In our culturally diverse melting pot, the warmth of the holiday season radiates from an array of celebrations that, although differing in structure, ritual, and history, are connected through the common threads of love, faith, family, and goodwill. Let’s explore the cultural traditions celebrated in America during the month of December.
Worldwide, Christmas is acknowledged on December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. This religious holiday includes the tradition of gift giving, symbolizing the gifts brought to baby Jesus in the manger by the Three Wise Men. The manger scene is still central to many Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Over the years, many worldwide traditions have combined to result in Christmas as we know it here in America today, which includes beautifully decorated Christmas trees, stockings hung by the chimney, sipping eggnog by the fire, caroling, and giving charitable donations to those in need. In addition, of course, there is Santa Claus, as well as baking cookies and pies, sending warm wishes in greeting cards to family and friends, and spending quality time with loved ones.
Hanukkah is Hebrew for “Dedication” and is often referred to as the “Festival of Lights.” This year’s celebration takes place from sundown on November 28 through sundown on December 6. The eight-day Jewish celebration represents the miracle that took place during the rededication of the Jewish temple. According to the Jewish faith, there was only enough oil to light the lamps for a single day, but miraculously, it managed to remain lit for eight days. The menorah, the candelabra with nine candles, has one lit, and the other eight are often prominently displayed in the window to honor the miracle. One candle is lit each night after sundown as blessings are recited. Traditionally, one gift is given to every family member on each night of the celebration. Children often enjoy the gift of chocolate coins called “gelt,” and the “dreidel,” a game acknowledging the miracles of Hanukkah during a time of oppression, is still common today in many celebrations.
This African American spiritual holiday is Swahili for “First Fruits.” It was initiated in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way to honor the African culture, which serves to build and reinforce the African American community. This non-religious celebration takes place from December 26 through January 1. The seven principles upon which the concept was built, collectively known as “Nguzo Saba,” are: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. The celebration lasts seven nights, with participants lighting one candle per night on the seven-pronged candelabra. Each lit candle honors a different principle, which that night’s discussion centers on. Kwanzaa includes storytelling, poetry reading, and traditional meals. Gift giving isn’t customary, but if gifts are exchanged, they’re traditionally handmade. Children are a big part of the celebration and are often the ones learning and reciting the principles, showcasing the importance of providing a solid foundation for young people. Black, red, and green are the primary colors associated with Kwanzaa. Black is representative of the people, red acknowledges their struggles, and green symbolizes hope for the future.
This Spanish tradition, meaning “The Inns” or “The Lodgings,” symbolizes the journey of Mary and Joseph to the manger on the night Jesus was born. The nine-day celebration begins December 16 and culminates on Christmas Eve, and is also referred to as “Buena Noche” or “Holy Night.” Participants travel house-to-house until they reach the home where Las Posadas will be celebrated. Children participate in pageants, in which they dress as Mary, Joseph or the Three Wise Men. Songs and prayers open up the celebration, as Mary and Joseph are finally acknowledged, leading the way for a jubilee complete with Christmas music, dancing, piñata bashing, sweet edibles, and occasionally fireworks. Variations of the tradition are celebrated in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Central America. In northern Mexico and in Southwest Mexican American communities in the U.S., festivities may include a visit from Santa, a gift exchange, and a Christmas tree.
Learning and teaching our children about humanity’s diversity, richness, history, customs, and cultures provides us all with so much more to celebrate during the holidays, as well as throughout the year. And perhaps through better understanding and acceptance, our children will one day live in a much more peaceful world.
Lisa Alexander is a freelance writer