Other Side of the Holidays

It’s that time of year again where mall Santas are out and Mariah Carey is slowly driving us all to the point of madness. Credit cards are being maxed out and people are gearing up for family get-togethers, some looked forward to more than others.

Whatever your personal feelings about secular Christmas, the religious celebrations are forever associated with the holiday. After all, Christ is right there in the name, and when the holidays come around most Americans think in that direction. We begrudgingly acknowledge Hanukkah and occasionally give Kwanza a tip of the hat. However, there are other traditions that get little-to-no attention despite being significantly older than our modern version of Christmas.

Many people don’t realize that Buddhism also celebrates a holiday in December. It is called Bodhi Day and it’s celebrated on December 8. This is the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni) attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. In Sanskrit and Pāli the word bodhi means enlightenment. It is known as satori in Japanese Zen Buddhism. There is also a lunar celebration of this event which lands on a different date every year. This year it falls on January 18.


According to the Buddhist monk I spoke to, the entire point of their religion is to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment. They do not worry themselves with questions about God. They believe it is beyond them. They also do not claim to worship the Buddha himself. This is a man that found the path to enlightenment and they seek to follow that path by following his example.

Buddhist households celebrate in a few different ways. One way is by decorating their own Bodhi tree with lights (sounds familiar). The bodhi tree is a sacred fig tree that is native to the Indian subcontinent. Often candles are placed around the house or worship space and are lit for thirty days. A traditional meal of milk and rice is consumed. Milk and rice has a special place in Buddhist history, as it is believed to be the first meal the Buddha ate after he achieved enlightenment.

The peaceful religion of Buddhism is a breath of fresh air in a country constantly dealing with the evangelistic right trying to dictate who the rest of us should worship and how we should do it. With Buddhism, there is no proselytizing and no recruitment, just the peaceful search for enlightenment.

The other well-known term but lesser-known holiday is the pagan celebration of Yule. The term Yule comes from the old Norse word jol, and the old English geohol which was the season of hunting that followed the harvest, the time we now call December, and eventually Yule became associated with Christmas. The first recorded use of the noun Yuletide was in 1475. Indeed, the Christian religion co-opted many pagan celebrations in an effort to do away with them altogether.

In some traditions of Wicca and Paganism, the Yule celebration comes from the Celtic legend of the battle between the young Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King represents the light and the new year, trying to usurp the old Holly King who represents darkness.

Traditional customs such as wassailing and tree decorating are of Norse origin. (Hmm, tree decorating sounds familiar.) In pre-Christian Scandinavia, Yuletide or the Feast of Juul celebration lasted for 12 days. For the Germanic people, Yule is their indigenous mid-winter festival. Ancient custom even highlighted the ritual of sacrifice.

In modern times, Yule is sometimes celebrated by a gathering around large campfires where the participants engage in ritual dancing. Evergreen plants are used to decorate the house and food is generally shared at a large feast. Many pagans display a decorative Yule log. This log is usually decorated with ribbons, candles, and various symbols of the season. In ancient times, the log was created and then burnt ritualistically over the course of 12 days. Yule begins on December 21, on the winter solstice, and the celebration continues until January 21.

As you can see, modern Christmas has borrowed from both traditions, especially Yule. Both celebrations use decorations of candles and lights. The theme of a tree keeps recurring as does the 12 days of celebration. Never mind that in both celebrations, there is a feast – which is definitely something we have continued to this very day.

So this holiday season when you’re feeling stressed, think about the peace your Pagan and Buddhist brothers and sisters are experiencing. Consider finding your own Bodhi tree and finding your own enlightenment. That would be the greatest gift any of us could receive.