While we have nothing against reindeer or stockings hung by the chimney with care, Christmas often steals the holiday spotlight. Thanks to some savvy marketing, Christmas has grown into a global, commercial phenomenon. But you only need to look past the sale tags and piles of gifts to see that there are many other seasonal celebrations from around the world taking place in December. From festivities that honour cultural traditions, to rituals that mark nature’s darkest day of the year, winter has long been a celebratory month.
We’re exploring these different seasonal celebrations and sharing how to make them a touch more sustainable along the way.
Let’s start with Hanukkah — a Jewish holiday celebrated over eight days and nights. Beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, Hanukkah is known as the “festival of lights.” It finds its origins in the story of the menorah in the Second Temple of Jerusalem that burned for eight days, despite only having a single day’s supply of oil.
One of the central celebrations is the nightly lighting of the menorah. Each night a new candle on the menorah is lit, observers recite a special blessing, and traditional songs often follow. As the menorah becomes brighter each night, observers enjoy traditional foods like potato latkes, exchange gifts, and play traditional games like spin the dreidel.
Sustainable Tips For Hanukkah
- When lighting the menorah, consider using environmentally sustainable candles made from beeswax or soy. Paraffin candles are widely available but are a petroleum product that releases harmful chemicals when burned. Make the most of the menorah’s candlelight and save a little electricity in the process by turning off the lights.
- Use locally grown potatoes and onions to make Hanukkah latkes. Produce bought locally helps cut down the greenhouse gases needed to transport food, and supports local farmers. Go a step further and swap the sour cream for the latkes with a dairy-free alternative.
- Avoid plastic dreidels that will get thrown out after the celebrations have ended. Invest in quality dreidels that will be used for years to come.
Black, red, and green represent the colours of Kwanzaa. This week-long celebration begins on December 26th and honours African heritage in African-American culture. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University. After the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Karenga was looking to bring African Americans together as a community. He ended up combining aspects of several different harvest celebrations to form the basis of Kwanzaa.
On each of the seven nights, observers gather, and a child lights one of the candles on the kinara (candleholder). After lighting the candle, those gathered around discuss one of the seven principles. These principles, or Nguzo Saba, are values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans. Kwanzaa also has seven basic symbols representing values and concepts reflective of African culture.
In addition to lighting the kinara, celebrations can include song and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional feast on December 31st. Families exchange homemade gifts that hold cultural meaning on the last day, such as books about African culture for children.
Sustainable Tips For Kwanzaa
- As with the menorah at Hanukaa, when lighting the kinara, consider using environmentally sustainable candles made from beeswax or soy and enjoy the candles with the lights off to save energy.
- Use recycled materials when crafting homemade gifts and check secondhand stores to find books and decorations instead of buying new ones.
The 21st of December marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. From an astronomical perspective, this is when the sun travels on its shortest path through the sky. This journey results in the shortest day and longest night of the year here on Earth.
Winter Solstice is one of the oldest winter celebrations. Throughout history, societies around the world have held festivals and ceremonies to mark this astronomical occurrence. Ancient celebrations like Saturnalia and Yule all find their roots in the Winter solstice, celebrating the slow return of the sun. These festivities centre around the symbolism of fire and light, honouring our connection with the natural world and celebrating the changing seasons.
Sustainable Tips For Winter Solstice
- Candles are often lit to symbolize the sun’s return. Try and use candles made from earth-friendly ingredients that honour and don’t harm the natural world.
- Winter solstice is a time to celebrate humanity’s connection with the natural world. Spend time in nature and reflect on habits that will support the environment in the year to come.
- A hearty winter feast often accompanies winter Solstice celebrations. Feature local produce and try to limit the amount of meat for a more sustainable plate.
Celebrated on December 25th, Christmas is both a religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings form the basis of the religion.
The celebratory customs associated with Christmas today come from a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Some popular traditions you may be familiar with include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.
Sustainable Tips For Christmas
- When exchanging gifts, approach it from a sustainable angle. Embrace the idea that less is more and avoid unnecessary waste. Explore tips on how to gift with the planet in mind.
- When putting up a Christmas tree, avoid plastic trees made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — they are a no-go for the environment. Explore more eco-friendly alternatives.
- Buy seasonal and local when shopping for Christmas dinner. A little planning and proper execution will significantly reduce unnecessary food waste.
With so many different seasonal celebrations, sustainability will look different for everyone over the holidays. But we’re here to celebrate the little wins with you along the way, big or small.