December Holidays Around the World: Hanukkah, Festivus, Kwanzaa and ChristmasDec 14, 2021
December Holidays Around the World: Hanukkah, Festivus, Kwanzaa and Christmas
by Emily Kawasaki
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights
For many Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Xennials and Millennials, one of the most memorable moments of Hanukkah was Adam Sandler singing “The Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live on December 3, 1994. For those unfamiliar with the song, it features a lot of names that rhyme with -ah and would probably be rated G, with only the final verse veering into PG-13 territory. More importantly, the most educational verse is:
The Festival of Lights.
Instead of one day of presents
We have eight crazy nights!
Right there, in two short lines, Sandler managed to engage generations of SNL viewers in some impromptu intercultural learning. According to Sandler, “There's a lot of Christmas songs out there… and not too many Chanukah songs… So, I wrote a song for all those nice little Jewish kids who don't get to hear any Chanukah songs.” (Schliss, 2012) Sandler’s backstory illustrated his empathy for Jewish children’s lack of culture-specific music within U.S. pop culture. What he said is true – there are far more Christmas carols than Hanukkah songs played on the radio. In U.S. popular culture, Hanukkah tends to get overshadowed by the often-concurrent holidays of Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas. While Hannukah is designated as a minor Jewish festival, it is celebrated by over 14.7 million Jewish people around the world as well as an enlarged population of 6 million people (those who lack Jewish ancestry but self-identify as Jewish as well as all non-Jewish household members who live in households with Jews). The sheer number of potential celebrants seems to confirms Hanukkah’s status as an important holiday in global culture. (Wikipedia, 2019)
According to Rabbinic scholars, Hanukkah (alternatively spelled Hanukah or Chanukah) is likely derived from Hanukkat Hamizbeah, meaning the Rededication of the Altar. “In the year 166-165 B.C.E., the Hasmoneans (called Maccabees in Greek sources), led a rebellion against the Greeks which culminated in the rededication of the Temple on the 25th of the month of Kislev.” (Conservative Yeshiva Online) After the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple from the forces of Antiochus IV, they discovered that there was only enough ritual olive oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for one day. They lit the menorah to rededicate the alter in the Temple and it continued to burned for eight days, which was the amount of time it took to have new oil pressed, prepared, and ready for use. Therefore, Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights because the miracle took place that involved oil and fire.
During Hanukkah, many families exchange small gifts each night. Hanukkah Gelt (chocolate coins) are given to children as gifts. The importance of oil is also celebrated by preparing and eating fried foods including latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and bimuelos (spherical doughnuts). Traditionally, the menorah (also called hanukkiah) is set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street so that people walking past can see the candles and be reminded of the festival. “On each day, Jewish families light candles on a hanukkiah (a nine-branched candelabrum), starting with one candle and adding one more each day. The candle used to light the other candles is known as the shamash. Blessings over the candles are chanted and festive songs are sung, commemorating the Maccabean Revolt.” (Avey, 2011) After lighting the candles, it is customary for children and adults to play with (i.e., spin) the dreidel (four-sided spinning top).
In the 1970s, Hanukkah became a more visible festival in the public sphere of the United States. Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson called for public awareness and observance of the festival and encouraged the lighting of public menorahs. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter participated in the first public Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony of the National Menorah held across the White House lawn. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush displayed a menorah in the White House. In 1993, President Bill Clinton invited a group of schoolchildren to the Oval Office for a small ceremony. (Wikipedia, 2019)
According to the Jewish calendar, 2021 is the Jewish Year 5871. This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset on November 28th and ends at nightfall on December 6th. Please feel free to greet celebrants by saying “Hanukkah sameach!” (“Happy Hanukkah!”), “Chag urim sameach” (“Happy Festival of Lights”), or "Chag sameach!" (“Happy holiday!”)
Festivus for the rest of us
Holidays have unique ways of being preserved, shared, and adopted. Many holidays and festivals are intrinsically linked to religious and spiritual practices. Some holidays are celebrated both secularly and religiously across cultures, such as Christmas and Nowruz. Other holidays are secular yet-culture-specific, such as Kwanzaa and Boxing Day. However, for some people, there is the desire for a culture-general, secular holiday that provides a quiet respite and an alternative to the commercialized Christmas season. For anyone looking for such an escape, it is worth considering Festivus, which is celebrated on December 23rd.
Festivus was created by Daniel Lawrence O'Keefe in the 1960s. He started celebrating the holiday with his family around 1966. Festivus is Latin for “excellent, jovial, lively” and is derived from festus, meaning “joyous; holiday, feast day”. December 23rd was chosen because it was the anniversary of O’Keefe and his wife’s first date in 1963. After O’Keefe’s mother died in 1976, he coined the phrase “a Festivus for the rest of us” in which “the rest of us” refers to his living relatives.
O’Keefe’s son, Dan O’Keefe, worked as a television writer for the TV show Seinfield. Festivus first became known in pop culture when it was featured in an episode that aired on December 18, 1997. Thanks to Dan and the popularity of Seinfeld, Festivus became a new holiday option for those seeking a more secular, simplified December holiday. The Festivus rituals featured on Seinfield differ slightly from the O’Keefe family traditions. For example, the Seinfield episode included the “Festivus Pole” (an unadorned aluminum pole) while the O’Keefe tradition was putting a clock in a bag and nailing it to a wall, always using a different bag and clock each year. Festivus dinner on Seinfeld was meatloaf but in the O’Keefe household, it was turkey or ham. The Seinfield episode also covered two traditions, the “Airing of Grievances”, “Feats of Strength”, and “Festivus Miracles”. Google caught on to Festivus in 2012, adding it as a custom search result. In addition to the search results, the image of an unadorned aluminum pole is displayed alongside the list of search results and "A festivus miracle!" is jokingly listed above the list of search results. If you search “Festivus” on Google (as I just did), you will notice that Google announces something like “A festivus miracle! About 3,270,000 results (0.56 seconds)”. If you are curious, feel free to search “Festivus” yourself.
For anyone interested in celebrating Festivus this year on December 23rd, here’s a helpful guide:
- Get a Festivus pole (i.e., an aluminum pole)
- Prepare a Festivus dinner (i.e., meatloaf, turkey, ham etc.)
- Air your grievances (Thanks to technology, this is a popular daily pastime for many people on social media. But don’t let that stop you! Feel free to go low-tech and say it all out loud.)
- Join in the Feats of Strength (In lieu of wrestling, you may want to consider alternative activities, such as thumb wrestling. Be sure to follow Covid-19 safety protocols, no matter your activity of choice.)
- Call all slightly non-routine events “Festivus miracles” (ex: you randomly go to check your mailbox and when you open your door, the mail delivery person is standing there with a letter for you, you are talking about a memorable commercial you saw on TV and it comes on when you are talking about it etc.)
Even if you are religious or celebrate another holiday in December, you can still celebrate Festivus. It’s a simple holiday that anyone and everyone can enjoy!
Christmas Traditions Around the World
The concept and celebration of Christmas is deeply culturally embedded across the world. Different cultures and countries have created, adopted, and preserved a diverse range of rituals and traditions to celebrate the holiday. Many traditions have evolved from even older customs that were rooted in different beliefs and attitudes. Even in countries where the majority of the population isn’t Christian, secular traditions are often enjoyed by many people. More importantly, the holiday focuses on hope, peace, gratitude, kindness and sharing – values that transcend languages and religions, and can be celebrated and appreciated by all people.
Western Christian Churches celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on Christmas on December 25th, while many Eastern Christian Churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord on January 7th. Advent is the four-week liturgical season that precedes Christmas. In Western Christian traditions, common Advent practices include lighting Advent candles on Advent wreaths, keeping Advent calendars, reading daily Advent devotionals, putting up Christmas decorations, and setting up a Christmas tree. In Eastern Christianity, the equivalent of Advent is called the Nativity Fast or the Fast of December, which differs in length and observances and doesn’t mark the beginning the liturgical calendar. (Wikipedia, 2019) Many different cultures and countries maintain unique Advent and Christmas traditions. Here’s some of the diverse ways that these holidays are celebrated:
Austria: During the Advent period, in the first week of December and often on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, young men dress up as the Krampus, walk the streets or in processions, and frighten children with clattering chains and bells. Krampus is a goat-demon and also St. Nicholas’ evil companion. Krampus punishes children that misbehave. (Momondo, 2017)
Colombia: The Christmas season starts on Día de las Velitas (Little Candles Day), which honors the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. People decorate their windows, balconies and front yards with candles and paper lanterns. (Momondo, 2017)
El Salvador: On December 24th and 25th, people celebrate with fireworks displays and playing with fireworks. (Alleyne, 2020)
Germany: On December 6th, Nikolaus Tag, St. Nikolaus travels around Germany by donkey and delivers little treats to children in the middle of the night. He travels with his evil companion, Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert), who whips children that misbehave. Sometimes St. Nikolaus visits children at schools, where he expects children to sing him a song or recite a poem in exchange for gifts or sweets. (Momondo, 2017)
Iceland: Instead of the 12 nights of Christmas, Iceland celebrates 13 nights. Each night, children place a pair of shoes by a window before going to bed. Each morning, they check their shoes to see if they received any gifts. Good children receive candy while bad children receive rotten potatoes. (Alleyne, 2020)
Japan: Many families enjoy a Christmas dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, specifically the bucket meal. In 1974, KFC ran a successful marketing campaign, "Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!" ("Kentucky for Christmas!"), which started the new tradition. Across Japan, which is home to 4,000 Colonel Sanders statues, KFC restaurants dress their Colonel Sanders statues in Santa outfits. (Alleyne, 2020)
Martinique: Many people continue the historic tradition of la ribote, visiting neighbors during Advent and on New Year’s Day as well as bringing holiday foods like yams and pork stew. During these gatherings, people often sing Christmas carols that combine creole verses with traditional lyrics. Singing often continues all night and into the early hours of the morning. (Alleyne, 2020)
Mexico: In early December Las Posadas (religious processions re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph) mark the start of the Christmas season. Church members act out Pastorelas (Shepard’s Plays) to retell the biblical Christmas story. Red poinsettia flowers are used as Christmas decorations across the country. (Alleyne, 2020)
Norway: Julebord (Christmas season) begins on December 3rd. On December 23rd, families celebrate Little Christmas. Each family has their own special traditions and rituals. Popular rituals include decorating Christmas trees, making gingerbread houses, and eating risengrynsgrøt (hot rice pudding). (Alleyne, 2020)
Palestinian Territories: While only about 20% of Palestinians are Christian, many Muslim Palestinians are proud that Jesus was born in a Palestinian Territory. The main town square is decorated with lights and a large Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, there is a parade through town featuring bagpipe players and people dressed as Santa Claus giving out treats. On Christmas Eve afternoon/evening/midnight, the Mass of the Nativity is held in the Church of the Nativity. (Cooper, 2020)
Philippines: The city of San Fernando holds Ligligan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival). The festival features parols (lanterns) that symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. Each parol consists of thousands of spinning lights that illuminate the night sky. Lubenas was a religious activity and predecessor of the festival. The city has been nicknamed the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines" because of the festival. (Alleyne, 2020)
Poland: On Christmas Eve, dinner isn’t eaten until the first star appears in the night sky. Traditionally, an extra place is set in case anu unannounced guests show up for the dinner. At the start of dinner, many families share oplatek (unleavened Christmas wafer), breaking off a piece and wishing each other Merry Christmas. (Alleyne, 2020)
Portugal & Brazil: On Christmas Eve, families start eating dinner very late in the evening. At midnight, they exchange gifts and toasts. Then, families attend the midnight mass, Missa Do Galo (Rooster Mass) and take the opportunity to spend time catching up with neighbors and relatives. Fireworks in the town square often follow the church service. (Alleyne, 2020)
Sweden: The Christmas symbol of the straw goat dates back to ancient pagan festivals. Since 1966, the town of Gävel has been constructing the Gävle Goat (Yule Goat), a giant goat made out of straw, and displaying it in Castle Square. The straw goat is constructed on the first Sunday of Advent and deconstructed after the New Year. (Alleyne, 2020)
The Netherlands: The first Saturday after November 11, marks intocht van Sinterklaas (arrival of Sinterklaas). Sinterklaas "arrives" by a steamboat at a seaside town, supposedly from Spain. This takes place in a different port each year in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) disembarks and parades through the streets on his horse, welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional songs. His Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) assistants throw candy and gingerbread-like cookies, either kruidnoten or pepernoten, into the crowd. On St. Nicholas' Eve (December 5th) and St. Nicholas' Day (December 6th). Children put their shoes near a chimney or back door overnight and find treats and candies from Sinterklaas inside their shoes the next morning. (Wikipedia, 2019)
Ukraine: For Orthodox Christian, January 6th is Christmas Eve. One tradition is to throw a spoonful of kutya (cooked wheat mixed with honey, ground poppy seeds, and nuts) at the ceiling. If it sticks to the ceiling, it is a sign of a good harvest in the new year. On January 7th, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day by dressing in traditional clothing, walking through town in a procession, and singing carols. (Alleyne, 2020)
Venezuela: In Caracas, residents roller-skate to church on Christmas Eve. Many streets are closed to traffic to allow people to skate to church and back home safely. After attending church, many families enjoy a Christmas dinner of tamales (a wrap made of cornmeal dough, that is stuffed with meat and steamed). (Momondo, 2017)
To find out more about how many more countries celebrate the Christmas holiday, please check out https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/ .
Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture
Holidays around the world are culturally embedded artifacts that are often rooted in cultural values and traditions. Some holidays, such as Passover (first celebrated in 12 BC), Holi (mentioned in 7th century Sanskrit poems), and Halloween (evolved from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain 2,000 years ago) have been celebrated for thousands of years. Other holidays like Bastille Day (first celebrated in 1789), International Human Rights Day (established in 1948), and International Day of Friendship (proclaimed by the UN in 2011) have a shorter history. However, the age of a holiday does not define nor diminish its importance. What makes a holiday important is the purpose and meaning it has to its celebrants and their culture(s). Holidays, which were thoughtfully and intentionally created as a way to bring a renewed sense of unity to a culture and/or community, are truly valuable and unique celebrations. One such holiday is Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa, also spelled Kwanza, was founded by Dr. (Ron) Maulana Karenga, after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. At the time, Dr. Karenga was a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Concerned about the impact of the Watts Riots, he searched for ways to bring African Americans together as a community. In 1966, he and Hakim Jamal founded the US Organization, which promoted African American cultural unity. Hoping to root Black Americans in African culture, Dr. Karenga promoted activities such as learning Swahili and practicing traditional African traditions. He also researched African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations and combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations (such as Ashanti and Zulu) in order to form the basis of Kwanzaa. (History, 2009) In 1966, the culmination of his ideas and ideals led to the first Kwanzaa festival, which was the first specifically African American holiday.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration that starts on December 26th and ends on January 1st. Dr. Karenga’s chose that the week coincides with Christmas and New Year’s for a specific reason. Dr. Karenga stated that, “his goals was to, ‘give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.’" (Wikipedia, 2020) Kwanzaa celebrates African American and pan-African cultures and values and serves to contrast the modern commercialism of Christmas. According to Dr. Karenga, “As an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community, Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.” (Karenga, 2019)
The word "kwanza" is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits” in Kiswahili (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania). So, Kwanzaa is a ritual to welcome the first harvests to the home. Kwanzaa is rich with cultural symbols and artifacts. Symbols of African culture include vibunzi (ears of corn), mkeka (place mats), and mazao (crops, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables).
Families celebrates Kwanzaa in their own ways. Common celebrations include singing and dancing, playing African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and eating a large traditional meal. Kwanzaa celebrates Nguzo Saba (“seven principles” in Swahili). These important principles are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). On each of the seven nights, families gather and a child lights one of the candles on the kinara (candleholder). Then, the principle that coincides with that specific candle is discussed. Then, the other candles are relit to give off light and vision. The candle-lighting ceremony each evening provides the opportunity to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa.
The mishumaa saba (seven candles) are red, black, and green. The symbolic colors of the mishumaa saba, which also represent African gods, come from the bendara (red, black, and green flag) that was created by Marcus Garvey. The black candle symbolizes umoja (unity), the basis of success, and is lit on December 26th. The three green candles, which represent nia, ujima, and imani, are placed to the right of the Umoja candle. The three red candles, represent kujichagulia, ujamaa, and kuumba, are placed to the left of it. The kikombe cha umoja (unity cup) is used to perform the tambiko (libation) ritual during the Karamu (African feast) on December 31st, the sixth day of Kwanzaa. During the Karamu feast, the kikombe cha umoja is shared with all attendees promote unity, ancestors are honored, blessings are said, offerings are given, and everyone says “Amen”.
On the seventh day, when imani is celebrated, zawadi (gifts) that support and encourage growth, self-determination, achievement, and success are given to immediate family members. Handmade gifts are encouraged “to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the chaos of shopping and conspicuous consumption during the December holiday season.” (History, 2009) Gift-giving and gift-receiving are important rituals themselves. “Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift; it obliges the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift cements social relationships, allowing the receiver to share the duties and the rights of a family member. Accepting a gift makes the receiver part of the family and promotes Umoja.” (History, 2009)
Kwanzaa is an important culture-specific holiday that promotes cultural pride, values, community and family. Though Kwanzaa is rooted in African culture, people from all cultural backgrounds are encouraged to celebrate the culture and achievements of the African American and pan-African community. Sending happy Kwanzaa wishes to someone who celebrates is a nice way to connect and show respect for their culture and heritage. You can wish celebrants a happy holiday by saying “Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri” (“Happy Kwanzaa”).
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