The light filled holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa make December one of the busiest and most inspiring times of year for most of the world’s people. Celebrations of heart, faith, family, community and giving take place in many countries and across many cultures.
Christmas is the most prominent of the three holidays as it is celebrated by more people worldwide than any other holiday. There are features of Christmas traditions that are common among many people. Almost universally, people sing carols together as well as enjoy their community, national carolers or choirs who sing traditional hymns or folk songs. Most cultures have a special gift giver, whether it is Santa Claus (United States), Père Noel (France), Father Christmas (England), Christkindl (Germany) or Babushka (Russia). Many decorate some type of Christmas tree, have a special meal or feast and decorate with lights and natural greenery. Since Christmas traditionally commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, a nativity scene or play is of special significance to many Christians around the world. In some cultures exchanging gifts plays a special part whereas in others giving to those in need receives more emphasis. Even those who do not celebrate the religious aspect of Christmas have secular celebrations to mark holiday traditions, feasting and generosity.
Whether people are religious or secular in orientation, they think of the Christmas season as a time that inspires generosity and goodwill among men. Unexpected goodwill was even demonstrated during a time of ravaging war with The Christmas Truce of 1914. World War I was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought but starting on Christmas Eve of 1914, British, German, French and Belgium troops went against orders and shared their humanity with each other. They put down their weapons and met together in the spirit of the holiday. They traded supplies for making the winter weather easier to bear. They exchanged laughter, Christmas carols, souvenirs and some even played a game of soccer together. This legendary truce is said to have lasted the entire day by some historians or up to New Year’s Day according to other accounts before the fierce fighting resumed.
War also figures in the origins of Hanukkah. In the 4th century Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Unusual for his time, Alexander respected the cultures of these countries and allowed the people to continue their religious practices as they pleased. About one hundred years later, however, the new leader Antiochus IV tried to force the Jews to adopt the Hellenistic ways and defiled their Second Temple to serve that end. One of two groups that rose up against him was led by Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest. Eventually Mattathias and his son, Judah Maccabee, along with four brothers, organized a group of resistance fighters who engaged in guerilla warfare against their oppressors. It is said that they miraculously drove the much larger group of Greek and Syrian soldiers away thereby regaining control of the Second Temple. When they went into the Temple, they were pained to discover it had been desecrated with many items vandalized or missing. After repairing what they could, they prepared to purify it with a rededication ceremony. Lighting the menorah was a vital part of the ceremony but they could only find enough pure oil to burn for one day. They lit it anyway and, miraculously, the oil lasted for the eight days it took them to get more pure oil. Thus, Hanukkah is an eight day celebration that commemorates this miracle.
Most Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah by lighting menorahs in their homes and giving small gifts to their children each day. Two special oil-rich Hanukkah foods are latkes, or potato pancakes and sufganiyot, or jelly donuts. Many families play Dreidel which is a game with a four sided top with such simple rules that family members of all ages can play together. Some say that traditionally the dreidel was used as a decoy by the long ago Jewish men under the oppression of Antiochus IV. By his decree they were not permitted to study the Torah. As studying it was a religious necessity, however, they met secretly for this purpose. If they heard the footsteps of a soldier, they quickly put their Torahs away, pulled out their dreidels and acted as if all they were doing was playing an innocent game. Hanukkah takes place between Saturday, December 16, 2006 and December 28, 2006.
While Christmas and Hanukkah are primarily religious in nature, Kwanzaa builds upon the philosophical and cultural values of an African community rebuilding itself. Every year between December 26 and January 1st, the pan-African community - including many African Americans - celebrates a carefully planned seven day celebration of the seven broad principles of Kawaida. These principles include such goals as striving for unity, purposeful community building, economic cooperation and a heartfelt faith in each other. Through the Kwanzaa celebration, members of the community reflect and remember. They rededicate themselves to the best of African culture and reaffirm the dignity of the people in family, community, nation and world. Kwanzaa was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach and Chair of The National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO). The theme for 2006 is "NGUZO SABA: The Principles and Practice of Bringing Good into the World."
Relevant topics for December 2006: