Modern day Christmas is a hodgepodge of formerly pagan and seasonal rituals. The Christmas tree is a German pagan ritual in which a fir tree top was brought indoors to bring life to the home throughout cold, deathly winters. Even the most celebrated Christmas ritual—gift giving—wasn’t a part of the holiday until the Victorian era.

The holiday season in the US, although dominated by Christmas, is filled with a variety of celebrations, most of which claim ancient roots. But some of the newer festivities proudly embrace their modern origins. Their relative youth allows participants more freedom to invent their own celebrations, providing opportunities to confront some of the thorny issues raised by the season—celebrants handle religion, race, family, minority status, class, and commercialization with the use of parties, stories, rituals, and humor. Plus, new holidays are just fun. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Pancha Ganapati, a five-day Hindu festival that begins on December 21 and focuses on Lord Ganesha, was created in 1985 by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, an American convert to Hinduism. It was explicitly designed to help Hindu families in Western countries navigate the Christmas season. In his book Loving Ganesha, Subramuniyaswami writes, “Since Hindus do not celebrate Christmas, they often find it difficult to relate in a meaningful way to those who do” (p. 309). He describes appropriate observances, instructing readers to maintain a distinctly Hindu tone. Christmas trees and Santa Claus should be avoided, and greeting cards should focus on Hindu wisdom or scripture. The holiday was therefore intended to allow Hindus to participate in holiday activities (singing, gift-giving, and greeting cards, for example) without actually celebrating Christmas. Subramuniyaswami later notes that, in contradiction to his earlier statement, many Hindus celebrate Christmas and see nothing wrong with doing so. In response, he argues against diluting religious tradition (p. 315). Although this argument may seem ironic in the context of a holiday consciously created to mimic one celebrated by another religion, Pancha Ganapati represents one solution to the problems of living as a religious minority in the United States. The creation or promotion of a parallel holiday can ameliorate some of the feelings of alienation caused by the ubiquity of Christmas.
  1. Kwanzaa, which begins December 26 and lasts for seven days, was first celebrated in 1966. It is dedicated to the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, as articulated by Maulana Ronald Karenga, the holiday’s creator. Kwanzaa originally reflected his strong commitment to black cultural nationalism and was imagined as an alternative to the whiteness and commercialism Karenga associated with Christmas. Early Kwanzaa celebrations were criticized for exoticising Africa, ignoring the creative accomplishments of black life in the United States, and evincing too much anti-white sentiment. As the challenges facing African Americans shifted and American attitudes toward multiculturalism changed, so too did Kwanzaa. It remains an important space for the development and affirmation of racial identity, but it has evolved into a family-oriented holiday mainstream enough to inspire its own series of Postal Service stamps. As one scholar, Elizabeth Pleck, writes in the Journal of American Ethnic History, “Created by an intellectual hostile to Christianity, Kwanzaa proved dynamic enough to be redefined as religious, secular, or both, and as fully compatible with Christianity. Stemming from a rejection of racial integration, the holiday-time Kwanzaa celebration at many public schools functioned as a sign of toleration for cultural difference.” Its celebration, both independently and in relation to the rest of the December holidays, highlights the issues of class, gender, and acculturation involved in the creation and maintenance of racial identity in a multicultural society.
  1. Vestival, a holiday devoted either to human solidarity or to sweater vests, depending on how seriously you take yourself, is celebrated on the second Friday after Thanksgiving. Its organizers want you to know, “This is both not a joke, and also funny.” Sweater vests should be worn and extras shared with those who have no sweater vests of their own. Vests must not stray too far from sweater territory (fleece and Gortex are not permitted), but otherwise individuality is encouraged. Carolyn Johnson, who is credited with having created the holiday, writes in a 2008 article for the Boston Globe about the benefits of a “made-up” holiday: “the Sweater Vestival is a nascent holiday – a rare opportunity to get in on the ground level of a holiday, before manufacturers are churning out tiny, edible, foil-wrapped vests. More importantly, it is not a holiday about historical figures or causes or ideals: It is about all the other people who wear the vest.” Vestival uses gentle humor to diffuse some of the frustrations—a feeling that holidays have lost their meanings or have become overly commercialized—common to the season.
  1. Festivus, observed on December 23, was introduced to the world by writer Dan O’Keefe in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld and has become a popular alternative holiday. Its celebration includes a plain aluminum Festivus Pole, the Airing of Grievances, and the Feats of Strength. The satire involved in Festivus is sharper than that displayed by those describing Vestival. Scholars Eric Shouse and Bernard Timberg note in the journal Humor that, “Festivus is a way for those who feel traditional holidays have lost their meaning to ‘air their grievances’. Festivus celebrants participate in ceremonies that mock the most basic elements of contemporary Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations – family and togetherness.” The Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength do so directly, allowing participants to vent their frustrations toward their families. The Festivus Pole is less direct, parodying important symbols of other December holidays to undermine expectations of the holiday season. Festivus greeting cards and the inclusion of a Festivus Pole in holiday displays serve a similar function.

In the same way that Christmas traditions have waxed and waned—who knew an elf on a shelf would be so popular, and, according to this study, teach children how to live in a police state?—more new holidays are likely to share the space of the winter season, reminding all of the diversity of traditions and the creation of new ones.

Further Reading:

Image credit: Eva Prokop, via Flicker