November 27
Advent (Western Christianity)

Advent, a four-week season to help Christians prepare for the celebration of Christmas, is a sober and reflective period in contrast to the joy and feasting of Christmas. For Western Christians, the observance of Advent has been the domain of more liturgical denominations like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism (which is called Episcopalianism in the United States), though increasing numbers of "low church" Protestants and evangelicals have also begun observing Advent in the past decade.

Recommended Reading:

Janet Claussen and Marilyn Kielbasa present Ministry Ideas for Celebrating Advent with Teens, Families and Parishes, a guide for Catholics who want to observe Advent at home or church. (Saint Mary's, Nov.) L. William Countryman offers a devotional poem for each day of the Advent season in Run, Shepherds, Run: Poems for Advent and Christmas. (Morehouse, Sept.)

Dec. 8—Jan. 8

The Holy Day of Twinity (Presleyterianism)

The Holy Day of Twinity, one of the more random and amusing modern holidays to spring up in recent memory, takes place on January 8, the birthday of Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin brother, Jesse. For a full month before the occasion, members of the Presleyterian Church celebrate the King's impending arrival by doing everything to excess: overeating, drinking too much and spending more than they have. (The ritual contrasts sharply with the roughly concurrent season of Advent.) The Presleyterian Church and other Elvis religions are intended simultaneously to be reverential tributes to Elvis and affectionate spoofs of more traditional organized religions.

Recommended Reading:

In American Pilgrimage (Paraclete, May 2006), Jana Riess and coauthor Mark Ogilbee explore 11 pilgrimage sites in the U.S., including Graceland, Elvis's home in Memphis, Tenn. The Graceland chapter includes a discussion of some of the rituals and dietary laws of Presleyterians, who are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Graceland at least once in a lifetime and have fresh banana pudding every night.

December 21

Yule/Winter Solstice (Neo-Paganism/Wicca)

Long before Christianity reached Western Europe, individuals celebrated the winter solstice, attempting to persuade the gods to bring light from winter's darkness. The winter solstice (from the Latin for "sun stands still") marks the brief time in December when the sun appears to rise and set at the same point in the horizon, making it seem as though the sun stands still in the sky. It commemorates the passing of the darkest and shortest day of the year. The observance of the winter solstice was mostly subsumed into the festival of the Christ-Mass ("Christmas") when Christianity gained ground in Europe.

Recommended Reading:

Witchcraft practitioner Mike Nicholsoffers The Witches' Sabbats, which looks at all eight of the major Sabbat observances, including Winter Solstice. (Acorn Guild Press, Sept.) In Heartbeat of the Seasons: Earth Rituals for the Celtic Year, Irish educator Kathleen Glennon offers rituals and prayers for group and individual use. (Dufour Editions, Aug.) The Winter Solsticeby John Matthews is a full-color volume that provides customs, recipes, songs, activities and poetry to celebrate the season and includes observances of many indigenous cultures around the world. (Quest Books, 2003)

December 25

Christmas (Western Christianity)

The feast day of the birth of Jesus has, in American culture at least, surpassed every other day on the Christian calendar as the most important celebration of the year. In the U.S., Christmas is a major commercial as well as religious celebration, marked by a host of seasonal traditions such as decorated trees and the exchange of gifts and greeting cards. Although many cultures still celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (which begin on Christmas Day and end on Epiphany in early January), in the U.S., most of the festivities take place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Recommended Reading:

Christmas is a harried time for many people, especially women. In this spirit, Darla Davis promises timesaving shortcuts and simple money-saving ideas in Have Yourself a Stressless Christmas. (Whitestone, Oct.) An author with the appropriately holiday-sounding name of Brenda Poinsett helps Christian women slow down to appreciate the spiritual center of the holiday with Can Martha Have a Mary Christmas? Untangling Expectations and Truly Experiencing Jesus. (New Hope, Oct.)

Dec. 26—Jan. 3

Hanukkah (Judaism)

The eight-day Festival of Lights marks the historic victory of the second-century Maccabees, who rebelled against foreign rule and reclaimed the Jewish temple. Each night, Jews light candles in a special menorah to commemorate this victory as well as God's miraculous provision in protecting the Maccabees from their enemies. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday in Jewish history, but it has attained greater prominence in the United States, where it is associated with gift-giving, special foods (often fried in oil) and parties.

Recommended Reading:

Gift book publisher Andrews McMeel celebrates the season with Festival of Lights: A Little Box of Hanukkah. Included in the attractive gift box are a 32-page booklet with Hanukkah traditions and recipes; a small dreidel; some golden coins (gelt); and a Star of David candle. (Oct. 15)