Diwali: The “festival of lights.” Hindus celebrate the rescue of Sita by her brave husband Rama, lighting candles to guide them home through the dark night. Feasting and family gatherings abound.
Chanukah: The “festival of lights.” Jews celebrate a miracle of YHWH that allowed the Menorah to burn for eight nights during the re-dedication of the temple. Feasting, candles, gift giving, family time, etc.
Saturnalia: A Roman feast dedicated to the fertility deity, Saturn. Celebrated as the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the Sun God, during the late Roman period. Gift giving, partying, feasting, and wax candles.
Mōdraniht: An Anglo-Saxon midwinter festival mentioned by Bede. Probably a time of making sacrifices to the Matronae asking for their blessings and warmth during the long nights. Feasting (?), community and family time, and probably lights, since, you know, there’s a pattern going here.
Yule (traditional): A Germanic/Scandinavian Midwinter festival honoring fertility deities such as Freyr and Thor. Feasting, lighting fires, community merrymaking, swearing oaths for the new year, and possibly an increase in spiritual activity between the realms of the living and the dead (Odin’s Wild Hunt).
Alban Arthan: “Light of Winter.” A Celtic/Welsh winter solstice celebration marking the longest night and subsequent return of light (the clash of the Holly King and the Oak King). Feasting, mistletoe, and, in Welsh tradition, the birthday of Pryderi by Rhiannon. Sometimes called Meán Geimhridh (Midwinter).
Soyal: A festival celebrated by the Hopi and Zuni nations to welcome back the sun into the world after the longest night. Community blessing, singing, dancing, feasting, and sometimes gifts of kachina replicas for children. A time of setting intentions for the coming season.
Goru: A celebration of the Dogon people of Mali honoring the arrival of humankind via the sky God Amma who arrived in the “Ark of the World.” Offerings to ancestors, feasting, and community gatherings.
Yalda: A Persian winter solstice celebration with Zoroastrian roots. A time of eating special foods, lighting candles, and gathering together with one’s family. When celebrated as part of the religion of Mithraism, this morning after the longest night was believed to be the birthday of Mithra, the angel of light and truth.
Feast of Rozhanitsa: A Russian/East Slavic feast in honor of the antlered winter goddess, Rozhanitsa. Offerings of sweet honey and bread, the making of colorful embroidery, and the gifting of white, deer shaped cookies.
Ziemassvētki: A Latvian/Baltic festival celebrating the birth of Dievs, the high God of light in the Latvian religion. The lighting of fires, community singing and celebration, and a feast for the spirits of the dead believed to arrive on this night in a sleigh.
Şeva Zistanê: “The Night of Winter.” A Kurdish festival honoring the rebirth of the sun. Later seen as a day of victory for God and the angels. Feasting, candles, and the giving of sweets to children.
Christmas: A Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus, the son of God, and the star that shone over his birthplace in Bethlehem guiding travelers to him. Feasting, family gatherings, singing special festival songs, lighting candles and trees, and gift giving.
Mawlid: A late winter festival celebrated in some regions of the Islamic world commemorating the birth of the Prophet. A nighttime festival celebrated with community gatherings, feasting, and public sermons. Earlier celebrations in regions with Sufic influence included animal sacrifice and the lighting of torches.
Kwanzaa: An African American holiday celebrating the blessings of the harvest season and a renewed sense of shared cultural heritage. Decorating the home, lighting candles, feasting, music, and giving respect and offerings to the ancestors.
Yule (Neopagan): A winter solstice celebration commemorating the birth/return of the God (of Light). Feasting, the lighting of the Yule log, and enjoying the warmth of the community during the longest night.
Festivus: For “the rest of us.” A Seinfield-inspired festival for celebrating the winter holiday without the pressures of religion or commercialism.
And many, many more that I have regrettably missed (and hopefully not too many that I have buggered up here).
The long nights of winter and promise of the returning sun inspired countless cultures to gather together, celebrate the warmth of their community through feasting and partying, and light fires to sustain them through the long night. Some customs have influenced others, but nobody owns the rights to this season. There are countless unique cultural celebrations inspired by the astronomical phenomena of the winter season.
Nobody is a “thief” for celebrating their traditional or chosen winter holiday (and believe me, I’m not just talking to the Christians when I say this). Likewise, nobody is trying to “be different” or “ruin it for everyone else” by celebrating something less mainstream during this season. These are all holidays. There are tons of them. They have similarities, and they have differences.