December is more than Santa Claus, Christmas trees, candy canes and mistletoe. For millions of people throughout the world, the month of December also means the arrival of other holidays.

For the Jewish community, it means that Chanukah is around the corner. In the African-American community, the day after Christmas ushers in the start of Kwanzaa, a relatively new but increasingly popular celebration. While the focus of the holidays differs, both are joyous occasions for family and friends to gather and celebrate. Here is a brief history of these two other December celebrations.

Chanukah and the Miracle of Light

Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the Greek Syrians. In 168 BCE, Judah Maccabee led a successful revolt against the Syrian king, Antiochus IV, in response to his attempts to wipe out the Jewish faith. One element of the Syrian strategy was to change the Holy Temple of Jerusalem into a Greek temple, but the Jews reclaimed the temple and cleansed it in preparation for its rededication. However, there was very little oil remaining to light the temple menorah (or candelabra) since most of the lamp oil had been polluted. But the oil that was only enough for one day miraculously burned for the eight days it took to find more oil. This is considered to be the origin of the eight-day celebration of Chanukah.

Starting on the evening of the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, the eight days of Chanukah are observed by placing and lighting one candle in the menorah (or chanukiah) which holds eight candles, one for each day of the miracle and a ninth candle called the shamash (meaning “helper” or “servant”) that is used to light the other candles. Two candles are then lit on the second night and so on until the eighth night. The tradition of receiving gifts on Chanukah is relatively new and due in part to its proximity to Christmas.

Kwanzaa: Celebrating the Fruits of the Harvest

Kwanzaa is a holiday created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to celebrate African-American family, community and culture. The holiday is celebrated over a seven-day period, from December 26 through January 1, and is based on the first African harvest celebrations. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” Kwanzaa highlights the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement, and was created as a way to reaffirm the African-American people, their ancestors and culture.

The celebration centers around seven principles called Nguzo Saba, which emphasize the unity of Black families. The seven principles include:

* Umoja (unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

* Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define, name, create, and speak for ourselves.

* Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain the community, make our sisters’ and brothers’ problems our problems, and solve them together.

* Ujamaa (cooperative economics): To build and maintain stores, shops and other businesses together.

* Nia (purpose): To build our community and restore our people to their traditional greatness.

* Kuumba (creativity): To leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

* Imani (faith): To believe in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and have faith in victory in our struggle.

Families celebrate Kwanzaa by decorating their homes with African art and cloth, light the kinara — a candelabra that symbolizes the continent of Africa and the roots of all African-Americans — and share libations and food.

While in the early years, observers of Kwanzaa tended to avoid combining the holiday with other December celebrations, many African-American families now celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year’s.

Editor’s note: Webster’s New World College Dictionary states that a menorah has seven branches while states a menorah has seven or nine branches.

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