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Candles, Culture, Faith and Family: A Light Look at Kwanzaa and Hanukkah

By Cindy Schuchardt, Reference Department

A popular holiday song assures us that this is the “most wonderful time of the year” and the “hap-happiest season of all.”1 Many people feel that way because they celebrate Christmas, marking the historical and (Christians believe) blessed virgin birth of the Christ child.  Two other seasonal celebrations, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, also make this time of the year special for those who practice them. For this reason alone, they merit our recognition and understanding.  While Hanukkah dates back to the second century BCE and Kwanzaa was first practiced in 1966, these celebrations have much in common beyond the double letter combinations in their names – and much to teach us all.


Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival of lights that began on December 12 this year (2017). The festival commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Greek Seleucids.  The Seleucids wanted the people of Israel accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of their own beliefs and religion. The overall theme of the celebration is one of triumph against overwhelming odds. Hanukkah participants now recount the story of how a single day’s worth of olive oil, used to light the Temple’s seven-branched candleholder, miraculously lasted for eight days.

Each night during Hanukkah, a candle is lit on a special candleholder called a menorah. There are nine flames on the menorah – one for each day of the festival and a center flame called the attendant (shamash) that is used to light the other candles.  One candle is lit the first night, two the second night, and so on throughout the festival. The menorah is placed in a window or a doorway; each family has at least one menorah, but some households have a menorah for each person in the home.

Hanukkah is a distinctly religious holiday. Participants sing songs of worship and recite special prayers during the nightly menorah lighting festivities. Menorahs are also lit in Jewish synagogues and in many outdoor public spaces. Hanukkah participants are encouraged to gaze at the lights and think of the lessons they impart.

Food holds a special place in Hanukkah, as well. Fried foods are eaten to remind those present of the miracle of the oil.  Two popular examples are potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly-filled fried donuts (sufganya).

Playing with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, is a popular pastime during Hanukkah.  Each side of the dreidel is marked with a Hebrew letter.  The letters used are nungimmelhei and shin, an acronym for nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.”

The giving of gelt (special coins) to children is also part of the tradition.  The idea was to reward children for good behavior and inspire them to learn charity and give to others.  Today, gifts are often exchanged during Hanukkah, as well.


Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Myers (above), 66th Air Base Wing noncommissioned officer in charge of the Military Equal Opportunity office, demonstrates a Kwanzaa ritual where she lights a candle in the Kinara.

Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1.  It was founded in 1966 in Los Angeles by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of African Studies and activist-scholar. From its important beginnings in the U.S. with African Americans, the holiday has blossomed into recognition by the world African community and is today celebrated on every continent.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture, during which families and community members gather to celebrate Nguzo Saba, which is Swahili for The Seven Principles. Each day marks one of the principles, developed and described by Dr. Karenga as follows:

  1. Unity (Umoja) – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
  2. Self Determination (Kujichagulia) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
  3. Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) – To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  4. Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses, and to profit from them together.
  5. Purpose (Nia) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their original greatness.
  6. Creativity (Kuumba) – To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  7. Faith (Imani) – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

    NPS Photo

Families who celebrate Kwanzaa choose a central place in the home to display the Kwanzaa Set.  A table is covered with a colorful African cloth, and then adorned with a mat and a special candle holder called a Kinara.  Seven candles are placed in the holder, one black candle representing the people, three red candles represent their struggles, and three green candles represent the future and the hope the results from such struggles (the African liberation colors).  These candles also correlate with the seven principles.

The black candle in the center signifies Unity and is lit on the first day. The remaining candles are lit from left to right on the following days, showing how a unified people move through struggle to hope. Ears of corn and a Unity Cup are also placed on the mat, which is typically surrounded with books on African life and culture, as well as African works of art.

Different Peoples, Different Celebrations, Shared Light

I find it interesting to consider the common elements in Hanukkah and Kwanzaa: the Kinara and the menorah, the candles and the lighted oil, and the daily family observances. In a world that seems to be increasingly dark, there is something about this season inspires us to slow down and consider the lights. We ponder our shared humanity and our bonds as families and communities. I believe that learning about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah and the heritage of those who mark these events can only serve to bring us closer together. Have a blessed season, everyone!

If you enjoyed this glimpse at Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, then you may want to learn more.  The library can help!  Take a look at some of the resources available. Read the rest of this entry

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