Every year, just after Thanksgiving, cities and towns across the country used to put up beautiful Christmas trees! These trees were enormous in height and covered in thousands of twinkling lights. The night they lit the Christmas tree was usually a celebration fit for the entire town. It symbolized the beginning of the Christmas Season, the season of giving. They’re now being replaced by a strange thing called, “Holiday Trees.” And to follow suit, everyone has agreed to now call the Menorah, “Holiday Candles.”
Growing up, my mother had many wonderful traditions that we practiced throughout the Christmas season. She was very big on making us realize that the true spirit of Christmas was about love, family, togetherness and giving. The focus was never on the gifts we received, but more so about the gifts we gave to others.
I’m in my late 30’s these days and I still carry on many of the traditions I learned from my mother. Even though my religious beliefs are more spiritually based than Catholic, I still celebrate Christmas the way my family did. I enjoy decorating the tree and the house and I enjoy attending Christmas parties and buying gifts for the important people in my life.
As an adult, I now know that there are other holidays that are celebrated during the Christmas Season and it’s important to remember this during all of the hustle and bustle. Why society and the retail world have latched onto Christmas, as opposed to Hanukkah or Kwanzaa is beyond me, but it makes them no less important and wonderful.
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar (which is November-December on the Gregorian calendar). In Hebrew, the word "Hanukkah" means "dedication."
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews' 165 B.C.E. victory over the Hellenist Syrians. Antiochus, the Greek King of Syria, outlawed Jewish rituals and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods.
In 168 B.C.E. the Jews' holy Temple was seized and dedicated to the worship of Zeus.
Some Jews were afraid of the Greek soldiers and obeyed them, but most were angry and decided to fight back.
The fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. A Greek officer and soldiers assembled the villagers, asking them to bow to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig, activities forbidden to Jews. The officer asked Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, to take part in the ceremony. He refused, and another villager stepped forward and offered to do it instead. Mattathias became outraged, took out his sword and killed the man, then killed the officer. His five sons and the other villagers then attacked and killed the soldiers. Mattathias' family went into hiding in the nearby mountains, where many other Jews who wanted to fight the Greeks joined them. They attacked the Greek soldiers whenever possible.
Judah Maccabee and his soldiers went to the holy Temple, and were saddened that many things were missing or broken, including the golden menorah. They cleaned and repaired the Temple, and when they were finished, they decided to have a big dedication ceremony. For the celebration, the Maccabees wanted to light the menorah. They looked everywhere for oil, and found a small flask that contained only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. This gave them enough time to obtain new oil to keep the menorah lit. Today Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days by lighting candles in a menorah every night, thus commemorating the eight-day miracle.
Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community and culture. Celebrated from 26 December thru 1 January, its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first fruits" in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language.
The first-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia and appear in ancient and modern times in other classical African civilizations such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland. These celebrations are also found in ancient and modern times among societies as large as empires (the Zulu or kingdoms (Swaziland) or smaller societies and groups like the Matabele, Thonga and Lovedu, all of southeastern Africa. Kwanzaa builds on the five fundamental activities of Continental African "first fruit" celebrations: ingathering; reverence; commemoration; recommitment; and celebration. Kwanzaa, then, is:
--a time of ingathering of the people to reaffirm the bonds between them;
--a time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation;
--a time for commemoration of the past in pursuit of its lessons and in honor of its models of human excellence, our ancestors;
--a time of recommitment to our highest cultural ideals in our ongoing effort to always bring forth the best of African cultural thought and practice; and
--a time for celebration of the Good, the good of life and of existence itself, the good of family, community and culture, the good of the awesome and the ordinary, in a word the good of the divine, natural and social.
As for the controversy over whether cities and towns should call their trees holiday trees or Christmas trees, the answer is simple. A Christmas tree is just that, a Christmas tree. Just as a Menorah is a Menorah. Maybe more towns and cities should erect symbols and decorations to reflect both Hanukah and Kwanzaa, as well.
Regardless of which holiday you celebrate, I hope you have a wonderful season full of love and light! I hope you get to spend time with those you care about most. Most of all, I hope you find some way to give back to the community and help make the world a nicer place to live.
As always, please say a special prayer for the soldiers serving our country who cannot be with their families. Also, say a prayer for the families at home who worry about them.
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukka! Happy Kwanzaa!