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Celebrating Winter Holiday Traditions

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Yes, there are other winter holidays besides Christmas!
Come learn the traditions and heritage of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

With a world of diversity right here in our own state, let us join in the spirit of the holidays with our friends, neighbors, and co-workers as they celebrate their culture and traditions.

Eight Days of Hanukkah
Sometimes called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and is a celebration of Jewish religious freedom.

While the start date for Hanukkah varies (sometimes in November but more often in December), each year it begins at sundown on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. This year, that means the first candle will be lit on December 24, according to the Gregorian calendar.

Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, rabbi of Temple Shalom in Louisville, says that Hanukkah isn’t actually considered a major holiday by the Jewish community. “It’s not a holy day, it’s not a festival. It’s really a minor holiday, but it’s gained significance and it’s well-known because it falls in close proximity to Christmas,” she says.

Rabbi Jacowitz Chottiner also mentions that the word Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew. But what does dedication have to do with Hanukkah?

According to Jacowitz Chottiner, it all began when Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE (Before the Common Era), and his kingdom was divided among three generals. (BCE dates correlate with BC, Before Christ, dates.) The area of Judea, today known as Israel, fell under the Seleucid’s control. Under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 175 BCE, Jewish people were forbidden to practice their religion. The penalty for doing so was death.

Later, led by Judah Maccabee, the Jewish people began to fight for their religious freedom and were ultimately victorious. However, their holiest temple built by Solomon was now defiled and in shambles. Determined to purify the temple, the Jewish people searched the ruins until they found olive oil with the seal of the high priest on it. The small amount of oil found should have lasted for only one day. Instead, it burned for eight days, which is the length of time it took for a new supply of oil to be made.

“That’s why they say the Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days because the oil lasted for eight days,” says Jacowitz Chottiner. “But if you ask me, the real miracle of Hanukkah is not so much that the oil lasted for eight days. The real miracle is that the small group of Jews defeated this huge, well-equipped army.” Otherwise, she adds, “It would’ve been the end of Judaism.”

Today, many of the traditional foods associated with Hanukkah are fried in oil, which is symbolic of the oil burning in the reclaimed temple. One such food is called latkes, or potato pancakes. Another is sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, fried in oil.

Many are familiar with the popular Hanukkah game called dreidel, where children spin a top to win a pot of candy or coins. Players take turns spinning a four-sided top with Hebrew letters written on each side. The letters, when put together, stand for “A great miracle happened there.”

And, of course, no Hanukkah celebration is complete without the nightly lighting of the menorah. “The specific word for the menorah we use at Hanukkah is called the hanukkiah,” says Jacowitz Chottiner, who further explains that it actually has nine branches, four on each side and one in the middle. The ninth candle, called the shamash, or the “helper candle,” is used to light the other candles in the menorah.

“The first night, we say three blessings, and then we light the menorah. And then the other nights, we say two blessings and then light the menorah,” says Jacowitz Chottiner.

After it is lit, the hanukkiah is then visibly displayed, reminding all who see it of the Hanukkah miracle.

First fruits of Kwanzaa
Every winter, millions of African Americans honor their heritage by celebrating Kwanzaa, meaning “first fruits” in Swahili. Based on a thousand-year-old festival, ideals such as family, community, and unity are the focus of the seven-day celebration that spans each year December 26 through January 1.

The holiday was first created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. Head of the Political Science Department and director of the African American Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, Dr. Saundra Ardrey says much of the information presented to African Americans, particularly the children, at that time was negative.

“The media was not doing a very good job of educating black folks, especially about their own community,” explains Ardrey. “So Maulana Karenga decided that we needed to resurrect some of our old traditions and to make sure that we were connected to the African community.”

Ardrey stresses that Kwanzaa is an African culture celebration, and not a religious one. “All religions can celebrate,” she says.

When it comes to Kwanzaa celebrations, how do most families decorate their homes?

Traditional décor includes vivid colors, with black representing the people; red signifying the struggle, or the blood of the people; and green symbolizing the prosperity resulting from the struggle.

A central location in the home is usually selected for the Kwanzaa display. Then, a table is spread with African cloth. Next, a mkeka, or straw or cloth mat, is placed as the foundation for the other Kwanzaa symbols.

A kinara, or candleholder, is placed on the mat to symbolize the roots of the African people. Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles, are positioned in the kinara, with the center black candle lit on the celebration’s first night. A new red or green candle is then lit each night until all the candles are lit by the seventh night. These candles represent the seven Kwanzaa principles celebrated: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Other symbols include mazao, or crops, to signify prosperity, as well as ears of corn, which are symbolic of children. Many place one ear of corn for each child in the family. However, even if there are not children in the immediate family, ears of corn may still be placed on the mkeka to represent children in the community.

A unity cup is also placed on the mat. “Everybody drinks from the unity cup,” says Ardrey. “That symbolizes the unity of the black community.”

As a symbol of labor and a love for and commitment to the children, some families also give simple gifts called zawadi, which also relate to the seven basic Kwanzaa principles.

Ardrey sees Kwanzaa as an opportunity to deliberately talk to the community about unity, faith in the future, cooperation, and communal living. “For me,” she says, “it’s a time to bring the families together and the community together.”

Western Kentucky University’s Kwanzaa celebration celebrates all seven Kwanzaa principles in one night. Activities include student performances, poetry reading, stepping, music, and more. The public is invited to attend this event on December 1 at WKU’s Kentucky Museum, at 1444 Kentucky Street in Bowling Green. Call WKU’s Department of Political Science at (270) 745-4559 or (270) 745-4558 for additional details, or find WKU African American Studies Program on Facebook.

Click here to learn more about Kwanzaa.

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