Winter Holidays

Jill Stone

Many different holidays are celebrated throughout the winter months. These holidays often have things in common but they can also be quite different. Some Americans celebrate several different holidays and others choose to not celebrate any holidays. However someone chooses to spend the winter season, it can be a time for family, friends, and personal reflection. 

Kwanzaa is celebrated by African Americans and was created by notable Black American scholar Maulana Karenga in 1966. The name originates from the Swahili language and means “first fruits.” Swahili is an African language spoken mostly in Tanzania, however, Kwanzaa is only celebrated in the United States. Kwanzaa was most popular in the 1970s and 1980s when it was celebrated by millions of people in the U.S. It has fallen out of use in the past few decades.

Kwanzaa begins on December 26 and lasts until January 1. Each night of the celebration, a different value of African culture (Nguzo Saba) is honored. These seven values are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics (building Black businesses), purpose, creativity, and faith.

The holiday is also taken as an opportunity for African Americans to honor those who have built up their community and fought for their civil rights. “For the African-American community, Kwanzaa is not just any ‘Black holiday.’ It is a recognition that knowledge of Black history is worthwhile,” said Frank Dobson with PBS NewsHour.

Black Americans celebrate by coming together as families and communities and performing traditions such as lighting the kinara which is a seven-branched candle holder. Foods such as rice, candied yams, buttermilk biscuits, and plantains are eaten and houses are decorated with dried ears of corn, and a woven mat is placed in a noticeable place in the home. Along with family reminiscing and storytelling, there is dancing and drum playing to get all family members involved.

Another winter holiday is Christmas. Christmas is a traditionally Christian holiday but it is also celebrated in a secular (no religious or spiritual basis) way that separates some of the traditions from its religious origins. In its religious context, Christmas is celebrated to mark the birth of Jesus Christ and is observed on December 25. It is believed that celebrating on the 25th originates from the Roman harvest festival around the same time. “Christmas developed, one scholar says, as a means of replacing worship of the sun with worship of the Son. By 529 A.D., after Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian made Christmas a civic holiday,” said a 1984 article by The Buffalo News. Christians were still a minority in Rome and wanted more influence so they adapted the Roman holiday into a Christian holiday to spread their beliefs and religious message.

Over the past few centuries, Christmas has become more secularized and commercialized and it is celebrated in many countries by many different cultures and religions. Whether someone celebrates it for religious or secular motivations, many who do celebrate follow similar customs and traditions. The figure of Santa Clause, a magical man who brings well-behaved children toys that they wish for, originates from a Turkish monk named St. Nicholas who was known for his generosity. This figure was the patron saint of children so he was a figure of the gift-giving season. In America, holiday shopping started to become advertised in the early 1800s.

Christmas in the U.S. is mostly influenced by European cultures and traditions. Christmas trees, advent calendars, gingerbread houses, and candy canes come from Germany. Ugly sweater competitions, a fairly new tradition, comes from Canada. Door wreaths are a comparably much older tradition from ancient Greece. Different countries around the world mix their own culture with Christmas. More than 160 countries around the world celebrate Christmas.

Another religious event, Hanukkah is a holiday in November or December and is celebrated by Jewish people from all around the world. The celebration lasts eight days and begins on different days each year depending on the Hebrew calendar and the eve of Kislev. The holiday is also called “the festival of lights” and dates back to the 2nd century BCE. “The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah or Chanukah commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt,” said in a 2009 article on the history of Hanukkah.

Each night of Hanukkah, a candle in the menorah is lit to commemorate each day that the Temple lantern blazed when the Jewish people reclaimed their ancestral temple. Lit menorahs are put in the windows of Jewish homes and the last night of Hanukkah is ended by reciting prayers and singing songs to remember their journey as a people.

Almost six million people in the U.S. celebrate Hanukkah. Judaism is made up of different ethnic groups that originate from different regions. Their original cultures influence their practice of Judaism and their holiday traditions such as holiday food and music. Ashkenazim and Sephardic Jews are the most common groups in the U.S.

The nights of Hanukkah are also celebrated with gifts and food. Oil-based foods are eaten such as latkes, which are fried potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, which are fried jelly doughnuts. Games are played such as dreidel which is a small, wooden four-sided spinning top with different Hebrew letters on each side. The most important part of this holiday is the community and family that is celebrated.

All of these winter holidays have great historical and sentimental value to the people that celebrate them. They may have many differences in traditions but they all involve people coming together to appreciate each other and enjoy good food and company. The holidays are an opportunity for people to slow down and be more mindful of their fortune and the people in their lives that love them.