Jews celebrate the Feast of Lights before Christmas. Hanukkah, meaning “dedication”, is celebrated for eight days in honor of an event that took place over 2000 years ago. After the Jews recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrians, they began special ceremonies to make the Great Temple of Jerusalem holy. They first had to re-light the lamp which was supposed to burn all the time. Only a special oil blessed by the priests could be used in the lamp. The Jewish leaders found only a tiny jar of the special oil, enough for only one day. It would take eight days to prepare more oil, so rather than wait, they lit the lamp, which surprisingly burnt for eight days till the new oil was ready.
A special symbol for the eight days of Hanukkah is the eight branched candlestick, called the “menorah.” On each day, a candle is lit, while the ninth candle, the “shammash” (meaning servant) is used to light the others. Some menorahs have a ninth branch. It is a cheerful time, with feasts and special food, including potato pancakes or latkes. Children receive coins and other gifts. Each evening, after the candle is lit, families sing songs and play games with a special Hanukkah “toy”-a square top called “Dreidel.” On each of the four sides of the Dreidel is a Hebrew letter. The letters stand for the words “Ness gadol haya sham”, meaning “A great miracle happened there.” Hanukkah is also called Chanukah.
Kwanzaa, a Swahili word meaning “fruits of the harvest” is a very different kind of celebration that takes place after Christmas from 26th December to January 1. This old African holiday also means “first”, and celebrates the first harvest of crops each year.
Seven candles, called “Mishumaa Saba” are placed in a candleholder or “Kinara”. This is set upon a straw mat or “Mikeka”. Three green candles are put on the left, three red on the right and a black one in the center. The candles represent seven principles: unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, co-operative economy, purpose, creativity and faith. One candle is lit every day, beginning left to right. The colors of the candles are symbolic, with green representing hope and the color of the land. Houses are also decorated with ears of corn, symbolizing children. After the candle is lit, family members talk about the special meaning of that day. During these days, they exchange gifts, but only handmade ones. On the last day, everyone meets for a feast, called Karamu, and there is music and dancing. Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor at California State university, Long Beach, started the holidays for African-Americans to remember their African heritage.
December is indeed a time for celebrations!