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.
Other Christian churches observe the “holy day” in a variety of ways. The Orem Community Church, for example, traditionally hosts a live Nativity tableau, with actors and real animals (this year’s live Nativity will be held Saturday, Dec. 22, from 7-9 p.m. at the church). St. Mark’s Episcopal Church holds a family service at 5:30 on Christmas Eve, followed by the Holy Eucharist at 7:30 p.m., caroling with the choir at 10:30 p.m. and midnight mass at 11 p.m., as well as a Christmas Day service at 10 a.m. Redeemer Lutheran Church features a Christmas Eve candlelight service at 7 p.m. in addition to its Christmas Day service at 10 a.m., while Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church holds its Candlelight Worship service at 11 p.m. And in Ogden, the Congregational United Church of Christ will hold its Candlelight Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols at 5 p.m. (The Deseret News has compiled a more complete listing of Christmas services and observances by local Christian churches on another page.)
While many sects of Buddhism worship in Utah, the longest-standing is the Jodo Shinsu sect from Japan. During December, members of the 100-year-old Salt Lake Buddhist Temple recognize Bodhi Day on Dec. 8 and Joya E on Dec. 31.
Rev. Jerry Hirano also encourages his congregation to celebrate Christmas as a way to express gratitude for where they live. “The essence of Jodo Shinsu Buddhism is gratitude, and you have to be grateful for the birth of Jesus Christ if you’re American or live in Utah because without (the early settlers' faith in) Jesus Christ we wouldn’t be living here,” he said.
Hirano also said celebrating Christmas is also an opportunity to be inclusive of each other and “recognize human beings hoping for the best for each other.”
On Bodhi Day, which is the day Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha, or enlightened, while meditating under a Bodhi tree, Japanese Buddhists express gratitude for Buddhist teachings during regular services. No unique rituals are observed.
Hirano said most Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha in the spring, but most Japanese Buddhists are unique in that they celebrate those events separately.
Instead of a time for partying to ring-in the new tear, the observance of Joya E, which means last night gathering, is a time of reflection over the past year. An altar is decorated with a special rice cake stacked in the shape of a traditional Japanese mirror to symbolize the time of reflection. As for food, a special noodle is prepared after the service that separates a long life.
“They will also hit a bell 108 times” to represent overcoming 108 “klesha,” or passions, such as greed, anger or ignorance, Hirano said.
The Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah will celebrate Vaikunta Ekadasi on Dec. 23 at 9 a.m. According to legend, Vaikunta Ekadasi commemorates the day the goddess Ekadasi slew the demon Muran in protection of the Lord Vishnu. Those who fast and pray on Vaikunta Ekadasi are redeemed of their sins, a practice that bears a redemptive connection with the Christian belief in the birth of a Redeemer on Christmas.
And Christians are welcome to make those connections.
“These forms of worship are timeless,” said Balaji Sudabettula, president of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah. “Depending on how you were raised and what your perception of God is, you can give God any form you wish. God is formless, and everyone worships in his own way. One is not better than another. Whatever brings you to God is good, whether it's Christmas or Vaikunta Ekadasi or anything else.”
Ellen Silver, executive director of Jewish Family Service, said, “We go by the lunar calendar so we just finished Hanukkah this last weekend.”
She explained that Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukkah) is an eight-day celebration known as the Festival of Lights. "It commemorates the miraculous extension of one night’s worth of lamp oil for eight nights at the time of the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
“So we burn candles, one a night for eight nights,” Silver said. “It isn’t the most religious of Jewish holidays, but it certainly is a festive one. We share gifts and usually it’s a small gift every night for the eight nights. Growing up we got one gift every night. “
Hanukkah also features traditional foods, including potato pancakes called “latkes.”
“These foods are traditional mainly because they are fried in oil, and the oil is representative of the oil in the temple lamp that burned for eight nights,” Silver said.
The Hanukkah menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, is also a well-known symbol of the holiday. “Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah lights a special menorah each year at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake,” Silver said, “and this year they lit one up in Park City off of Main Street.”
But mostly, Silver continued, Hanukkah celebrations are shared between family and friends. Although it isn’t one of the Jewish High Holy Days — like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, for example — it is elevated in the minds of many non-Jews because of its proximity to the Christian celebration of Christmas as well as its focus on lights and gift giving.
And that works, she said, because Hanukkah is “more of a festive holiday.”
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It should noted that while Islam reveres Jesus Christ as a prophet, Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas as a faith tradition. The only time an Islamic holiday is observed during December is when an annual holiday happens to land during the last month of the year, according to the lunar calendar, which adjusts by 10 days annually, said Imam Muhammad Shoayb Mehtar of the Islamic Center of Greater Salt Lake.
While it is not a religiously oriented holiday, Kwanzaa is a relatively new celebration that honors African heritage in African American culture. Largely an American holiday, it is also celebrated in Canada and in the Western African Diaspora. It was first observed in 1966, and is now on the calendar for Dec. 26-Jan. 1 each year. Many view it as at least semi-spiritual in nature because of its emphasis on “imani,” which is Swahili for “faith.”
On Dec. 22, Wiccans and other Pagan groups celebrate Yule in honor of the winter solstice. And on Dec. 26, Zoroastrians note the death of the prophet Zarathustra, who lived in what is now Iran 900 years ago and whose name is attached to a piece of classical music you’ve doubtless heard but probably didn’t know: Richard Strauss's “Also sprach Zarathustra,” translated as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” best known for its thematic use in the 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Which wasn't exactly a holy movie. But Strauss's "tonal poem" is the perfect accompaniment for the Zoroastrian "holy day."