In every country, cultural celebrations play a vital societal role. We need those days when everyday life is uprooted and we spend our time preparing special dishes, decorations and rituals instead. The accelerating process of globalization has opened many more doors to get acquainted with unfamiliar, yet fascinating festivities, so let’s take a moment to feel inspired by three inspiring cultural celebrations and their underlying philosophies.
Time for a Clean Slate
Since this celebration has everything to do with a clean start, let’s start with Yom Kippoer. Yom Kippur, or the Great Day of Atonement, is the most important and holy holiday for the Jews. It has been celebrated for centuries and is described in the Bible as the day when the high priest pleaded with God for forgiveness for the Jewish people.
The Yom Kippur of today is still an important holiday with its own traditions and rituals. It is a day for fasting and long services in the synagogue. White clothing is also worn as a symbol of purity and innocence and at the end of the day, a ram’s horn is blown to herald a new beginning.
It may sound a bit solemn and serious, but there’s an inspiring story behind Yom Kippur. It is a celebration that invites you to reflect on your mistakes and shortcomings, and to make a clean slate. I think the ten days prior to Yom Kippur might be the most interesting.
In the ten days between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, Jewish people visit their friends, relatives and acquaintances. They do so to apologize for their mistakes and ask forgiveness.
In the ten days between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, Jewish people visit their friends, relatives and acquaintances. They do so to apologize for their mistakes and ask forgiveness. This way, everyone addresses their mistakes of the past year to start the new year together with a clean slate, a fresh mind, and restored relationships.
This is a tradition everyone can take inspiration from, to pause and reflect on what needs to be restored during the first days after New Year’s. Once a year we can consciously put our pride aside, admit to the things we’ve done wrong and forgive each other.
Celebrating the Light
Another inspiring cultural celebration that fascinates me are Midwinter traditions. The midwinter feast has been celebrated in several cultures since the Middle Ages, also known as Jul (Scandinavia), Joel (Netherlands), Yule (English-speaking countries) or the Feast of Light. In the middle of the dark, barren winter, an uplifting celebration is always welcome. Yet, it’s the symbolism of Midwinter that I find particularly appealing.
In the night of December 21-22, the celebration acknowledges that darkness is overcome by light. Midwinter falls on the longest night of the year. Above the Arctic Circle (e.g. in the North of Sweden and Norway), December 21 is a day without sunlight. But when this longest night passes, the days slowly brighten and the sun regains its strength. That’s precisely what the festival of light recognizes.
In the Old Germanic tradition, the midwinter festival lasted no less than twelve nights. During these nights, the sun seemed to stand still, as if the wheel of the year were stuck and the nights would never shorten again.
The traditions surrounding the midwinter festival have changed over time and still vary slightly from country to country. Normans started the holiday by slaughtering all the livestock that they assumed would not survive the winter. The Romans hung branches of evergreen trees at home, such as holly, spruce and mare as a symbol for surviving the dark dead wintertime (do you notice the link to the Christmas tree that appears around the same time in many people’s homes?). In some traditions, people get up early to greet the first light of the sun and light countless of candles inside the house, putting artificial light to shame.
The Wheel of the Year
In the Old Germanic tradition, the midwinter festival lasted no less than twelve nights. During these nights, the sun seemed to stand still, as if the wheel of the year were stuck and the nights would never shorten again. The lights were sparked with exuberant bonfires, so that the wheel of the year would start moving again and the days would lengthen.
Even today, great bonfires or peace-fires are lit to dispel the darkness. The fire symbolizes the return of the sun and warmth. In some countries, in line with this tradition, people burn Christmas trees on New Year’s Day. This is meant to destroy what remains of the old year and dispel the darkness (and evil spirits).
I think it’s a great idea to consciously reflect on how light overcomes the darkness every single year. This happens literally, with days lengthening yet again, but also figuratively. By showing each other love, performing good deeds and keeping an eye open for the good and beautiful in this world.
In late October, a grand spectacle takes place in Mexico. The biggest annual celebration is el Día de los Muertos: the Day of the Dead. This memorial day honours the souls of deceased family members and friends, their souls returning to Earth to finally be together again. The return of the dead is a cause for celebration, with colorful decorations, good food, dance and music.
Despite what the name implies, the celebration lasts not one but two days. On the first day, the souls of deceased children return to Earth. On the second day, which is usually celebrated most elaborately, the adult souls return for reunification with those left behind. Although that sounds a bit spooky, it is a colorful feast. The streets are marked by festive clothing and artful skeleton masks in every color of the rainbow.
The Mexicans people show that you don’t have to be afraid of death. You don’t always have to grieve in sadness.
The Cycle of Life and Death
Many will paint their face, dance, sing and perform at festivals. And there are parades with dancers and impressive floats. On both days, the Mexican people fill their homes with the best food and drinks they can afford, preparing enough chairs for all souls. It’s a time to celebrate the cycle of life and death together.
Besides the fact that I think it is a fascinating feeling to see so many decorated, painted and dressed up people dancing and singing in the street, this celebration conveys a beautiful message. The Mexican people show that you don’t have to be afraid of death. You don’t always have to grieve in sadness.
Instead, it is a way to approach death as part of life. Once a year, they celebrate their connection to the deceased and surround themselves with food and possessions that the dead preferred to have around them when they were alive.
My name is Marijke. I am impassioned by the small everyday elements of beauty and humor. I express my wonder at the world by regularly inventing new creative projects. I travel, photograph, write, play the piano and guitar, sing, make envelopes and bound books, and find new hobbies every so often.