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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

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.

Kwanzaa

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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December: What else happens besides Christmas?

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

We all know about Christmas when we talk about December holidays. But there are other holidays around the world (and often celebrated in the United States) that you may not know about.  You never know, you may want more days off to celebrate these holidays.  Or a reason to celebrate in the first place!

ninjaaa

Dec. 5 – The Day of the Ninja

This day was either created to commemorate Tom Cruise’s movie the Last Samurai (which had a ninja bit in it) or it was created by the Ninja Burger.  Either way it really caught on, showing up in the nation’s consciousness by 2007.  Now it has evolved to something similar to Talk Like a Pirate Day.  So dress like a ninja on December 5 or watch your favorite ninja movie(s).

nicholas-1062539_1920Dec. 6 – St. Nicholas’ Day

Yes, this is the same Nicholas that our Santa Claus comes from.  Nicholas of Myra was a Christian bishop who legends say was a gift-giver, often putting coins in people’s shoes.  Many people often left their shoes outside, so as not to track in outside dirt and keep the floors clean.  It would have been easy to drop coins in shoes with no one watching.  This day is most observed in the European countries (or families with European backgrounds here in the U.S.). Children often receive treats – including candy, cookies, small toys, or fruit – in stockings, socks, shoes or bags on December 6. Some churches have special services dedicated to the feast of St Nicholas on this day.

Dec. 10 – Dewey Decimal System Day

For library lovers everywhere, surprise! This day commemorates the birth of Melville Dewey (born Dec. 10), the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System of library classification, and if you’ve ever looked up books with a three digit number in a library, you were using the Dewey Decimal System.  Maybe you’ve never thought about how you find a book in the library??  Dewey divided all of the world’s knowledge into ten sections, starting with 000 and ending with 900, using decimals to continue to group books into smaller and smaller subject categories, which would make longer and longer numbers (the longest so far being 331.892829225209712743090511).  Anything that didn’t fit in any category was put in the 000s, which explains why computer books are there.  They weren’t invented until many years after his death!

lucia-13-12-06Dec. 13 – Saint Lucia’s Day

Saint Lucia (or Lucy) was a Christian martyr who according to legend brought food to Christians hiding in the caves and catacombs.  She lit her way with a candle wreath, leaving her hands free to hold as much food as possible.  This day is celebrated (or commemorated) mostly in the Scandinavian countries, where winter lasts longer; since she brought light, which is most appreciated on dark days.  These days, girls are in white dresses with candle wreaths, and they bring cookies and pastries to everyone in the household.

Dec. 16-24 – Los Posadas

Los Posadas are held across Mexico and are becoming more and more popular in the United States. The word posada means inn or shelter, and these nine days commemorate and re-enact the arduous trip that Mary and Joseph took to get to Bethlehem. The celebration begins with a procession through the neighborhood where the participants hold candles and sing Christmas carols. Sometimes there will be individuals who play the parts of Mary and Joseph who lead the procession. Each night they go to one designated home in the neighborhood. There is even a special song for this event—it is “La Cancion Para Pedir Posada”.   When they are finally let in to the house, the celebration starts. It can be either a big party or a small gathering. Often children get to break piñatas to get candy. I’m sure they like this part!

10914365294_eac0fbeefb_bDec. 16 – Ugly Christmas Sweater Day

Switching gears completely, and also on December 16 (this year, it always falls on the third Friday of December) is Ugly Christmas Sweater Day. Basically it is an excuse to have a party and wear the sweaters you are often gifted that you wouldn’t normally wear.  National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day (.com) has created a way you can make your party, either at home or at the office, a fundraising event.  You can have fun and do good at the same time! In many countries, the holiday is associated with fundraising events for children’s charity.

Dec. 17 – Wright Brothers Day

In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed December 17 as Wright Brothers Day. This is the anniversary of the day they actually got their first plane prototype up in the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  This plane, Flyer, managed to stay in the air 12 seconds and it flew close to 120 feet.  It was definitely a cause for celebration.

hanuka-menorah-by-gil-dekel-2014Dec. 24-31 – Hanukkah

The most well-known holiday on this list is Hanukkah, which this year starts on December 24 and lasts eight days. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the date for the start of Hanukkah is different each year.  This Festival of Lights commemorates a miraculous event in Jewish history.  The Jews were rebelling against their overlords, the Seleucid Greeks, during the Maccabean Revolt—some of the Jews revolted because they didn’t want to worship idol gods. After the victorious Jews regained the Temple in Jerusalem, they rededicated it to God.  When they checked the oil for lighting the menorah (the seven candle slotted candelabrum), they only had enough oil for one day.  That oil lasted for eight days, by which time they had created a new supply of consecrated oil.   The priests called this The Festival of Lights or Hanukkah (or Chanukah.)  This is why menorahs have nine candles, eight for the eight day festival and the middle candle to light them with.

Dec. 26 – Boxing Day

Boxing Day is always the day after Christmas and is mainly celebrated in the countries of the United Kingdom.  There are similar celebrations in Germany, though.  Why Boxing Day?  The day after Christmas was traditionally the day the collection boxes in the churches were opened and the money distributed to the poor.  Some churches are still carrying on this tradition.  In Holland, the boxes were ceramic, and called pigs—could this be where our term piggy bank comes from??  Also, servants were given the day off on this day, probably to be able to get a share of the collected coffers from the collection boxes.  So many companies continued this tradition in Britain that December 26th is now an official public holiday.    Boxing Day has become Britain’s Black Friday, but many people are unhappy with this.

*Boxing Day is also St. Stephen’s Day—the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas tells the story of the king who goes out to help a poor family on the Feast of Stephen, or St. Stephen’s Day.

342794044_eaec653587_bDec. 26-Jan. 1 – Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Ron Karenga; his goal was to reconnect black Americans to their African roots and recognize their struggles as a people by building community. Derived from the Swahili term, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first-fruits,” Kwanzaa is based on African harvest celebrations. According to the official Kwanzaa Web site,

“Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in black people’s lives is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.”

Just as many African harvest celebrations run for seven days, Kwanzaa has seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba. They are umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and imani (faith). Kwanzaa is not celebrated as much as it was in the 1960s and 70s, for several reasons. First is the overkill of Christmas celebrating, with presents and food, and the second is it’s a relatively recent creation, which means it doesn’t carry a long tradition of celebration behind it.

Read the rest of this entry

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