What Will You Celebrate This December?
by Morgan LaMere | published Feb. 2nd, 2021
December is a month primarily known for its religious significanceand for its celebrations and festivities in an otherwise frigid time.
While perhaps its most popular in the U.S., Christmas is far from the only important event during this time.
Hanukkah, otherwise known as Chanukah or Festival of Lights, is a Jewish festival that begins on Kislev 25 according to the Hebrew calendar, and December 10 in the Gregorian this year.
The religious affair reaffirms the ideals of Judaism and commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem after its desecration by Greek-Syrian oppressors and subsequent cleansing by Judah after the Maccabee revolt.
According to the Talmud, as part of its cleansing, the Menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum was lit using a day’s supply of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days. In commemoration, the yearly festival of Hanukkah was instituted.
Peter Stein is the Senior Rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh, the oldest Reform Jewish Synagogue in the Rochester area. Stein handles everything from Sabbath and holiday worship, to lifelong education and has been planning for this year’s celebrations.
“For Hannukah we [normally] do a big dinner every year with worship, music, lots of food and games for the kids and all,” Stein explained. “Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday, so we try to do something every day.”
Despite COVID-19, he hopes to conduct in-person gatherings outdoors in a safe environment alongside drive-through events.
Hanukkah has a number of traditions, including the nightly menorah lighting, the heart of the festival in each household. This entails using the shamash, or attendant, to light the other eight lights. One flame is lit each night until by the eighth night, all lights are kindled. During the lighting, special blessings are recited such as Hallel, and traditional songs are sung afterward.
“Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday in the grand scheme of things, it tends to get built up because of other holidays,” Stein said. “It’s predominately something done by families involving food and games and is not very religious.”
According to Stein, it’s a holiday intended to be flexible to have a good time. Its minor nature comes from its creation after biblical times. Major holidays are the ones rooted in the Hebrew bible, and Hanukkah was created after.
Major holidays include Rosh Hashanah, the new year, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and three pilgrimage festivals.
While the celebration of Hanukkah varies, there are some standard practices including traditional foods fried in oil such as latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, or jam-filled donuts. Other customs include playing with dreidels and to a lesser extent, exchanging gifts. At B’rith Kodesh, they commonly celebrate with olive oil tasting and concerts, among others.
Because of where it falls, Hanukkah commonly is compared to Christmas.
“From the Jewish perspective, it’s to highlight the beauty and importance of Hanukkah, but not characterizing it as Jewish Christmas — it’s a separate kind of holiday,” Stein said. “It’s not really about gift-giving.”
“From the Jewish perspective, it’s to highlight the beauty and importance of Hanukkah, but not characterizing it as Jewish Christmas."
In response to the commercialism of Christmas and the Watts riots, Dr. Maulana Karenga created the festival of Kwanzaa in 1966 to bring together African Americans as a community. Similar to Hanukkah, it is not an “African” Christmas, but a conglomeration of different harvest celebrations found in African cultures such as those of the Ashanti and the Zulu.
The word “kwanza” is a KiSwahili word meaning “first” and was derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanzaa,” or “first fruits.” During the celebration starting December 26 and ending January 1, five common values are central to the week of activities; ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration.
While families celebrate Kwanzaa in their own way, they often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading and a large traditional feast called Karamu. Kwanzaa also has seven principles called the Nguzo Saba, which are values pulled from African culture focused on building community. Each principle has a candle where one is lit each night and the principle discussed. The Seven Candles (Mishumaa Saba), three red, three green and one black, are held by the Kinara, the center of the setting representing ancestry. These are placed on a straw mat (Mkeka) alongside an ear of corn (Vibunzi) and the Unity Cup (Kikobmbe cha Umoja).
The principles utilize KiSwahili words: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).
Kwanzaa is frequently celebrated alongside Christmas, with the Kinara being placed alongside the Christmas tree. However, Kwanzaa in many ways is counter to the principles of American consumerism but in some cases has been taken over by it.
“In the 1990s, when Hallmark started making Kwanzaa cards, we witnessed how consumerism negatively impacted the holiday,” Akil Parker, a Pan-African scholar and educator, said.
Parker believes that in order to benefit from the niche market, a global "diversity initiative" has served to perpetuate white supremacy. Parker advocates for families making their own Kinaras in the spirit of returning to a more traditional African communalism their ancestors practiced.
Despite the back and forth trends in popularity faced by Kwanzaa, many still celebrate it for its original purpose of being a timeless and values-based celebration of heritage. Tonya Abari is a writer and storyteller who despite her initial estrangement from Kwanzaa, began to celebrate it in her own home again for her family.
"In celebrating, I understand that my daughter is internalizing Kwanzaa’s overarching principals," Abari said. "As a result, I can only imagine the contributions she’ll make to her community, and to the world."
While not as old as many celebrations, Kwanzaa is an important Pan-African holiday and an affair celebrated by millions with an important cultural message of what it means to be an African and a human.
The winter solstice, otherwise known as midwinter, marks the shortest day of the year. Traditionally this period marks the middle of winter and has been a significant event in numerous The winter solstice, otherwise known as midwinter, marks the shortest day of the year. Traditionally this period marks the middle of winter and has been a significant event in numerous cultures, festivals and rituals since prehistory.
Historically, the winter solstice has been important as a way to monitor the progress of the seasons to avoid famine during the harsh winter months. As the climate got colder in temperate regions, the midwinter festival was usually the last feast celebration with the last fresh supply of meat and alcohol that year.
In Indian culture, the Makara Sankranti is a festival day in the Hindu calendar marking the beginning of longer days and is in reference to the deity Surya (sun). The occasion known as Ayan Parivartan is a Hindu holy day with customs such as bathing in rivers, giving alms and prayer.
In Iran, the solstice is celebrated as “Yalda night,” or “Shabe Chelleh,” and is one of their oldest traditions featuring the family gathering at the home of the eldest, eating, drinking and reciting poetry.
In northern Europe, the Germanic and Scandinavian people celebrate a pagan winter holiday known as Yule, one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. While it has many traditions and beliefs associated with it, it is commonly connected with the rebirth of the sun. In modern times, it's also become associated with Wicca, a pagan religion with a high focus on nature worship honoring pre-Christian traditions.
One of the most modern holidays of questionable validity, Festivus is a secular celebration on December 23. Similar to other traditions during this time, Festivus was intended as an alternative to the pressures and commercialization of Christmas.
The holiday was created by Daniel O’Keefe around 1966 and was shared with his son Dan O’Keefe and popularized by its airing in an episode of Seinfeld “The Strike.” Since it’s airing, many have become interested and celebrate Festivus, seriously or not.
Festivus swaps around some of the common Christmas traditions, replacing a tree with an unadorned aluminum pole to contrast holiday materialism. The “Airing of Grievances” is a time to tell others how they have disappointed you and is followed by a Festivus dinner and the “Feats of Strength” where the head of the household must be pinned by the family.
Regardless of what you believe and if you’re religious or not, there is bound to be a themed celebration for you, ranging from week-long celebrations of religion and family to ancient pagan traditions and less serious celebrations just enjoying the festive spirit of the month.
10,200 BCE: Earliest believed observance of the winter solstice through Neolithic monuments.
Pre 5th Century BCE: Saturnalia, a Roman celebration during the winter solstice is created.
4th Century BCE: First references to Yule, a pagan celebration during the winter solstice.
167 BCE: The Jewish religion is outlawed by the Syrian king.
164 BCE: The Maccabee revolt is successful and the temple purified. Hanukkah is first created.
200 CE (Approximately): The Mishnah, the oral law in Judaism, was collected and committed to written form. So far known as the Festival of Lights, the celebration becomes known as Hanukkah or, Dedication.
1920's: Hanukkah becomes an important holiday to North American Jews. It is observed over eight nights including the menorah lighting and traditional games and celebrations.
1966: Kwanzaa is created by Dr. Maulana Karenga.
1966 (Approximately): Festivus is celebrated for the first time by Daniel O'Keefe.
1977: The Seinfeld episode "The Strike" releases and popularized Festivus.
1967-1986 (Approximate): Kwanzaa's first big boom in popularity before leveling out in interest.
2012: Approximately 13 million people celebrate Kwanzaa.