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Happy Holidays! Traditions And History Of Your Favorite Days To Celebrate

Jan 7, 2008
As of late, a trio of holidays, Kwanzaa, Hanukah and Christmas, have become the most widely celebrated, each holding its own history and traditions. However, many are unaware of the history of their celebrations as well as the traditions of the holidays they do not celebrate. To make that holiday spirit burn brighter, break out the history books and take a look back on these celebrations of the season.


Kwanzaa is a holiday with a relatively short history of only 34 years. Focusing on African traditions and customs, Kwanzaa was founded by Dr. Muakena Karehga, who was then chairman of black studies at California State University. Kwanzaa is centered on seven principles called by the Swahili term Nguzo Saba. These principles are celebrated over a series of seven days from December 26th till January 1st. The principles are: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self determination), ujima (collective works/responsibility), ujamma (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imanj (faith).

Kwanzaa is celebrated by lighting the seven candles (called the kinara) one a day, with a discussion of the corresponding principle each day. The black candle in the center, representing unity, is lit first, followed by the remaining red and green candles. The first day of Kwanzaa is used to produce handmade gifts that will be exchanged during the final karamu (feast).

Young people traditionally visit nursing homes and senior centers to celebrate Kwanzaa with residents, often bringing small gifts. During Kwanzaa many do not eat meat or fast until the karamu, a feast displaying dishes from different countries in the African diaspora. Traditional African dress is often worn throughout Kwanzaa.


This Jewish tradition is celebrated the eight days before the 25th day of Kislev, the third month in the Jewish calendar (corresponds to December). Known as the Festival of lights, the Feast of Dedication and the Feast of the Maccabees, this holiday honors the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. The temple had previously been dedicated to the god Zeus, and then defaced by the king of Syria. Maccabees returned the temple to its former glory.

Upon dedicating the temple, Maccabees wanted to light the menorah in the temple, but only had enough oil for one day. However, the oil miraculously lit the lamps for eight days, and so the Jews celebrate these eight days of light on the Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukivah.

The use of oil is a prominent theme for the holiday causing many of its dishes to be made with oil. Latkes, or potato pancakes, ad well as sufganiyot (hole-less jelly donuts) are some Hanukkah favorites. Chocolate coins are also used during this holiday for the dreidel game played by many. The dreidel is a four sided top with Hebrew letters representing "A Miracle Happened Here." When spun, the dreidel will land on one of these letters, each meaning a different amount of coins bet are lost or won. The game ends when all players but one have run out of coins, or it is agreed to stop.


One of the most popular holidays, Christmas is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, God's only son. The date for this birth is not specified in the Bible, so the date of celebration was chosen by Pope Julis I. It is believed the 25th of December was chosen in order to overshadow the pagan festival Saturnalia held on the same day.

Christmas began not as a prominent holiday as the Resurrection day of Easter held more importance. Even in early America Christmas was not widely celebrated as the overwhelming number of Puritans tried to suppress its sometimes decadent celebration. However, the Puritans soon became outnumbered and in 1891 author Washington Irving wrote "The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon," which outlined a Christmas celebration in an English manor house. Though fictional, this story brought about many of the modern Christmas traditions.

In 1870 Christmas was finally declared a national holiday and for the next 100 years Americans began to piece together different cultural practices to make Christmas traditions.

The tradition of Santa Claus dates back to a monk named St. Nicolas. Nicholas was born near modern day Turkey about 280 A.D. and was known for his kindness and holiness. There are many legends that tell of this saint's good works and his feast day falls on December 6th. Through many stories, this saint eventually became the "jolly old elf" we know today.

Christmas tree traditions come from Germany and were brought over to American by German immigrants. The very first Christmas tree in America was seen in Pennsylvania in the 1820s, but the traditional was made popular when Germany's Price Albert married Queen Victoria and the two had a Christmas tree in the palace.

Other Christmas traditions such as the nativity scene, Yule log, mistletoe and poinsettias also came to be because of cultural practices from American immigrants.
About the Author
Charlotte Beulow is a contributing writer for Access My Library. AccessMyLibrary.com is a service of Thomson Gale. Best known for its accurate and authoritative reference content as well as its intelligent organization of full-text magazine and newspaper articles, the company creates and maintains more than 600 databases that are published online, in print, as eBooks and in microform. Visit Access My Library Access My Library
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