This holiday season is full of interesting customs and traditions that are not often explored. When one person recently told me he thought Kwanzaa (an African-American holiday) was a Jewish holiday, I thought, “You know, it may be time all of us took a refresher course on the holidays.”
I decided to do a little reading and was pleased to find that each of the holidays celebrated this month holds positive messages of hope, peace and triumph.
Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) is a Jewish holiday that begins Dec. 21 and ends Dec. 29. Also known as the Festival of Lights, the name means “dedication” in Hebrew. It commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews’ 165 B.C. victory over the Hellenist Syrians. The menorah candle is lit for the eight days of celebration and represents a miraculous event that occurred at that time.
Foods fried or baked in olive oil are often eaten during this time, and money is given to children.
Today, Dec. 25 is Christmas. Early on, ancient cultures celebrated the birth of the sun god during the winter solstice. Eventually, the Catholic church chose this time to commemorate the birth of the Jesus and held Christ Mass, the festival of Christ.
The winter solstice marks the reversal of the short days of winter, and the evergreens represented fertility and life during the cold, hard winter. These and other symbols of yule (the Anglo-Saxon word for December and January) were re-symbolized by Christians during Christmas time.
The evergreens became symbols of rebirth and everlasting life, the tree a symbol of the cross of Christ. The advent season anticipates the coming of the Christmas. Secular and Christian traditions included giving gifts to the poor and to children, spending time with family, and making-merry.
Kwanzaa, which begins on December 26th and ends on New Year’s Day, is a unique African-American celebration with focus on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce and self-improvement. Kwanzaa is neither political nor religious and, is not a substitute for Christmas.
Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits of the harvest” in the African language Kiswahili, has been gaining acceptance. It was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, and Kwanzaa has come to be observed by more than 18 million people worldwide, as reported by the New York Times. Its Seven Guiding Principles are the following:
Umoja (oo-MO-jah) means Unity, “I am because we are.”
Kujichagulia (koo-gee-chagoo-LEE-yah) is self-determination.
Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) is collective work and Responsibility.
Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) is cooperative economics.
Nia (NEE-yah) is purpose.
Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) is creativity.
Imani (ee-MAH-nee) is faith.
New Year’s Eve of course is celebrated on December 31 and ends at midnight. This is the oldest of all holidays. People came together for the first few minutes of a new year because it was believed that what you did or ate then would impact your fortune for the coming year.
Watch night services, which were originally practiced by Moravians (a small Christian denomination in Eastern Europe) as a way of watching over one’s covenant with God for the coming year, were then put into practice initially by American Methodists, and then took on new meaning in 1862, when slaves watched on Freedoms’ Eve to get word of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Today, many African-American churches continue this tradition through services held on New Year’s Eve.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at New Beginnings Counseling Center. E-mail her at email@example.com.