Thursday, December 9, 2010

Famous December Celebrations: Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa

The number of festivals around the world is too many to determine, in truth hitherto, the count goes on and accumulates. They run from age-old religious ceremonies, commemoration of historical events, homage to distinguished persons, to arbitrary secular festivities (national, communal or cultural). As societies change through time, some festivals become less popular or they diminish altogether, most of the long-standing ones continue to thrive and refashioned to fit the modern times, while others evolve and spawn new or altered traditions. Nevertheless, some basic points remain, and wherever these festivals are observed, they share common elements, like food and big banquets, special clothing, gaiety activities, parades, amongst the rest. As to the answer on how and why they have emerged in the first place varies, it can be to preserve customs and folktales, or oftentimes it’s a matter of opinion (and decision) of those at the helm.

And why do people celebrate these festivals and events? Simply, they bring people together, even at times just short-lived. They bring unification to a wide-ranging society that rise above personal interests and prejudices. Many of them are legacies from long ago and will continue to be observed for more centuries to come, why again? Because whether we like it or not, whether we celebrate or merely acknowledge these festivals in passing, the fact is, they are part of our way of life.


Here are some of the famous holidays that are widely celebrated around the world every December.

Hanukkah (Chanukah)

image courtesy of alljewishlinks dot com
Hanukkah or Chanukah (Hebrew for “dedication”), annual festival of the Jewish people celebrated on eight successive days. It begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the third month of the Jewish calendar, corresponding, approximately, to December in the Gregorian calendar. Hanukkah is also known as the Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication, and Feast of the Maccabees.

Modern Day Hanukkah: The principal feature of present-day Hanukkah celebrations is the lighting of candles, one the first night, two the second, and so on until eight candles have been lit in a special candelabrum called a menorah. A Hanukkah menorah has eight branches and a holder for an extra candle that is used to light the others. (A seven-branched menorah that also has its origins in biblical times is now a symbol for the state of Israel.) A blessing is said each night as the Hanukkah candles are lit.

Hanukkah is a festive family occasion, with special foods and songs. Children generally receive small gifts or money, known as Hanukkah gelt (money), each evening after the candles are lit. Foods fried in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts, commemorate the miracle of the oil. Sweet foods also are popular, and children may receive chocolate coins in place of Hanukkah gelt. Songs also play a part in the festivities and remind the family of the events commemorated.

Traditionally, Hanukkah was one of the only times that rabbis permitted games of chance. Children sometimes play games with a spinning top called a dreidel during the eight days of the festival. Before play, each player puts a certain number of coins, candies, or another object into a “pot.” One player then spins the dreidel. Each of the four sides of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the side that lands up when the dreidel stops spinning indicates which part of the pot the player will receive. The Hebrew letter nun indicates “nothing”; the letter gimel, “all”; hei, “half”; and shin, “put in” or “match the pot.” Over time, these letters came to stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes gadol haya sham (“A great miracle happened there”). Children also play by guessing which letter will appear when the dreidel stops, with the winner claiming the pot.

In Israel, the letter pei, for the word po (“here”), is substituted for shin on the dreidel, changing the resulting phrase to “A great miracle happened here.” (By Saul Lieberman, MS E)

Christmas (December 25)

image courtesy of softlow dot com
Christmas, annual Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Most members of the Roman Catholic Church and followers of Protestantism celebrate Christmas on December 25, and many celebrate on the evening of December 24 as well. Members of most Orthodox Churches around the world also celebrate the holiday on December 25. Some Orthodox Christians in Russia, Ukraine, the Holy Land (the historic region of Palestine), and elsewhere celebrate Christmas on January 7 because they follow the Julian calendar. Members of the Armenian Church observe Christmas on January 6, following the unique custom of celebrating both the birth and baptism of Christ on the same day.

The official Christmas season, popularly known as either Christmastide or the Twelve Days of Christmas, extends from the anniversary of Christ’s birth on December 25 to the feast of Epiphany on January 6. On the Epiphany, some Catholics and Protestants celebrate the visit of the Magi while Orthodox Christians, who call the feast Theophany, celebrate the baptism of Christ.

Many people, particularly in the United States and Canada, consider Christmas to be the most significant annual Christian event. In addition to being a religious holiday, Christmas is a widely observed secular festival. For most people who celebrate Christmas, the holiday season is characterized by gatherings among family and friends, feasting, and gift giving.

Christmas is based on the story of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospel according to Matthew (see Matthew 1:18-2:12) and the Gospel according to Luke (see Luke 1:26-56). Roman Catholics first celebrated Christmas, then known as the Feast of the Nativity, as early as Ad 336. The word Christmas entered the English language sometime around 1050 as the Old English phrase Christes maesse, meaning “festival of Christ.” Scholars believe the frequently used shortened form of Christmas—Xmas—may have come into use in the 13th century. The X stands for the Greek letter chi, an abbreviation of Khristos (Christ), and also represents the cross on which Jesus was crucified. (By Penne Restad, MS E).


 AP Photo
Kwanzaa, (matunda ya kwanza, Swahili for “first fruits”), an African American holiday observed by African communities throughout the world that celebrates family, community, and culture. It is a seven-day holiday that begins December 26 and continues through January 1. Kwanzaa has its roots in the ancient African first-fruit harvest celebrations from which it takes its name. However, its modern history begins in 1966 when it was developed by African American scholar and activist Maulana Karenga.

Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental activities common to other African first-fruit celebrations: (1) the ingathering of family, friends, and community; (2) reverence for the creator and creation (including thanksgiving and recommitment to respect the environment and heal the world); (3) commemoration of the past (honoring ancestors, learning lessons and emulating achievements of African history); (4) recommitment to the highest cultural ideals of the African community (for example, truth, justice, respect for people and nature, care for the vulnerable, and respect for elders); and (5) celebration of the “Good of Life” (for example, life, struggle, achievement, family, community, and culture).

Kwanzaa is celebrated through rituals, dialogue, narratives, poetry, dancing, singing, drumming and other music, and feasting. A central practice is the lighting of the mishumaa (seven candles) of Kwanzaa. A candle is lit each day for each of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles). These principles are umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and imani (faith). Kwanzaa ends with a day of assessment on which celebrants raise and answer questions of cultural and moral grounding and consider their worthiness in family, community, and culture. (By Maulana Karenga, MS E)

New Year's Eve (December 31)

image courtesy of laughingsquid
Every year, many people around the globe gather on the eve of December 31, waiting for 12 midnight to welcome the New Year. It's the final day of the Gregorian year and is commonly observed with joyous parties and family gatherings, feast and fireworks.


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