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More than just Christmas

December 7, 2012
By MIKE HUGHES - Times Leader News Editor , Times Leader

SOME PEOPLE get bent out of shape when someone utters Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, the traditional greeting for the Christmas season, this time of year.

But using the word holidays is a correct statement as well.

Christmas is the main, most well-known and widely celebrated holiday in December.

But it's not the only one.

Another religious holiday belonging to the faith of Judaism, lasts for eight days. Another holiday belongs to the those of African heritage, primarily celebrated in The United States and Canada. It took is a lengthier event, lasting seven days.

One celebration has been around for centuries. The other for less than a century.

But both are holidays and extremely important to their particular segment of the population that celebrates them.


The Jewish celebration of hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, begins Saturday and runs through Dec. 16.

It's an eight day celebration that two miracles.

The first is a second century victory by an out-armed and outnumbered group of Jewish forces, the Maccabees, against the Greek who were occupying the holy land.

The Greeks wanted to impose a Hellenistic way of living on the Jewish people, which sparked the rebellion.

The second miracle is that of the burning of the oil of a Menorah for eight days.

When the Maccabees liberated the Holy Temple, there wasn't enough oil to light the Menorah for more than a day. Oil needed to be replenished and eight days were needed to do so.

The lighting of the seven branches of the Menorah was a key portion of daily worship.

The decision was made to light the Menorah for that one day. However, a miracle happened as the small amount of oil kept burning, allowing the Menorah to remain lit.

That's why, among a number of other customs and traditions, the lighting of the Menorah candle is such a central part of the hanukkah celebration.

A description of the Menorah tradition from explains that:

"On each of the eight days of Chanukah, we light the menorah, a nine-branched candelabra, after nightfall (aside for Friday afternoon, when the candles are lit shortly before sunset).

On the first night we kindle one light plus the shamash (attendant candle), on the second night we kindle two lights plus the shamash, and so we continue until the eighth night when we kindle all eight lights plus the shamash.

The menorah lights can be either candles, or oil and wicks.

It is traditional to eat foods fried in oil on Chanukah, to commemorate the miracle of Chanukah which occurred with oil. It is also customary to eat dairy foods during the holiday."

It is customary to give gifts of money to your children during the celebration.

A dreidel, a spinning, four-side top, with Hebrew letters imprinted on all four sides. The four letters are an acronym. The English equivalent of the Hebrew saying they represent is "A great miracle happened there."

The game is played to honor children who, during the time of Greek and Syrian rule, would take on their dreidel's and spin the top in order to appear as if playing a game. During those time, learning Torah was outlawed. So when soldiers came by, out came the dreidels to avoid rousing suspicion. The game is played now as part of the hanukkah celebration to remind of the courage of those children.


The celebration of Kwanzaa began only a few short decades ago in 1966.

It begins on Dec. 26 and runs clear through to Jan. 1.

There are seven core principles that are celebrated during Kwanzaa: Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Maulana Karenga, a professor, activist and author, created the holiday celebration in 1966.

At the time, she said that Kwanzaa is a way to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."

The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase and is translated to mean first fruits of the harvest.

The celebration is modeled after the first fruits celebration in ancient Africa.

Speaks to our need and appreciation for its cultural vision and life- affirming values, values which celebrate and reinforce family, community, and culture.

Represents an important way Africans speak our own special cultural truth in a multicultural world.

Reaffirms the most ancient tradition in the world, the African tradition, which lays claim to the first religious, ethical and scientific texts, and the introduction of the basic disciplines of human knowledge in the Nile Valley.

Reinforces our rootedness in our own culture in a rich and meaningful way.

Brings us together from all countries, all religious traditions, all classes, all ages and generations, and all political persuasions on the common ground of our Africanness in all its historical and current diversity and unity.

How is it celebrated.

The mkeka, a straw mat, symbolizes the foundation on which everything rests. There is also the kinara, a candle holder that holds seven candles.

There are seven candles, mishumaa saba, that stand for the Seven Principles. There are ears of corn that represent the offspring of the original stalk from which the African people originated.

The zawadi, or gifts, represent the fruits of the parents' labor as well as seeds sown by the children.

According to a text originating with the National Museum of African Art, during the candle-lighting ceremony:

The candle lighting ceremony, central to the celebration of Kwanzaa, takes place at a time when all members of the family are present. Children are encouraged to take an active role in all activities.

The ceremony begins with the TAMBIKO (libation), an African form of praise which pays homage to personal and collective ancestors. To begin, the elder of the household pours wine, juice or distilled spirits from the KIKOMBE CHA UMOJA (unity cup) into the earth or an earth-filled vessel. While pouring, the elder makes a statement honoring departed family members for the inspiration and values they have left with descendants. Friends are also remembered.

After the TAMBIKO, as a gesture of unity, the elder drinks from the KIKOMBE CHA UMOJA and then passes it for all to share. The elder leads the call, "HARAMBEE" (Let's pull together), and everyone participates in repeating the phrase seven times. Candle lighting, central to the ceremony, reinforces the meaning of the principles. The placement of the mishumaa saba (candles) in the kinara is as follows: Black, for the color of African peoples everywhere, is located in the center. Three red candles, represents the blood of the ancestors, are placed to the left. Three green candles that symbolize the earth, life, and the ideas and promise of the future, are placed to the right. Beginning December 26 with the black mushumaa, a different candle is lit for each day, alternating from left to right. After the candle lighting, the principle of the day is discussed.

The evening of December 31 (Day 6) is the KARAMU, a joyous celebration with food, drink, dance, and music for the collective family and friends. It is a time of rejoicing, reassessment and recommittment.

The ZAWADI, handmade or similarly meaningful gifts for children, may be opened at the KARAMU, or on the final day of Kwanzaa, when Imani is observed.

Another custom is that it is tradition to greet friends with the Swahili saying "Habari gani" meaning ?"What is the news?"

The one receiving the greeting responds with whatever principle is being celebrated during that day of Kwanzaa.

Hughes may be reached at



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