In a slow progression, December has become the season when everyone buys gifts in a commercialized frenzy. Many people in the U.S. have lost sight of what the holidays were originally about, and don’t realize that many regions celebrate them differently
There are three winter holiday celebrations most often portrayedon U.S. postage stamps: Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The
latter two are the most shrouded in mystery, however, even Christmas has different meanings and traditions in other cultures that tend to be overlooked in this country.
The Jewish holiday is one of the minor celebrations that receive a boost because it falls around December time. Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, celebrates an event that occurred in Jerusalem around the second century Before Common Era (BCE).
The city of Jerusalem was under control of the Seleucid king of Syria and was facing oppression under Greek forces. The Jewish revolt was sparked and in the end, the Greek forces lost. The temple at Jerusalem was in shambles, and the holy oil that was burned in the menorah (candleholder) was almost gone. Supposedly it was only supposed to last for a day, but it burned for eight days until there was more oil for it.
The idea behind Hanukkah is not necessarily the miracle of the oil lasting so long, but of Jewish liberation from their oppressors. In honor of this victory, Judah Maccabee began the tradition of Hanukkah.
The holiday typically falls around December, but it’s exact date shifts every year depending on the lunar calendar. This year, Hanukkah runs from the sunset of Dec. 21 to the sunset of Dec. 29. It runs for eight days in memory of how long the holy oil lasted. On the first night of Hanukkah, two candles are lit. The shamash is lit every night, and it lights the candle representing the first night of the celebration. Every proceeding sunset, one more candle is lit with the others until the eighth sunset when the menorah fully lit, and the Hanerot Halalu hymn is recited in Hebrew.
After this ceremony, children are usually given presents, one present per child every night. Gifts can include anything a child wants, but it is a tradition that children receive a Dreidel (spin top used in game) and Hanukkah gelt (gold or chocolate coins) at some point in their lives.
To greet someone with something other than “happy holidays,” the traditional greeting used by Jewish followers is “Happy Hanukkah.”
Most people know the story of Christmas and why it is celebrated, which is, in the Christian religion, to honor the birth of Jesus Christ, not the mystery shrouding Santa Claus. Christian followers believe that Joseph and Mary could only find a manger to stay in Bethlehem, and that is where Jesus Christ, considered to be the Son of God, was born.
However, there are several ways of celebrating Christmas, and some of these differ greatly from American traditions. In Russia, Christmas is not commercialized at all. It is a solemn holiday celebrated on Jan. 7, and gift giving is reserved for New Year’s. In the days proceeding the holiday, there is a month of fasting where people do not eat meat or animal products. Only vegetables, fruits and grains are allowed.
On Jan. 6, everyone attends a morning service of Church and no food is allowed until the first star lights up in the night sky. After that, there is usually a meal of rice porridge and fresh fruits. After this, everyone goes to church for a night service. Present exchanges and partying happen on New Years, with a “fir” tree, just as Americans have for Christmas.
For those who have been wondering where the “12 days of Christmas” comes from, it originated in the Greek Orthodox Church. The twelve days start on the evening of Dec. 25 and run until the morning of Epiphany, which is Jan. 6. During this time, gifts are given on specific days and feasts are included.
One last Christmas branch that should be touched on is the Slavic take on Russian Orthodox Christmas. Being a popular tradition in many rural Alaskan areas, a Slavic Christmas involves a celebration of carols and feasts from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, where it is capped off in the Feast of Theophany. Before Dec. 25, there are serious Church services. The joyous celebrating does not begin until Christmas day, where it is old custom to greet people with, “Christ is born!” and for others to answer, “Glorify Him!” The caroling that ensues involves huge groups of people, and often an entire village population is stuffed into one person’s home for singing.
Ever wonder where the idea of a Christmas bonus comes from? In the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and even our Canadian neighbors, a clay jar is set up in shops at the beginning of every year with the function of a never-emptied tip jar. Over the year, the sum of the contents grows substantially, and after Christmas, it is broken and the contents are divided amongst all the shop workers as a Christmas bonus.
This is where “Boxing Day” gets it’s name from, and the typical date of it is Dec. 26, although it often happens some time during that week and not on the exact day. Other traditions related to this day include bosses giving their workers presents or bonuses from general funds instead.
Let’s all face it: the biggest question on everyone’s mind has been “What is Kwanzaa, really?” Well, let your curiosity be satisfied and read on. Kwanzaa, taken from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruit,” has its roots in the time when the first fruits of Africa would ripen for harvest. It was not established as an official holiday, however, until 1966 during the Black Freedom Movement.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, who is a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, created it. Kwanzaa was made as a holiday for people of African descent to celebrate their heritage.
“Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense,” Dr. Karenga said in his 2007 statement.
The holiday runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and each year has a theme. The 2008 theme is Kwanzaa and the Seven Principles: Repairing and Renewing the World.” During the period of Kwanzaa, families dress in colorful African clothes, eat fresh fruit and celebrate their African heritage. A table is decorated with a vibrant cloth and they set the Kinara, or candleholder, upon it along with symbols of harvest.
The Kinara has seven candles, one for each of the seven principles. Three are typically green, the middle black, and the others red, together representing the three colors of Kwanzaa. The seven principles represented by the candles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
Gift giving is typically just for children, but all presents should include a book and a holiday symbol. Kwanzaa is not a holiday centered on commercialized presents.
On an endnote, the official greeting for this holiday is “Joyous Kwanzaa.”