Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, it can still feel very present in our day-to-day lives. With Christmas songs, adverts, and decorations everywhere we go, it can seem like it’s the only holiday in the world.

However, while around 88% of the UK plans to celebrate Christmas this year, it’s important to remember that many people don’t celebrate the holiday, and that a number of other important festivities take place around this time of year too.

One thing that many winter holidays have in common is a focus on togetherness, gratitude, and community. So, in the spirit of this time of year, we thought we’d celebrate the diversity of the festive season.

Here’s a look into six popular religious and cultural holidays that take place between December and January.

1. Hanukkah


Hanukkah, also called the ‘festival of lights’, is a holiday commonly celebrated in the Hebrew calendar.

Traditionally, it takes place in late November or early December, and commemorates the Maccabean revolt – when Jews fought for their religious freedom against the Greek-Syrian army in ancient Jerusalem.

Like many religious celebrations, the holiday is based around the story of a miracle. Around 160 B.C, Israel was under the rule of Antiochus III the Great (a Seleucid king), who outlawed the practice of Judaism, and forced the Jewish population to worship the Greek gods. On his orders, the Jewish Holy Temple was desecrated and rededicated to Zeus.

After a number of years of revolt, the vastly outnumbered Jewish forces eventually won against their oppressors. Once the Jews had started to rebuild their most sacred temple, they lit the menorah – a seven-armed golden candelabra.

The story goes that there was very little oil remaining in the menorah – just enough for one day. However, according to legend, the menorah burned for eight full nights before going out. For this reason, Hanukkah is celebrated over a period of eight days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. This year, Hanukkah began on the 7th December and ended on 15th December.

The symbol of Hanukkah is a special menorah called a hanukiah, which has nine arms instead of seven. The hanukiah is traditionally displayed in a window, and for eight nights a candle is added and lit by the central candle.

Throughout the celebrations, Jews often eat foods cooked in oil to remember the miraculous longevity of the oil in the menorah. These include fried potato cakes called latkes, and jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot. Families also exchange gifts, and play with square spinning tops called dreidels.

You can see how the holiday is celebrated by watching the video below.

2. Yule


Celebrated on the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year, 22nd December 2023 – Yule is one of the oldest known festivals observed at this time of year.

Yule was originally celebrated by the Pagan and Norse people of Northern Europe, and is still celebrated by Pagan and Wiccan communities today.

The original celebration was tied to worshipping the sun, and honoured the rebirth of life and the year. As the ancient Norse believed the sun to be a wheel upon which the seasons turned, they would ward off the darkness of the winter months by drinking, lighting bonfires, and sharing tales.

Many Yule traditions have been adopted by other cultures and religions: particularly Christianity. Besides the more overt inheritance of the yule log, other customs such as the hanging of mistletoe – which was holy to the druids of the British Isles – and enjoying a feast are borrowed from the ancient festival.

Have a watch of the video below to see pagans celebrating Yule at Stonehenge.

3. Kwanzaa


Kwanzaa is a modern African-American and pan-African holiday that was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies. Beginning on 26th December and ending on 1st January, Kwanzaa is a cultural festival celebrating African culture and community.

Kwanzaa centres around the Nguzo Saba, or ‘The Seven Principles’, which are: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). You can find a thorough explanation of the Nguzo Saba on the official Kwanzaa website.

At its heart, Kwanzaa is a celebration of connection and togetherness. As a non-religious holiday, Kwanzaa is celebrated by people of all different faiths, alongside other religious festivals they might be celebrating at this time of year.

Festivities include lighting a seven-armed candelabra to represent the seven principles, sharing gifts and stories, singing and dancing, feasting, and other activities steeped in African arts and traditions.

If you want to learn more about Kwanzaa, and see the biggest annual celebration of the holiday at the American Museum of Natural History, have a watch of the video below.

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4. Bodhi Day

bodhi day

Bodhi Day is celebrated annually on 8th December and is a Buddhist holiday celebrating the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. Buddhists commemorate the day that Gautama completed his meditation beneath the Bodhi tree.

Upon awakening, Gautama is said to have had a number of profound realisations, which became the founding principles of Buddhism – namely The Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths. From that day, Gautama is referred to as the Buddha, which means ‘enlightened one’.

Buddhists celebrate this important day through meditation, hoping to one day become enlightened and reach Nirvana. Other traditions include hanging multi-coloured lights around the house to represent the eight paths. These lights are lit for 30 days, alongside a candle representing enlightenment. People also enjoy tea and cake with friends and family.

Many Buddhists also decorate their home with a ficus religiosa tree – the same genus as the Bodhi tree the Buddha sat under. This tree is adorned with lights, beads (symbolizing unity), and three ornaments to represent the Three Jewels of Buddhism.

If you’d like to learn more, check out the video below.

5. Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti

guru gobind singh jayanti

In January, Sikhs across the world celebrate the birthday of the 10th guru of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The 10th guru is a particularly significant figure in Sikhism, not only as a famed warrior, poet, and philosopher, but also due to his contributions to modern Sikh practices.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji is responsible for introducing the five K’s of Sikhism – beliefs that many Sikhs live by. He also declared the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) to be the final Sikh guru after his death, forever enshrining it as the faith’s central holy text.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji stands as an admired and respected role model for Sikhs. His legend tells of courage in the face of invaders, which saw him establish the Khalsa – a group committed to the defence of Sikh people, who still initiate members today.

The anniversary is celebrated around the world with prayer meetings and processions at gurdwaras (places of worship for Sikhs), as well as kirtan – gatherings at which hymns and verses are sung. Celebrants also take part in seva, which means ‘selfless service’, and is an important principle of the faith. Among other acts of service on this day, families distribute food to the poor.

If you want to see what the festivities are like, check out the video below.

6. Shōgatsu


While many cultures hold festivities to welcome in the new year, in Japan, New Year (Shōgatsu) is the most important holiday in the calendar.

In the UK, the first few days of the new year can feel a bit like a post-Christmas afterthought, but for those who celebrate in Japan, New Year’s celebrations involve family get-togethers as businesses close from the 1st to the 3rd of January.

Years are viewed as more distinct in Japanese culture than in the UK, so a lot of celebrations focus more heavily on beginning anew. On New Year’s Eve, families commonly undertake a deep cleaning of their house called oosouji, so that the coming year can begin on a blank slate.

Co-workers will often attend ‘year-forgetting’ parties called bōnenkai, where they’ll drink and forget any woes and hardships of the year, and look forward to the next. To that end, workers are typically expected to complete all outstanding work before the year ends.

A variety of traditional foods are eaten. For example, Toshikoshi soba, a simple and healthy buckwheat noodle dish, is enjoyed on New Year’s Eve, while ozoni (mochi soup with chicken and vegetables) is enjoyed on New Year’s Day.

Also served on 1st January are osechi ryori, or ‘seasonal/festive dishes’. These are an assortment of small meals, each with their own special meaning. For more information on the variety of foods used in osechi ryori and their meanings, check out this article from Just One Cookbook.

On the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January, many families follow the tradition of hatsumode – the first shrine visit of the year. Shrines and temples are extremely busy during the new year period, with famous locations such as the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo hosting millions of visitors over the period. As the new year begins at midnight, shrines across the country herald the event by ringing bells.

It has also become common for families and friends to send each other New Year’s postcards. People send their greetings via postcards specifically marked to be delivered on 1st January, with expressions of gratitude and hope for further kindness in the new year.

You can watch a shrine bell-ringing for yourself in the video below.

Final thoughts...

We hope that our list has introduced you to a few new ways to celebrate the winter season. Whether you already celebrate one of these holidays or would like to get involved in something new this year, it’s always nice to learn about the different ways we celebrate the same core idea of togetherness at this time of year.

Do you celebrate any of these holidays, or are you interested in joining in the festivities? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.