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Winter Holidays and Their Origins

Winter Holidays and their origins

We're all familiar with Christmas. We know who Santa Claus is, where he comes from, and what he does. We know that reindeer pull his sleigh, and we know to leave him cookies. We know Christmas carols and movies, But what do we know about how it all started? What do we know about the other holidays being observed this time of year? If your answers is "not a lot,"  we're here to help. Check out these brief overviews of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to see what they're really about!



Christmas is a Christian holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus, a story which can be found in the Bible in Luke chapters 1-2.

It begins when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, a virgin, pledged to marry a man named Joseph, to tell her that she is to bear a child, that she will call him Jesus, and that he is to be the son of God. Naturally, Joseph is unhappy when he hears that Mary is with child and he plans to leave her quietly, but the angel of the Lord appears to him, too, telling him that the child will save the people from their sins. It was when Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in a census that it came time for Mary to give birth. There was no guest room available for them, so Mary gave birth to her son in a stable and placed him in a manger. Shepherds lived in a nearby field, and an angel appeared to them, followed by a host of angles, telling then of the birth of Jesus. The shepherds, who were afraid at first, went to see the baby Jesus.  Wise men also went to see Jesus, following a bright star that appeared over Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The wise men brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to present to Jesus.

We give gifts on Christmas today in observance of the birth of Jesus, just like the wise men did. Though the vast commercialization of Christmas has led to it's secularization for some, symbols of the first Christmas are present today, even in secular observance. For example, Christmas trees are traditionally topped with either a star or an angel, representing the star of Bethlehem, or the angel that appeared to the shepherds.



Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that is observed for eight days and eight nights each year. The word "Hanukkah" is Hebrew for "dedication." The holiday received this name because it commemorates the 165 BC re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees after the Syrians desecrated it. 

 In 168 BC, the Syrian king, Antiochus, took over Jerusalem. He decreed that the Jews must practice only his religion, and he ordered that all of the temples be converted or destroyed. While some of the Jews were to afraid to disagree, Judah Maccabee was not. He gathered men we now know as the Maccabees, and together they fought Antiochus's men. Against all odds, they won. When they went into their temple, they found it in poor shape. The temple was damaged, and there was no oil to light the menorah. As the Maccabees cleaned the temple, ridding it of any sign of the religion that was forced upon them, they found a small amount of oil. They used the oil, which should have only burned for one night. Much to their surprise, the oil burned for eight days and eight nights. Because of this, the Maccabees knew that God was with them, and it's because of this that Hanukkah is observed for eight days and eight nights now.

Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting one candle in the menorah each night for eight nights. Spinning the dreidel is also a  common way of celebrating Hanukkah. The dreidel is a four sided top that is typically made out of clay. It has Hebrew letters on its four sides, and chocolate coins called Gelt are also involved in this game. Family members also exchange Hanukkah gifts.




Kwanzaa is an African-American and Pan-African secular holiday that runs each year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, and commemorates family, community and culture.

Kwanzaa is traditionally observed in a central location in the home. A table is spread with an African cloth, a mkeka, or mat, is laid out, and symbols of the holiday are placed on or directly next to it. This is a symbol for being rooted in tradition.  A kinara (candle holder) is placed onto the mkeka and filled with mishumaa saba (seven candles.) One candle is black, symbolizing the people;  three are red, symbolizing the people's struggle; and three are green, symbolizing the hope that comes from the struggle as well as the future. In addition to this, each candle represents one of Kwanzaa's seven principles. The black candle is representative of Umoja (unity) and is placed in the center of the kinara.  To the left of the black candle are the three red candles, which represent Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), and Kuumba (creativity.) On the right side of the kinara are three green candles, which represent Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Nia (purpose), and Imani (faith.)

The black candle is lit first, and the remainder of the candles are lit one at a time, from left to right on each remaining day of Kwanzaa. This symbolizes that the people come first, then comes struggle, and from struggle comes hope.


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