Holy month: Religious observances of myriad faiths fill December calendar

Published: Friday, Dec. 21 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Mary Kay Huntsman, her husband (then Utah Gov.-elect) John Huntsman Jr, Rabbi Benny Zippel and John Price (L to R) at the 2004 annual menorah lighting by the Jewish community, held at the ZCMI Center, to celebrate the start of Hanukkah, in Salt Lake City, Utah. There are a myriad celebrations of holy days in Utah throughout the month of December.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Etymologically speaking, the word “holiday” descends from the Old English word “häligdæg,” which refers to a holy day, or a day of special religious significance.

Through the years, the word has become a generic reference to any day of observance, from the sacred (Easter) to the political (President’s Day) to the profane (Halloween). More recently, “happy holidays” has been perceived as the politically correct alternative to “Merry Christmas” when one wishes to extend good wishes without risking religious offence.

But as far as the month of December is concerned, the word “holidays” is precisely correct, with a number of significant “holy days” and observances important to a variety of religious groups from Buddhists to Zoroastrians.


For Utah’s predominant faith group, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the month of December is all about Christmas, which celebrates the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, who Mormons and other Christians believe is the son of God and the Savior of all mankind. At its world headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, the LDS Church has traditionally observed the holiday with hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights decorating Temple Square and the surrounding area, a Christmas Devotional featuring the church’s First Presidency early in December, a series of Christmas concerts by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its annual Christmas pageant, “Savior of the World,” at the Conference Center Little Theater.

Individual LDS congregations, called wards, also have ward Christmas parties and focus on the spiritual meanings of Christmas during Sunday worship services the Sunday before Christmas.

But among Utah’s other Christian denominations there are also wide variety of Christmas-oriented observances. Colleen Gudreau, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said for Utah’s Catholic community the Christmas season begins four Sundays before Christmas with Advent.

“Advent is an anticipatory feeling more than anything,” Gudreau said. “We’re in a time of joyful waiting for the coming of Christ.”

Other elements of a Catholic Christmas include the blessing of crèches and Advent wreaths; the praying of the O Antiphons (“You might be familiar with them from the hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,' which paraphrases the O Antiphones,” Gudreau said) during mass; the Posadas, which are re-enact Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem; and the Filipino Simbáng Gabi, which is a novena, or a series of prayers lasting nine days.

For all Catholics, Gudreau said, “Christmas starts Christmas Eve” with a full complement of religious observances, including a Christmas Carol service, a Vigil Mass, a Midnight Mass, several Christmas Masses on Christmas Day, 5 p.m. Vespers and a Benediction.

“Midnight Mass is usually so popular that you need to have a seating pass because there’s a limitation as to how many people can be accommodated in the cathedral,” said Gudreau, who said a pass can be obtained by calling 801-328-8941.

The Catholic Christmas observance continues through the Epiphany on Jan. 6. The Epiphany is traditionally when the three wise men come to visit the Christ child.

Also during the month of December, Catholics with roots in Mexico observe the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which celebrates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a poor Mexican Indian named Juan Diego near what is now Mexico City.

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