The holiday season is here and many of us are planning to take a break from work or studies to spend some quality time with friends, family, and loved ones. This time of year is also significant for different groups of people around the world for a variety of religious, cultural, and secular reasons. All of these different holiday observances and celebrations can be confusing and hard to understand, especially for cultures, religions, and groups outside our own.
To help break down this barrier and foster understanding, the Equity Committee has put together this primer about a number of unique holiday celebrations. We hope this primer raises awareness about our different traditions, and, more importantly, of the shared values that all cultures, religions, and communities celebrate during the holiday season.
All holiday observances celebrate some aspect of unity, family, charity, and hope for the new year. Coming together as a community, spending time with loved ones, giving back to those less fortunate, and laying a positive foundation for the upcoming year.
Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held from December 26 to January 1 to celebrate African heritage and culture. Primarily observed by African-Americans and other parts of the African diaspora, Kwanzaa is a Swahili word that means “first fruits” (from the harvest). Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the seven principles of African heritage called Nguzo Saba:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create 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 (Co-operative 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 that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all of our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
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, called the Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants.
For more information about Kwanzaa visit: officialkwanzaawebsite.org
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish celebration held from the sunset of December 24, 217 to nightfall of January 1, 2017 to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Also known as the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and spirituality over materiality. According to Jewish tradition, in 165 BCE the people of Judea succeeded in their revolt against the Seleucid Empire of Syria and liberated Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. Unfortunately, when they cleansed and reopened the Holy Temple they could only find enough sacred oil to light the temple’s sacred lamp or menorah for one day. However, after lighting this menorah it miraculously burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a new supply of sacred oil.
Hannukah is observed by lighting the unique nine-branched menorah – one light per each night of the holiday, playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidel, singing special Hannukah songs, and eating oil-based foods like doughnuts and latkes.
For more information about Hanukkah visit: chabad.org
Mawlid is the observance of the birthday of the Islamic prophet Muhammad which is celebrated on the 12th or 17th day of the third month in the Islamic calendar, on December 12, or 17, 2016. The prophet Muhammad is seen by Muslims as a messenger from God, the founder of their religion, and the central figure in Islam. The exact date of Muhammad’s birth is unknown so different Islamic denominations celebrate at different times. For example, in 2016 Sunnis will celebrate Mawlid on December 12 while Shias will celebrate on December 17.
Mawlid is often celebrated with large street processions, decorating homes and mosques, distributing charity, and telling stories and poetry about the life of Muhammad including the recitation of the Qaṣīda al-Burda Sharif, an ode of praise for Muhammad by 13th-century Arabic poet al-Būsīrī.
For more information about Mawlid visit: islamicsupremecouncil.org
Bodhi Day is a Buddhist holiday on December 8 to commemorate the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, experienced “bodhi” or enlightenment. According to the Buddhist Pali Canon, the Buddha described his enlightenment in three stages:
- During the first phase of the evening, the Buddha discovered all of his past lives in the cycle of rebirth, realizing that he had been born and reborn countless times before
- During the second phase, the Buddha discovered the Law of Karma, and the importance of living by the Eightfold Path
- During the third phase, the Buddha discovered the Four Noble Truths, finally reaching Nirvana (liberation
All Buddhist traditions agree that as the morning star rose in the sky in the early morning, during the third phase of the night, Siddhartha finally found the answers he sought and became a Buddha or “awakened one.” Bodhi Day is commemorated through services discussing the Buddha’s achievement of Nirvana and what that means for Buddhism, meditation, chanting of Buddhist texts, or performing kind acts towards others.
For more information about Bodhi Day visit: buddhism.about.com
Ōmisoka or New Year’s Eve on December 31 is one of the most important times in Japanese tradition. The holiday combines the traditional and modern customs and observances of Japan to end the year on a positive note and to ensure good fortune in the new year. Preparations for the new year begin on December 13 by decorating the home with traditional sacred items like kadomatsu (“gate-pine”), preparing a special altar in honour of the deity for the upcoming year, and attending folk festivals in the community. On December 31, families gather for a last meal of toshikoshi-soba or toshikoshi-udon (“year-crossing noodles”) together, then at midnight many visit a shrine or temple for Hatsumōde, the first Shinto or Buddhist shrine visit of the year, where wishes for the new year are made, good-luck charms and amulets are bought, and amazake, a fermented rice drink, is distributed to attendees.
For more information about Ōmisoka visit: nippon.com
On the surface, it’s easy to see only differences when it comes to peoples’ holiday celebrations. However, when you look deeper you begin to see the shared values among every cultural, religious, or secular celebration: coming together with loved ones to celebrate the year that was, and to share hope for the new year.
Whatever, however, and whenever you’re celebrating, the Equity Committee would like to wish you happy holidays as you celebrate unity, family, charity, and hope for the new year!
For more information contact:
Vice President Internal
Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, 2008, Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press
Wikipedia, Kwanzaa, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa, 2016
 Wikipedia, Hannukah, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanukkah, 2016
 Wikipedia, Bodhi Day, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhi_Day, 2016