candlelight, special international Christmas music, special foods, and always family and friends.
A newer tradition (30-year-old) in my family is baking a variety of Austrian/Swiss cookies, one of which is called Basler Brunsli. This particular cookie has evolved into mythical proportions over the years and the first batch is baked on the day the tree goes up. I would suggest that Basler Brunsli’s baking in the kitchen is now the smell of Christmas, even more than the tree.
The Smell of Christmas
So, this year as I thought about what I could do for my son and daughter-in-law who live in Vancouver, it struck me that I should fly out for a long weekend and give them the smell of Christmas by making and baking the cookies in their kitchen. And that is exactly what happened. I flew to Vancouver last Thursday and returned to Ottawa Monday night. My original plan was to fly with a super cheap airline but their limited schedules didn’t work. And then I remembered the points I hadn’t used in three years.
The reservation was made; the flight was uneventful and the time with my Vancouver family exceeded all my expectations. The freezer was stocked; the smell of Christmas filled the house and we had fun together, even doing a test kitchen trying out two different brands and three different percentages of bittersweet chocolate to see which we liked best. There was no clear winner. We liked them all.
No one in my family, past or present would ever have done such a crazy thing: fly 4500KM to bake cookies, for the smell. (No matter how much you loved the recipients.) So I clearly broke with tradition, and I will always be grateful that I did. It is now one of my favourite things of 2022.
Jolabokaflod –A three-year tradition we adapted from Iceland
I think it is great to keep doing what works. But when it no longer works, do something different or add something new. We started this new tradition, adapted from the Icelandic custom of book giving, called Jolabokaflod. This Sunday night six of us will exchange books, curl up in comfy chairs in front of the tree and the fire and read for the evening. Oops, I almost forgot that there will also be our favourite cookies, chocolates, a glass of wine or hot chocolate. In Iceland this takes place on Christmas Eve, but in our family, this happens the Sunday before. I love the idea of intentionally setting aside an evening to exchange books and read together. I can’t think of a nicer tradition than this particular family gathering, with time to sit and read together in front of the tree.
The bottom line is we can let go of the elements of holidays that do not resonate and focus on the ones that do.
Please know that my heart goes out to those of you living with devastating news and grief. We know that life continues with both joys and sorrows with no regard for the season but this season can make those moments even more difficult. Yet, I still hope for all of you that you will find joyful and loving, and kind moments in these last two weeks of 2022.
1:) Affection is the humblest love-it gives itself no airs. It lives with private things: soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, the thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor. The glory of affection is that it can unite those who are not “made for each other,” people who, if not put down by fate in the same household or community, would have nothing to do with one another. Affection broadens our minds: of all natural loves, it teaches us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who ‘happen to be there.’ Made for us? Thank God, no. They are themselves, odder than you could have believed and worth far more than we guessed.” C S Lewis
2:) The Basler Brunsli’s are made without flour, or butter. Just nuts, chocolate, sugar, egg whites and spices. However, they sit on the counter for three hours before going in the oven. They look pretty ordinary but the taste and smell are Christmas. Thanks to Rob and Allison for all the dishes they washed as I took over their kitchen and the beautiful dinners and music they orchestrated. Unforgettable.
3:) Finally, I will sign off with much gratitude and a funny but true saying to keep my cold weather complaints in check. Actually, I have nothing to complain about, yet, as this year has been unseasonably mild. Although, there are rumors of a big snowfall on Friday. “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in life but still the same amount of snow.” (not sure who said this) All my warmest wishes, Trudy