Month: December 2015
Where did this beautiful holiday plant originate?
The poinsettia is a culturally and commercially important plant species of the diverse spurge family that is indigenous to Mexico and Central America. It is particularly well known for its red and green foliage and is widely used in Christmas floral displays. It derives its common English name from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant into the United States in 1825.
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of 0.6–4 meters (2 ft 0 in–13 ft. 1 in). The plant bears dark green denate leaves that measure 7–16 centimeters (2.8–6.3 in) in length. The colored bracts—which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or marbled—are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves. The colors of the bracts are created through phtoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.
The flowers of the poinsettia are unassuming and do not attract pollinators. They are grouped within small yellow structures found in the center of each leaf bunch, and are called cyathia.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico. It is found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. It is also found in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. Reports of E. pulcherrima growing in the wild in Nicaragua and Costa Rica have yet to be confirmed by botanists.
There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia.
The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuetlaxochitl, meaning “flower that grows in residues.” Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as Flor de Noche Buena, meaning Christmas Eve Flower. In Spain it is known as Flor de Pascua or Pascua, meaning Easter flower. In Chile and Peru, the plant became known as Crown of the Andes. In Turkey, it is called Atatürk’s flower because Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, liked this flower and made a significant contribution to its cultivation in Turkey.
The plant’s association with Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico, where legend tells of a girl, commonly called Pepita or Maria, who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday and was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
Poinsettias are popular Christmas decorations in homes, churches, offices, and elsewhere across North America. They are available in large numbers from grocery, drug, and hardware stores. In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.
Albert Ecke emigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1900, opening a dairy and orchard in the Eagle Rock area. He became intrigued by the plant and sold them from street stands. His son, Paul Ecke, developed the grafting technique, but it was the third generation of Eckes, Paul Ecke Jr., who was responsible for advancing the association between the plant and Christmas. Besides changing the market from mature plants shipped by rail to cuttings sent by air, he sent free plants to television stations for them to display on air from Thanksgiving to Christmas. He also appeared on television programs like The Tonight Show and Bob Hope’s Christmas specials to promote the plants.
Until the 1990s, the Ecke family, who had moved their operation to Encinitas, California, in 1923, had a virtual monopoly on poinsettias owing to a technique that made their plants much more attractive. They produced a fuller, more compact plant by grafting two varieties of poinsettia together. A poinsettia left to grow on its own will naturally take an open, somewhat weedy look. The Eckes’ technique made it possible to get every seedling to branch, resulting in a bushier plant.
In 1991, a university researcher discovered the method previously known only to the Eckes and published it, allowing competitors to flourish, particularly those using low-cost labor in Latin America. The Ecke family’s business, now led by Paul Ecke III, decided to stop producing plants in the U.S., but as of 2008, they still serve about 70 percent of the domestic market and 50 percent of the worldwide market.
In areas outside its natural environment, it is commonly grown as an indoor plant where it prefers good morning sun, then shade in the hotter part of the day. Contrary to popular belief, flowering poinsettia can be kept outside, even during winter, as long as it is kept frost-free. It is widely grown and very popular in subtropical climates such as Australia, Rwanda and Malta.
The poinsettia has also been cultivated in Egypt since the 1860s, when it was brought from Mexico during the Egyptian campaign. It is called Bent El Consul, “the consul’s daughter”, referring to the U.S. ambassador Joel Poinsett.
The plant requires a daily period of uninterrupted long, dark nights followed by bright sunny days for around two months in autumn in order to encourage it to develop colored bracts. Any incidental light during these nights (from a nearby television set, from under a door frame, even from passing cars or street lights) hampers bract production. Commercial production of poinsettia has been done by placing them inside a greenhouse and covering the latter completely to imitate the natural biological situation.
To produce extra axillary buds that are necessary for plants containing multiple flowers, a phytoplasma infection—whose symptoms include the proliferation of axillary buds—is used.
Poinsettias are susceptible to several diseases, mostly fungal, but also bacterial and parasitic.
In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, there is a common misconception that the poinsettia is highly toxic. This misconception was spread by a 1919 urban legend of a two-year-old child dying after consuming a poinsettia leaf. While the sap and latex of many plants of the spurge genus are indeed toxic, the poinsettia’s toxicity is relatively mild. Its latex can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. It is also mildly irritating to the skin or stomachand may sometimes cause diarrhea and vomiting if eaten. Sap introduced into the human eye may cause temporary blindness. An American Journal of Emergency Medicine study of 22,793 cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers showed no fatalities, and furthermore that a strong majority of poinsettia exposures are accidental, involve children, and usually do not result in any type of medical treatment. POISINDEX, a major source for poison control centers, says a 50-pound (23 kg) child would have to eat 500 bracts to accumulate levels of toxins found to be harmful in experiments. An Ohio State University study showed no problems even with extremely large doses.
Today, poinsettias may be found in many different colors as well as product forms from mini poinsettias to large specimen trees and every size in between. Testifying to its success and popularity, the poinsettia is not only the most popular holiday flower, it is the number one flowering potted plant in the United States, with over 65 million plants sold nationwide in 2000.
The long production season for poinsettias (from propagation in the hot months of summer to vegetative growth and then flower bract development in the shorter days and cooler months of fall and early winter) provides a wide range of environmental conditions that can foster a series of diseases. A number of other less common diseases can cause significant problems for individual growers when favorable environmental conditions prevail. In addition to biotic agents, improper fertilization practices can cause symptoms in poinsettias.
THE YULE LOG – ORIGINS AND TRADITIONS
The tradition of the Yule log has a long and interesting history. Even though the Yule log is not a common part of modern-day Christmas celebrations in the U.S., it’s still interesting to see where this tradition got its start and how it evolved throughout the centuries. In fact, if it were up to me, the tradition of the Yule log would be brought back in full force. Wondering what the Yule log tradition is? I’ll let you in on the secret…
The tradition of the Yule log spans millennia and actually precedes Christianity. Peasants used to burn a yule log on the Winter Solstice in December. The Winter Solstice is the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight. The peasants hoped to keep evil spirits away by burning the Yule log, which they presumed might come because of the prolonged darkness of the Winter Solstice.
The Yule log was frequently associated with winter celebrations until Christianity became widespread. As Christianity grew, the yule log became more commonly associated with Christmas celebrations and Christianity adopted the Yule log tradition. For centuries, Christians cut their own yule logs at Christmas time or they would try to find a yule log to burn. During the 1700s and 1800s, it was a regular Christmas tradition for men to go an expedition to find a yule log. Many European countries had somewhat different traditions surrounding the Yule log, but a Yule log was burned either in the days preceding Christmas or possibly on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
The yule log was such an integral part of Christmas celebrations for centuries that it is hard to understand why it is virtually nonexistent in the United States. My only guess is electricity. Many homes don’t have fireplaces anymore and some of us are not accustomed to dealing with indoor fires, nor do many have the facilities to do so.
Because the yule log is not very popular anymore in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine that this tradition will ever be revived. Unless, of course, some company markets an electric yule log (are you listening you entrepreneurial types?). It’s hard to think of an adequate replacement of this dying tradition, but learning a bit about the history of the yule log is certainly warming and fitting as Christmas approaches.
Yule Log, Yule Llog, or Christmas Knock is a specially selected log burnt on a hearth around the period of Christmas in a number of countries in Europe. The origin of the folk custom is unclear. Numerous scholars have observed that, like other traditions associated with Yule (such as the Yule boar); the custom may ultimately derive from Germanic paganism. Similar folk practices are recorded in various areas of Europe.
According to the Encyclopedia of English Folklore, the first “clear” references to the tradition appear in the 17th century, and thus it is unclear where or when the custom extends.
However, it has long been observed that the custom may have much earlier origins, possibly extending from or echoing customs observed in Germanic paganism. As early as 1725, Henry Bourne sought an origin for the Yule log in Anglo-Saxon paganism:
Our Fore-Fathers, when the common Devious of Eve were over, and Night was come on, were wont to light up Candles of an uncommon Size, which were called Christmas-Candles, and to lay a Log of Wood upon the Fire, which they termed a Yule-Clog, or Christmas-Block. These were to Illuminate the House, and turn the Night into Day; which custom, in some Measure, is still kept up in the Northern Parts. It hath, in all probability, been derived from the Saxons. For Bede tells us, that this very Night was observed in this Land before, by the Heathen Saxons. They began, says he, their Year on the Eight of the Calenders of January, which is now our Christmas Party: And the very Night before, which is now Holy to us, was by them called Maedrenack, or the Night of the Mothers. The Yule-Clog therefore hath probably been a Part of those Ceremonies which were perform’d that Night’s Ceremonies. It seems to have been used, as an Emblem of the return of the Sun, and the lengthening of the Days. For as both December and January were called Guili or Yule, upon Account of the Sun’s Returning, and the Increase of the Days; so, I am apt to believe, the Log has had the Name of the Yule-Log, from its being burnt as an Emblem of the returning Sun, and the Increase of its Light and Heat. This was probably the Reason of the custom among the Heathen Saxons; but I cannot think the Observation of it was continued for the same Reason, after Christianity was embraced. …”
Communal bon-bons with feasting and jollification have a pagan root—ritual bonfires at the beginning of November once signaled the start of another year and the onset of winter. Their subsequent incorporation into the Christian calendar, to become part and parcel of the festival of Christmas, and, later, their association with the New Year (January 1st) is an intriguing story. Many, if not all, of the various customs and traditions at one time extensively witnessed at Christmas and the ‘old’ New Year stem from this common source, e.g. Twelfth Night bonfires, including ‘Old Meg’ from Worcestershire and burning the bush from Herefordshire, first footing, etc. … Any traces of primitive ritual such as scattering of burnt ashes or embers as an omen of fertilisation or purification have long since disappeared.
The events of Yule are generally held to have centered on Mid-winter (although specific dating is a matter of debate), and feasting, drinking, and sacrifice were involved. Scholar Rudolf Simek comments that the pagan Yule feast “had a pronounced religious character” and comments that “it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors, a function which the mid-winter sacrifice certainly held for the West European Stone and Bronze Ages.” The traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar (Sonargoltr) still reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule customs, and customs which Simek takes as “indicating the significance of the feast in pre-Christian times.”
The Yule log is recorded in the folklore archives of much of England, but particularly in collections covering the West Country and the North Country. For example, in his section regarding “Christmas Observances”, J. B. Partridge recorded then-current (1914) Christmas customs in Yorkshire, Britain involving the Yule log as related by “Mrs. Day, Minchinhampton, a native of Swaledale”. The custom is as follows:
The Yule log is generally given, and is at once put on the hearth. It is unlucky to have to light it again after it has once been started, and it ought not go out until it has burned away.
To sit around the Yule log and tell ghost stories is a great thing to do on this night, also card-playing.
To large colored candles are a Christmas present from the grocery. Just before supper on Christmas Eve (where furmety is eaten), while the Yule log is burning, all other lights are put out, and the candles are lighted from the Yule log by the youngest person present. While they are being lighted, all are silent and wish. The wish must not be told, but you see if you get it during the year. As soon as the candles are on the table, silence may be broken. They must be allowed to burn themselves out, and no other lights may be lighted that night.
- J. Rose records a similar folk belief from Killinghall, Yorkshire in 1923: “In the last generation the Yule log was still burned, and a piece of it saved to light the next year’s log. On Christmas morning something green, a leaf or the like, was brought into the house before anything was taken out.”
The Yule log is also attested as a custom present elsewhere in the English speaking world, such as the United States. Robert Meyer, Jr. records in 1947 that a “Yule-Log Ceremony” in Palmer Lake, Colorado had occurred since 1934. Meyer Jr. describes the custom: “It starts with the yule log hunt and is climaxed by drinking of wassail around the fire.”
Similarities have been observed between the custom of the ashenfaggot, recorded solely in the West Country of England. First recorded at the beginning of the 19th century and occurring up until at least 2003 in some areas, the ashen faggot is burnt on Christmas Eve, is associated with a variety of folk beliefs, and is “made of smaller ash sticks bound into a faggot with strips of hazel, withy, or bramble”. G. R. Wiley observes that the ashen faggot may have developed out of the Yule log.
As early as Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century, scholars have observed parallels in the South Slavic custom of the Badnjak and the Yule log tradition. As observed by M. E. Durham (1940), the Badnjak is a long young tree is placed on the hearth on Christmas Eve. Varying customs involving the Badnjak may be performed, such as smearing it with fowl blood or goat blood and the ashes may be “strewn on the fields or garden to promote fertility on New Year’s Eve”.
BUON NATALE – CHRISTMAS IN ITALY
During Christmastime, one readily observable difference between Italy and the United States, for instance, is the lack of crass commercialism that threatens to swallow up and completely secularize the holiday. For instance, instead of writing letters to Santa Claus asking for presents (or, in the digital age, E-mailing Santa Claus), Italian children write letters to tell their parents how much they love them. The letter is normally placed under their father’s plate and read after Christmas Eve dinner has been finished.
Italians have also adopted some of the Northern European traditions as well. Nowadays, especially in northern Italy, a fair number of families decorate an evergreen tree in their home. I am pleased to share some other rituals, customs, and traditions practiced by Italians during the Christmas holidays:
Ceppo: The ceppo is a wooden frame several feet high designed in a pyramid shape. This frame supports several tiers of shelves, often with a manger scene on the bottom followed by small gifts of fruit, candy, and presents on the shelves above. The “Tree of Light,” as it is also know, is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pinecones, and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides and a star or small doll is hung at the apex.
Urn of Fate: An old tradition in Italy calls for each member of the family to take turns drawing a wrapped gift out of a large ornamental bowl until all the presents are distributed.
Zampognari and Pifferai: In Rome and surrounding areas bagpipers and flute players, in traditional colorful costumes of sheepskin vests, knee-high breeches, white stockings and long dark cloaks, travel from their homes in the Abruzzi mountains to entertain crowds of people at religious shrines.
La Befana: a Kindly old witch who brings children toys on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. According to the legend of la Befana, the Three Wise Men stopped at her hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and to invite her to join them. She refused, and later a shepherd asked her to join him in paying respect to the Christ Child. Again she refused, and when night fell she saw a great light in the skies.
La Befana thought perhaps she should have gone with the Three Wise Men, so she gathered some toys that had belonged to her own child, who had died, and ran to find the kings and the shepherd. But la Befana could not find them or the stable. Now, each year she looks for the Christ Child. Since she cannot find him, she leaves gifts for the children of Italy and pieces of coal (nowadays carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal) for the bad ones.
Holiday Season: On the Italian holiday calendar December 25 isn’t the only special day. Throughout December and January there are a number of religious holidays to mark the season.
DECEMBER 6: La Festa di San Nicola – The festival in honor of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of shepherds, is celebrated in towns such as Pollutri with the lighting of fires under enormous cauldrons, in which fave (broad beans) are cooked, then eaten ceremoniously.
DECEMBER 8: L’Immacolata Concezione – celebration of the Immaculate Conception
DECEMBER 13: La Festa di Santa Lucia – St. Lucy’s Day
DECEMBER 24: La Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve
DECEMBER 25: Natale – Christmas
DECEMBER 26: La Festa di Santo Stefano – St. Stephen’s Day marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men
DECEMBER 31: La Festa di San Silvestro – New Year’s Eve
JANUARY 1: Il Capodanno – New Year’s Day
JANUARY 6: La Festa dell’Epifania – The Epiphany
In Germany, Sankt Nikolaus, and in Holland, Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus of Christmas fame and that tradition was carried to the Americas by European settlers.
The magnificent Basilica di San Nicola in Bari is visited by thousands of faithful and tourists every year.
So perhaps the next time your children ask if Santa Claus is real, maybe you should take them on a trip to Italy.
Italy’s Christmas Santa Claus Babbo Natale, Italy’s version of Santa Claus, is becoming more popular and gift giving on Christmas day is becoming more common. La Befana, an old woman who delivers gifts on Epiphany, January 6 is still the more popular Italian Christmas figure. Babbo Natale or Father Christmas is gaining popularity in Italy. Babbo Natale is a skinnier and more regal looking version of Santa Claus. They both wear red cloaks with white trim, but Santa Claus has most decidedly enjoyed more second helpings at the dinner table than Babbo Natale. Historically, Christmas has been more reserved in Italy than in other European countries and certainly more reserved than the raucous month long Christmas season enjoyed in the US. Many Italians now hang Christmas stockings for Babbo Natale to fill. Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, has very European roots in traditional folklore. Babbo Natale in Italy, Père Noël in France, Father Christmas in England, Julenisse in Scandanavia , Sinter Klass in the Netherlands, as well as Santa Claus are all regionalized versions of the story of Saint Nicholas. La Befana though, is uniquely Italian. Since the Santa Claus story was popularized by Clement Moore and Coca Cola, the story the world over has many similarities. Babbo Natale also has reindeer, whose names are: Cometa, Ballerina, Fulmine, Donnola, Freccia, Saltarello, Donato, Cupido (Comet, Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Vixen, Donder, Blitzen, Cupid). Children all over the world write letters to their version of Santa Claus in hopes of receiving gifts. And, adults, well it is likely that many of us still believe in the spirit of the jolly man in the red suit whether he is known as Santa Claus or Babbo Natale. In Italy the Christmas season lasts for a few weeks up until Epiphany. It is common practice for Italian children write letters to Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) asking for Christmas presents. Christmas meals include: Lo zampone (skin of a lower pig leg filled with minced meat) Il cotechino (sausage, similar to salami) Turkey Lamb Tortellini (ring-shaped pasta) Il panettone (fruitcake) Bombardino (a popular drink similar to eggnog) Another popular Christmas activity is the “urn of fate”, in which presents are put into a lucky dip and there is one gift per person. However, gift-exchanging also occurs on Epiphany. in Italy, he is known as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), for Babbo is the name children call their father, and even in the tiniest villages (of 80 people), Babbo Natale is welcomed and photographed with children each Christmas Eve while families are gathered around the table for a traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Babbo Natale is usually a straniero (foreigner), for he does not speak Italian, since he is from the North Pole. Babbo Natale sends his blessings around the world to you, and happily shares some of the joy with you as he wishes you peace, love, and good will toward all mankind. While La Bafana, the good Christmas Witch is something only found in Italy, Santa is really the same all over the world, but in Italy, his name is Babbo Natale–Daddy Christmas. Babbo Natale is who we call Santa Claus in the States, or Saint Nick or more formally, Saint Nicholas, but his roots are in many European countries’ traditional folklore. To the French, he is Pere Noël (Father Christmas), Father Christmas in England, Julenisse (Christmas Elf) in Scandanavia , Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, and Sankt Nikolaus or Weihnachtsmann in Germany. Santa Claus was made popular throughout the world by Coca Cola ads and Clement Moore’s story “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) so there are many similarities. They all are kind and give presents. Most wear red. Some are fat and short, others are thinner and taller. Santa has a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, and so does Babbo Natale. Their names are a bit different, though: Cometa, Ballerina, Fulmine, Donnola, Freccia, Saltarello, Donato, Cupido (in place of our Comet, Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Vixen, Donder, Blitzen, Cupid).All over the world, Santa Claus and Babbo Natale represent the Christmas Spirit–lo Spirito di Natale. His jolly, kind, all-knowing face is a sign of love to children… a reminder than in fact, they are loved… by God, by Santa and by their parents and siblings. He is a symbol of what Christmas is all about–the Good Life that God gave us. Babbo Natale sends his blessings around the world to you, and happily shares some of the joy with you as he wishes you peace, love, and good will toward all mankind. So perhaps the next time your children ask if Santa Claus is real, maybe you should take them on a trip to Italy.
KWANZAA – WHAT IS IT?
KWANZAA is a week-long celebration held in the United States and in other nations of the Western African diaspora in the Americas. The celebration honors African heritage in African-American culture, and is observed from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a feast and gift-giving. Kwanzaa has seven core principles (Nguzo Saba). It was created by Maulana Karenga, and was first celebrated in 1966–67.
Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1965 as the first specifically African-American holiday. According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest”. The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s, although most of the Atlantic slave trade that brought African people to America originated in West Africa.
There iS NO WAY TO UNDERSTAND and appreciate the meaning and message of Kwanzaa without understanding and appreciating its profound and pervasive concern with values. In fact. Kwanzaa’s reason for existence, its length of seven days, its core focus and its foundation are all rooted in its concern with values. Kwanzaa inherits this value concern and focus from Kawaida, the African philosophical framework in which it was created. Kawaida philosophy is a communitarian African philosophy which is an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.
Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its roots in the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage” which Karenga said “is a communitarian African philosophy”.
During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an “oppositional alternative” to Christmas. However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday.”
Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.
Principles and symbols
Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba—the seven principles of African Heritage), which Karenga said “is a communitarian African philosophy,” consisting of what Karenga called “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.” These seven principles comprise *Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): 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.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa symbols include a decorative mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed: corn (Mahindi) and other crops, a candle holder kinara with seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), a communal cup for pouring libation (Kikombe cha Umoja), gifts (Zawadi), a poster of the seven principles, and a black, red, and green flag. The symbols were designed to convey the seven principles.
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa. The holiday greeting is “Joyous Kwanzaa”.
A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast (karamu). The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani? which is Swahili for “How are you?”
At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, many African American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year’s. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African American roots, share space in Kwanzaa-celebrating households. For people who celebrate both holidays, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.
Cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, , song and poetry.
The holiday has also spread to Canada, and is celebrated by Black Canadians in a similar fashion as in the United States.
Kwanzaa’s Seven Symbols
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Mazao
To demonstrate their “mazao,” as a Kwanzaa decoration, families place nuts, fruits, and vegetables, which represent their work, on another Kwanzee decoration called “mkeka” or a traditional place mat. The mazao symbolizes the historical gathering of Africans for their harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity, and thanksgiving were the fruits of their labors.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Mkeka
The Kwanza decoration called the “mkeka” is essentially a traditional African place mat constructed of straw or cloth. The Mkeka represents the firm historical and traditional foundation that Kwanzaa celebrants stand on and build their lives. During Kwanzaa, families remember their traditions, history and contemplate their future.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Vibunzi
This Kwanzaa decoration is a simple ear of corn. Whereas a stalk of corn represents children as the hope for the future, the “Vibunzi,” a single ear of corn, represents each individual child and his/her importance. Thus one Vibunzi is placed as a Kwanzaa decoration on the Mkeka for each child in the family. During Kwanzaa, the adults symbolically take the love and nurture that they were given as children and selflessly return it to all children, especially the helpless, homeless, loveless ones in their community. Thus, in the Kwanzaa decoration of Vibunzi we remember the Nigerian proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Kwanzaa tradition recalls that the Africa culture called for child rearing to be a community affair.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of Mishumaa Saba. The Seven Candles
The “Mishumaa Saba” are the Kwanzaa decorations of seven candles symbolizing the sun’s power and the sun’s giving us light. This Kwanzaa decoration is made up of one black candle, three red candles, and three green ones. The back candle symbolizes (unity) and is lit on December 26th. The three green candles, representing purpose, collective work and responsibility, and faith are placed to the right of the black candle. The three red candles, representing self-determination, cooperative economics, and creativity are placed to the left.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Kinara
This Kwanzaa decoration is the Candleholder-the “Kinara.” It is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and symbolizes the original stalk–our ancestors–from whom we descended. These Kwanzaa decorations can be any shape and made from all kinds of materials. The seven candles are placed in the Kinara. The Kwanzaa decoration of the Kinara symbolizes the celebrants’ ancestors, who during Kwanzaa, are remembered and honored.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Kikombe Cha Umoja
The “Kikombe Cha Umoja” is a special Kwanzaa decoration that could be called the “Unity Cup.” During the feast, on the sixth day according to Kwanzaa tradition, the Unity Cup is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then Kwanzaa tradition calls for the eldest person at the feast to pour the “tambiko,” usually water, juice or wine, in the direction of the four winds to honor ancestors.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of Zawadi
On the last day come Kwanzee decorations that are similar to other holiday observances-the exchange of gifts. The “Zawadi” or gifts are meant to be meaningful to the symbols of Kwanzee. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the distraction of commercialism during the holiday season. Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift, and it binds the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift is meant to solidify and enhance relationships.
Kwanzaa is a beautiful African-American tradition that celebrates a culture rich in love of family, honor of the past, hope for the future, and principle-centered ideals.
In 2004, BIG Research conducted a marketing survey in the United States for the National Retail Foundation, which found that 1.6% of those surveyed planned to celebrate Kwanzaa. If generalized to the US population as a whole, this would imply that around 4.7 million people planned to celebrate Kwanzaa in that year. In a 2006 speech, Ron Karenga asserted that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa. He has always claimed it is celebrated all over the world. Lee D. Baker puts the number at 12 million. The African American Cultural Center claimed 30 million in 2009. In 2011, Keith Mayes said that 2 million people participated in Kwanzaa.
According to University of Minnesota Professor Keith Mayes, the author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, the popularity within the US has “leveled off” as the black power movement there has declined, and now between half and two million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the US, or between one and five percent of African Americans. Mayes adds that white institutions now celebrate it.
The holiday has also spread to Canada, and is celebrated by Black Canadians in a similar fashion as in the United States. According to the Language Portal of Canada, “this fairly new tradition has [also] gained in popularity in France, Great Britain, Jamaica and Brazil”, although this information has not been confirmed with authoritative sources from these countries.
In Brazil, in recent years the term Kwanzaa has been applied by a few institutions as a synonym for the festivities of the Black Awareness Day, commemorated on November 20 in honor of Zumbi dos Palmares, having little to do with the celebration as it was originally conceived.
In 2009, Maya Angelou narrated the documentary The Black Candle, a film about Kwanzaa.
CRHISTMAS CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas (or sometimes from the 1st of December to Christmas Day!). Advent means ‘Coming’ in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.
There are three meanings of ‘coming’ that Christians describe in Advent. The first, and most thought of, happened about 2000 years ago when Jesus came into the world as a baby to live as a man and die for us. The second can happen now as Jesus wants to come into our lives now. And the third will happen in the future when Jesus comes back to the world as King and Judge, not a baby.
Some people fast (don’t eat anything) during advent to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus’s coming. In many Orthodox and Eastern Catholics Churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on November 15th and is also called the Nativity Fast.
Orthodox Christians often don’t eat meat and dairy during Advent, and depending on the day, also olive oil, wine and fish. You can see what days mean now eating what foods on the calendar from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. .
There are several ways that Advent is counted down but the most common is by a calendar or candle(s).
There are many types of calendars used in different countries. The most common ones in the UK and USA are made of paper or card with 25 little windows on. A window is opened on every day in December and a Christmas picture is displayed underneath. When they were first made, scenes from the Christmas Story and other Christmas images were used, such as snowmen and robins, but now many calendars are made in the theme of television programs and sports clubs. Some of these types of calendar even have chocolate under each window, to make every day in December that little bit better! I used to like those when I was a little girl (and still do now!!!)!
Some European countries such as Germany use a wreath of fir with 24 bags or boxes hanging from it. In each box or bag there is a little present for each day.
You can also not get online Advent or ‘Christmas Countdown’ calendars. So during December, why don’t you visit the online Advent Calendar and find out something Christmassy each day!!!!!!
There are two types of candle(s) that are used to count down to Christmas Day in Advent. The first looks like a normal candle, but has the days up to Christmas Day marked down the candle. On the first of December the candle is lit and burnt down to the first line on the candle. The same is done every day and then the rest of the candle is burnt on Christmas day. I use one of these candles to count down during Advent.
An Advent Crown is another form of candles that are used to count down Advent. These are often used in Churches rather than in people’s homes. The crown is often made up of a wreath of greenery and has four candles round the outside and one in the middle or in a separate place. Sometimes a more traditional candelabra is used to display the five candles.
One candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, two are lit on the second Sunday and so on. Each candle has a different meaning in Christianity. Different churches have given them different meanings, but I was taught the following: (a) The first represents Isaiah and other prophets in the bible that predicted the coming of Jesus; (b) The second represents the bible; (c) The third represents Mary, the mother of Jesus; and (d) The fourth represents John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who told the people in Israel to get ready for Jesus’ teaching.
The middle or separate candle is lit on Christmas Day and represents Jesus, the light of the world. In Germany this fifth candle is known as the ‘Heiligabend’ and is lit on Christmas Eve.
In many churches, the colour purple is used to signify the season of Advent. On the third Sunday, representing Mary, the colour is sometimes changes to pink or rose.
Advent was first recorded about 380AD in Spain. By the 6th century, there are records of monks in Tours (in France) holding a pre-Christmas fast. By end of the 6th century, the four Sundays before Christmas had commonly become known as Advent Sundays.
In medieval and pre-medieval times, in parts of England, there were an early form of Nativity scene called ‘advent images’ or a ‘vessel cup’. They were a box, often with a glass lid that was covered with a white napkin that contained two dolls representing Mary and the baby Jesus. The box was decorated with ribbons and flowers (and sometimes apples). They were carried around from door to door. It was thought to be very unlucky if you haven’t seen a box before Christmas Eve! People paid the box carriers a halfpenny to see the box.
There are some Christmas Carols that are really Advent Carols! These include ‘People Look East’, ‘Come, thou long expected Jesus’, ‘Lo! He comes, with clouds descending’ and perhaps the most popular advent song ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
The 12 Days of Christmas are now most famous as a song about someone receiving a great many presents from their ‘true love”. However, to get to the song there had to be the days to start with!
The 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until the evening of the 5th January – also known as Twelfth Night. The 12 Days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and were a time of celebration.
The 12 Days each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations: (a) Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day – celebrating the birth of Jesus. ; (b) Day 2 (26th December also known as Boxing Day): St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr (someone who dies for their faith). It’s also the day when the Christmas Carol ‘Good King Weneslas’ takes place; (c) Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle (One of Jesus’s Disciples and friends); (d) Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents – when people remember the baby boys which King Herod killed when he was trying to find and kill the Baby Jesus; (e) Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was murdered on 29th December 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over Church; (f) Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester; (g) Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve (known as Hogmanay in Scotland). Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century). In many central and eastern European countries (including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia) New Years’ Eve is still sometimes called ‘Silvester’. In the UK, New Year’s Eve was a traditional day for ‘games’ and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church! This was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case he need to go to war!; (h) Day 8 (1st January): 1st January –Mary, the Mother of Jesus; (i) Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians; (j) Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple. It’s celebrated by different churches on a wide number of different dates!; (k) Day 11 (4th January): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the past it also celebrated the feast of Saint Simon Stylites (who lives on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!); and (L) Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve): St. John Neumann who was the first Bishop in American. He lived in the 19th century. Also (1) Christmas is celebrated to remember the Birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God; (2) The name ‘Christmas’ comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service (which is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas; (3) Christmas is now celebrated by people around the world. , whether they are Christians or not. It’s a time when family and friends come together and remember the good things they have. People, and especially children, also like Christmas as it’s a time when you give and receive presents! !
The Date of Christmas
No one knows the real birthday of Jesus! No date is given in the Bible, so why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? The early Christians certainly had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated!
Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1AD but slightly earlier, somewhere between 2BC and 7BC (there isn’t a 0AD – the years go from 1BC to 1AD!). The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.
There are many different traditions and theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. A very early Christian tradition said that the day when Mary was told that she would have a very special baby, Jesus (called the Annunciation) was on March 25th – and it’s still celebrated today on the 25th March. Nine months after the 25th March is the 25th December! March 25th was also the day some early Christians thought the world had been made, and also the day that Jesus died on when he was an adult.
December 25th might have also been chosen because the Winter Solstice and the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festivals called ‘Saturnalia’ and ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ took place in December around this date – so it was a time when people already celebrated things.
The Winter Solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It happens on December 21st or 22nd. To pagans this meant that the winter was over and spring was coming and they had a festival to celebrate it and worshipped the sun for winning over the darkness of winter. In Scandinavia, and some other parts of northern Europe, the Winter Solstice is known as Yule and is where we get Yule Logs from. In Eastern Europe the mid-winter festival is called Koleda.
The Roman Festival of Saturnalia took place between December 17th and 23rd and honored the Roman god Saturn. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’ and was held on December 25th (when the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place) and was the ‘birthday’ of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. In the pagan religion of Mithraism, the holy day was Sunday and is where get that word from!
Early Christians might have given this festival a new meaning – to celebrate the birth of the Son of God ‘the unconquered Son’! (In the Bible a prophesy about the Jewish savior, who Christians believe is Jesus, is called ‘Sun of Righteousness’.) (1) The Jewish festival of Lights, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December). Hanukkah celebrates when the Jewish people were able to re-dedicate and worship in their Temple, in Jerusalem, again following many years of not being allowed to practice their religion; (2) Jesus was a Jew, so this could be another reason that helped the early Church choose December the 25th for the date of Christmas!; (3) Christmas had also been celebrated by the early Church on January 6th, when they also celebrated the Epiphany (which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s son) and the Baptism of Jesus. Now Epiphany mainly celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus, but back then it celebrated both things! Jesus’s Baptism was originally seen as more important than his birth, as this was when he started his ministry. But soon people wanted a separate day to celebrate his birth; (4) Most of the world uses the ‘Gregorian Calendar’ implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Before that the ‘Roman’ or Julian Calendar was used (named after Julius Caesar). The Gregorian calendar is more accurate that the Roman calendar which had too many days in a year! When the switch was made 10 days were lost, so that the day that followed the 4th October 1582 was 15th October 1582. In the UK the change of calendars was made in 1752. The day after 2nd September 1752 was 14th September 1752; (5) Many Orthodox and Coptic Churches still use the Julian Calendar and so celebrate Christmas on the 7th January (which is when December 25th would have been on the Julian calendar). And the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates it on the 6th January! In some part of the UK, January 6th is still called ‘Old Christmas’ as this would have been the day that Christmas would have celebrated on, if the calendar hadn’t been changed. Some people didn’t want to use the new calendar as they thought it ‘cheated’ them out of 11 days! (6) Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They also took over some of the customs from the Winter Solstice and gave them Christian meanings, like Holly, Mistletoe and even Christmas Carols! And (7) St. Augustine was the person who really started Christmas in the UK by introducing Christianity in the 6th century. He came from countries that used the Roman Calendar, so western countries celebrate Christmas on the 25th December. Then people from Britain and Western Europe took Christmas on the 25th December all over the world!
- SO when was Jesus Born?
- There’s a strong and practical reason why Jesus might not have been born in the winter, but in the spring or the autumn! It can get very cold in the winter and it’s unlikely that the shepherds would have been keeping sheep out on the hills (as those hills can get quite a lot of snow sometimes!). (2) During the spring (in March or April) there’s a Jewish festival called ‘Passover’. This festival remembers when the Jews had escaped from slavery in Egypt about 1500 years before Jesus was born. Lots of lambs would have been needed during the Passover Festival, to be sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews from all over the Roman Empire travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, so it would have been a good time for the Romans to take a census. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census (Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem); (3) in the autumn (in September or October) there’s the Jewish festival of ‘Sukkot’ or ‘The Feast of Tabernacles’. It’s the festival that’s mentioned the most times in the Bible! It is when Jewish people remember that they depended on God for all they had after they had escaped from Egypt and spent 40 years in the desert. It also celebrates the end of the harvest. During the festival, Jews live outside in temporary shelters (the word ‘tabernacle’ come from a Latin word meaning ‘booth’ or ‘hut’); (4) Many people who have studied the Bible, think that Sukkot would be a likely time for the birth of Jesus as it might fit with the description of there being ‘no room in the inn’. It also would have been a good time to take the Roman Census as many Jews went to Jerusalem for the festival and they would have brought their own tents/shelters with them! (It wouldn’t have been practical for Joseph and Mary to carry their own shelter as Mary was pregnant.); (5) The possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem seems to point either spring or autumn; (6) So whenever you celebrate Christmas, remember that you’re celebrating a real event that happened about 2000 years ago, that God sent his Son into the world as a Christmas present for everyone!; and (7) As well as Christmas and the solstice, there are some other festivals that are held in late December. Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews; and the festival of Kwanzaa is celebrated by some Africans and African Americans takes place from December 26th to January 1st. Christmas is also sometimes known as Xmas. Some people don’t think it’s correct to call Christmas ‘Xmas’ as that takes the ‘Christ’ (Jesus) out of Christmas. (As Christmas comes from Christ-Mass, the Church service that celebrated the birth of Jesus.)
But that is not quite right! In the Greek language and alphabet, the letter that looks like an X is the Greek letter chi / Χ (pronounced ‘kye’ – it rhymes with ‘eye’) which is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Christos.
The early church used the first two letters of Christos in the Greek alphabet ‘chi’ and ‘rho’ to create a monogram (symbol) to represent the name of Jesus. This looks like an X with a small p on the top: ☧
The symbol of a fish is sometimes used by Christians (you might see a fish sticker on a car or someone wearing a little fish badge). This comes from the time when the first Christians had to meet in secret, as the Romans wanted to kill them (before Emperor Constantine became a Christian). Jesus had said that he wanted to make his followers ‘Fishers of Men’, so people started to use that symbol.
When two Christians met, one person drew half a basic fish shape (often using their foot in the dust on the ground) and the other person drew the other half of the fish. The Greek word for fish is ‘Ikthus’ or ‘Ichthys’. There are five Greek letters in the word. It can also make up a sentence of Christian beliefs ‘Ie-sous Christos Theou Huios So-te-r’ which in English means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. The second letter of these five letter is X or Christos!
So Xmas can also mean Christmas; but it should also be pronounced ‘Christmas’ rather than ‘ex-mas’!
Twelfth Night was a big time of celebration with people holding large parties. During these parties, often the roles in society were reversed with the servants being served by the rich people. This dated back to medieval and Tudor times when Twelfth Night marked the end of ‘winter’ which had started on 31st October with All Hallows Eve (Halloween).
At the start of Twelfth Night the Twelfth Night cake was eaten. This was a rich cake made with eggs and butter, fruit, nuts and spices. The modern Italian Panettone is the cake we currently have that’s most like the old Twelfth Night cake.
A dried pea or bean was cooked in the cake. Whoever found it was the Lord (or Lady) of Misrule for the night. The Lord of Misrule led the celebrations and was dressed like a King (or Queen). This tradition goes back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia. In later times, from about the Georgian period onwards, to make the Twelfth Night ‘gentile’, two tokens were put in the cake (one for a man and one for a women) and whoever found them became the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the Twelfth Night party.
In English Cathedrals during the middle ages there was the custom of the ‘Boy Bishop’ where a boy from the Cathedral or monastery school was elected as a Bishop on 6th December (St Nicholas Day) and had the authority of a Bishop (except to perform Mass) until 28th December. King Henry VIII banned the practice in 1542 although it came back briefly under Mary I in 1552 but Elizabeth I finally stopped it during her reign.
During Twelfth Night it was traditional for different types of pipes to be played, especially bagpipes. Lots of games were played including ones with eggs. These included tossing an egg between two people moving further apart during each throw – drop it and you lose and passing an egg around on spoons. Another popular game was ‘snapdragon’ where you picked raisins or other dried fruit out of a tray of flaming brandy!
The first Monday after Christmas feast has finished was known as ‘Plough Monday’ as this was when farming work would all begin again!
Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany Eve. In many countries it’s traditional to put the figures of the Wise Men/Three Kings into the Nativity Scene on Epiphany Eve ready to celebrate Epiphany on the 6th January.
It’s also traditional to take your Christmas decorations down following Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night is also the name of a famous play written by William Shakespeare. It’s thought it was written in 1601/1602 and was first performed at Candlemas in 1602, although it wasn’t published until 1623.
HANUKKAH – WHAT IS IT?
What Is Hanukkah?– the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev — celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.
More than twenty-one centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to forcefully Hellenize the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.
When they sought to light the Temple’s menorah (the seven branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity. To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah (candelabrum) lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Chanukah, when all eight lights are kindled.
On Chanukah we also add the Hallel and Al HaNissim in our daily prayers to offer praise and thanksgiving to G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous.” Hanukkah customs include eating foods fried in oil – latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts); playing with the dreidel (a spinning top on which are inscribed the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there”); and the giving of Chanukah gelt, gifts of money, to children.
In Hebrew, the word Hanukkah is written חֲנֻכָּה or חנוכה (Ḥănukkāh). It is most commonly transliterated to English as Chanukah or Hanukkah, the former because the sound represented by “CH” ([X], similar to the Scottish pronunciation of “loch”) does not exist in the English language. Furthermore, the letter “het” (ח), which is the first letter in the Hebrew spelling, is pronounced differently in modern Hebrew (voiceless uvular fricative) than in classical Hebrew (voiceless pharyngeal fricative [ħ]), and neither of those sounds is unambiguously representable in English spelling. Moreover, the ‘kaf’ consonant is germinate in classical (but not modern) Hebrew. Adapting the classical Hebrew pronunciation with the geminate and pharyngeal Ḥeth can lead to the spelling “Hanukkah”; while adapting the modern Hebrew pronunciation with no germination and uvular Ḥeth leads to the spelling “Chanukah”. It has also been spelled as “Hannukah”.
The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees, which describe in detail the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) which came from the Palestinian canon; however, they were part of the Alexandrian canon which is also called the Septuagint. Both books are included in the Old Testament used by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, since those churches consider the books deuterocanonical. They are not included in the Old Testament books in most Protestant Bibles, since most Protestants consider the books apocryphal. Multiple references to Hanukkah are also made in the Mishna (Bikkurim 1:6, Rosh HaShanah 1:3, Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4 and 3:6, Moed Katan 3:9, and Bava Kama 6:6), though specific laws are not described. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud, committed to writing about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees. Ray Nissimn Gaon postulates in his Hakdamah Le’mafteach Hatalmud that information on the holiday was so commonplace that the Mishna felt no need to explain it. A modern-day scholar Reuvein Margolies suggests that as the Mishnah was redacted after the Bar Kochba revolt, its editors were reluctant to include explicit discussion of a holiday celebrating another relatively recent revolt against a foreign ruler, for fear of antagonizing the Romans.
The Gemara (Talmud), in tractate Shabbat, page 21b, focuses on Shabbat candles and moves to Hanukkah candles and says that after the forces of Antiochus IV had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, with enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days (the time it took to have new oil pressed and made ready). The Talmud presents three options: (1) The law requires only one light each night per household; (2) A better practice is to light one light each night for each member of the household; and (3) The most preferred practice is to vary the number of lights each night.
In Sephardic families, the head of the household lights the candles, while in Ashkenazic families, all family members light. Except in times of danger, the lights were to be placed outside one’s door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, or in the window closest to the street. Rashi, in a note to Shabbat 21b, says their purpose is to publicize the miracle. The blessings for Hanukkah lights are discussed in tractate Succah, p. 46a.
The Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus narrates in his book, Jewish Antiquities XII, how the victorious Judas Maccabeus ordered lavish yearly eight-day festivities after rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem that had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Josephus does not say the festival was called Hanukkah but rather the “Festival of Lights”:
“Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.”
The story of Hanukkah is alluded to in the book of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The eight-day rededication of the temple is described in 1 Maccabees 4:36 et seq, though the name of the festival and the miracle of the lights do not appear here. A story similar in character, and obviously older in date, is the one alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1:18 et seq according to which the relighting of the altar fire by Nehemiah was due to a miracle which occurred on the 25th of Kislev, and which appears to be given as the reason for the selection of the same date for the rededication of the altar by Judah Maccabee.
The Scroll of Antiochus concludes with the following words:
…After this, the sons of Israel went up to the Temple and rebuilt its gates and purified the Temple from the dead bodies and from the defilement. And they sought after pure olive oil to light the lamps therewith, but could not find any, except one bowl that was sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest from the days of Samuel the prophet and they knew that it was pure. There was in it [enough oil] to light [the lamps therewith] for one day, but the God of heaven whose name dwells there put therein his blessing and they were able to light from it eight days. Therefore, the sons of Ḥashmonai made this covenant and took upon themselves a solemn vow, they and the sons of Israel, all of them, to publish amongst the sons of Israel, [to the end] that they might observe these eight days of joy and honor, as the days of the feasts written in [the book of] the Law; [even] to light in them so as to make known to those who come after them that their God wrought for them salvation from heaven. In them, it is not permitted to mourn, neither to decree a fast [on those days], and anyone who has a vow to perform, let him perform it.
Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.
Hanukkah is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath, as specified in the Shulkhan Arukh. Adherents go to work as usual, but may leave early in order to be home to kindle the lights at nightfall. There is no religious reason for schools to be closed, although, in Israel, schools close from the second day for the whole week of Hanukkah. Many families exchange gifts each night, such as books or games and “Hanukkah Gelt” is often given to children. Fried foods (such as latkes potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts sufganiyot and Sephardic Bimuelos) are eaten to commemorate the importance of oil during the celebration of Hanukkah.
The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without,” so that passersby should see it and be reminded of the holiday’s miracle (i.e. the triumph of the few over the many and of the pure over the impure). Accordingly, lamps are set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street. It is customary amongst some Ashkenazi Jews to have a separate menorah for each family member (customs vary), whereas most Sephardi Jews light one for the whole household. Only when there was danger of antisemitic persecution were lamps supposed to be hidden from public view, as was the case of Persia under the rule of the Zoroastrians, or in parts of Europe before and during World War II. However, most Hasidic groups light lamps near an inside doorway, not necessarily in public view. According to this tradition, the lamps are placed on the opposite side from the mezuzah, so that when one passes through the door s/he is surrounded by the holiness mitzvot (the commandments).
Generally women are exempt in Jewish law from time-bound positive commandments, although the Talmud requires that women engage in the mitzvah of lighting Hanukkah candles “for they too were involved in the miracle.” In practice, only the male members of Orthodox households are obliged to light the menorah. In practice, some Sephardi households involve everyone in the candle lighting, with the head of the household lighting the first candle each night, the wife the second candle, and the children, eldest first, lighting the subsequent candles.