As we approach the holiday season, I want to wish all of you “Happy Holidays” The Pandemic has forced us all to adjust our lives in ways that were unimaginable just 12 months ago. The sights, sounds and smells of the holidays are all around us, however, it has become a necessity to celebrate in ways that are new and unfamiliar to us. Families and loved ones are being forced to celebrate from afar, and children may not have the benefit of having their grandparents, aunts, and uncles close by.
This year is different in so many ways, however it does not mean that we should abandon our celebrations. We can come together remotely and keep gatherings small and intimate. No matter how you choose to celebrate, I wish you health, good fortune and happiness throughout the holidays and the new year ahead.
Most Holidays, in the United States are rooted in cultural or religious beliefs and not everyone chooses to celebrate them. That being said, “Happy Holidays in December means “Christmas” to many of us, however there is also Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. As we begin the season, I thought I might reflect a little on the traditions of these holidays.
In Europe, Christmas is celebrated the entire month of December, celebrating numerous holy days and other festivities. The season generally starts with “Advent” on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, where one of four candles is lit on an Advents Kranz (wreath), and an additional one is lit each Sunday until all four are lit. Some countries also celebrate St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, where children who have been good throughout the year receive cookies and sweets, while those that misbehaved, receive a lump of coal.
In some European countries, gifts are given on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight mass, while celebrations in other countries take place on Christmas day. The 12 days of Christmas stretch to Jan 6 or Epiphany, the day the Three Kings delivered their gifts to the Christ Child.
In Australia, Christmas falls during the summer. The popular thing to do is go camping or go to the beach over the holiday. They decorate a native Australian tree, called a “Christmas Bush” whose green leaves and flowers turn red during the summer. The holiday meal might consist of eating prawns on Christmas day, and having a BBQ on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. They tend to have impromptu street parties and often carol in the streets.
Norwegians celebrate the festival of lights, a promise of longer days and return of the sun. The French celebrate with the most anticipated culinary event of the year, Le Reveillon de Noel or Christmas Eve feast. Within each region, chefs put on elaborate multi-course feast, lasting for hours and highlight various regional specialties. In England, they celebrate many of our American traditions, however, children remain the focus.
Starting December 10, our Jewish communities will start their 8 day celebration of Hanukkah, celebrating the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. During the second century B.C., the temple had been occupied by Syrian oppressors, who dishonored it by erecting an altar to Zeus within it, where pigs were sacrificed.
In 166 B.C., a Jewish priest by the name of Judas Maccabeus led a revolt, started by his father and four brothers. Using guerilla tactics, they were able to drive the Syrians out of Jerusalem within 2 years. In celebration, the Maccabees rebuilt the alter and lit a gold candelabrum with seven branches, called a menorah. To re-dedicate the temple, the menorah was to burn continuously; however, they only had enough oil for one night. Miraculously it burned for eight days, providing them time to find a fresh supply of oil. The Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so the actual date for Hanukkah changes every year.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Celebrations revolve around lighting the menorah. Each of the eight holidays, another candle is added to the menorah. A ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others. Typically, blessings are recited and traditional Hanukkah foods such as latkes (potato pancakes), rugelach (a rolled pastry with various of fillings), and sufganiya, (a jelly donut) are served. Gifts are normally not exchanged, as the holiday is a religious holiday, however traditionally money is given to charity so that the poor would have the funds to purchase candles for the menorah. Other customs include giving money to children, playing games, such as dreidel (spinning top), and attending services.
Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, created Kwanzaa in 1966, following the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Kwanzaa is celebrated each year from December 26 to January 1. The word Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” meaning “first fruits” in Swahili. In creating the holiday, Dr. Karenga combined several different customs that celebrate the harvest celebrations from the Ashanti, native to Ghana, and those of the Zulu tribe, the largest ethnic group in South Africa.
Similar to Hanukkah, a special candle holder called a kinara is used in the celebration. The kinara holds seven candles, three red on the left, three green on the right and a black one in the center. The black candle represents the black people, red is for their struggle and noble blood that unites all people of African descent, and green signifies the rich land of Africa and hope that comes from their struggle. The black candle is lit, then red and green candles are lit alternately starting from the outside, moving toward the black candle in the middle.
The seven candles represent seven core principles, they are:
- Umoja: Unity - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia: Self-Determination - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility - To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and solve them together.
- Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics - To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia: Purpose - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba: Creativity - To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani: Faith - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa celebrations normally include food, singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry reading and African drumming. Gifts are given primarily to children and always include a book and heritage symbol. The book should emphasize the African value of learning and the heritage symbol reaffirms African commitment to tradition and history.
Although all of these celebrations and customs vary, family, food and goodwill tend to be a message seen in all of them. As such, I want to wish all of you and your families the best that the holidays have to offer. I also want to wish you and your loved ones, good health and prosperity for the New Year.
For additional information, below are resources referenced