The Holidays of December
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Though the origins of Hanukkah vary, one claim is that it originated sometime in the 2nd century B.C. After winning a victory over the Syrians, the Jews celebrated by rededicating Jerusalem’s Second Temple that had been desecrated during the battle. During the rededication, claims of a miracle of oil happened where there only should have been enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah lit for a day but miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight days.
During Hanukkah, one candle on the menorah is lit per day until the last day (Zot Hanukkah). Traditions during this holiday include reciting blessings, exchanging gifts, and playing with dreidels. In celebration of the miracle of the oil, oil-based foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts) are eaten throughout the holiday.
Celebrations such as Saturnalia and other holidays commemorating the winter solstice have been held throughout Europe for thousands of years, pre-dating the birth of Christ. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Pope Julius I used December 25 to commemorate Jesus’s birth and to likely coincide with Saturnalia. Merging the popular Saturnalia with the then-novice Feast of the Nativity (Christmas), allowed the holiday to be celebrated by the masses at a faster rate.
Christmas as we know it today did not begin until the 1800s when Washington Irving and Charles Dickens used literature to reinvent the holiday. Before their reinterpretation, Christmas had been banned in some parts of the United States to divert as much from English traditions as possible. Dutch settlers in the U.S. were the ones who made the legend of Santa Claus popular when they would honor the Turkish monk, St. Nicholas, who gave away his wealth in service of the poor and ailing.
Christmas traditions include gift-giving, adorning homes in lights and wreaths, and enjoying a feast with family and friends, all of which stem from the ancient Saturnalia. In modern times, we honor the memory of St. Nicholas through Santa Claus, having kids make Christmas cookies to fuel him along his gift-giving journey. Many people also use this day to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, often telling the nativity scene through children’s plays and story-telling. Decorating Christmas trees and sending holiday cards are customs that are uniquely American.
Founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa was a direct response to the Watts Rebellion of 1965, a racially fueled rebellion where residents were tired of over-policing, poor living conditions, and inadequate school systems. In an effort to bring black people together during a tumultuous time, Dr. Karenga combined several African first fruit festivals to form Kwanzaa. The first Kwanzaa was celebrated in 1966.
Kwanzaa is celebrated with storytelling, African drums, and poetry that all commences in a large meal. Each night of Kwanzaa represents a principle from the Nguza Saba. Every day a candle is lit in the kinara (candle-holder) and a principle is discussed. The Nguza Saba includes:
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
Certain days will hold specific significances. During Imani, gifts are given while on Kuumba, family members will drink from the unity cup where participants will ask their ancestors to bestow blessings upon them.