In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, December 21, 2020, will happen at the same instant for all of us, ushering in the longest night of the year. Therefore, it is appropriate that December celebrates so many festivals and religious holidays, using lights and candles in their traditions to illuminate the darkness. Depending on where one looks, there are many festivals in various cultures. Still, the three most recognized December celebrations in North America are Kwanzaa, Hannakuh, and Christmas. Each of them lights the cold, dark days of December with warmth, love, unity, family, and spirituality.
Kwanzaa was introduced in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African-Americans. This holiday’s seven principles are self-determination, collective work, responsibility, unity, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Candles are lit to represent each of these principles, and gifts are exchanged on December 31, with banquets of food, often from various African countries. May peace, love, and unity bring a happy Kwanzaa to all and blessings on your families.
The oldest of these three holidays is the eight-day celebration of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. It will begin on December 10 and end on December 18, commemorating the rededication in Jerusalem of the second Temple, which was fought for and won back from Greek-Syrian oppressors. Historically, Israel’s land fell to Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. He permitted the Jews to continue practicing their religion, but his son Antiochus IV was not as benevolent. He ordered Jews to worship the Greek gods, and when they resisted, Antiochus IV massacred thousands of them and desecrated the city’s holy Second Temple by building an altar to Zeus, upon which they sacrificed pigs.
According to the Talmud, it was the Maccabee Revolt, in 168 B.C. that won back the temple. Following a three-year war and eventual victory, they cleaned the Temple, destroyed the defiled altar and built a new one. When the Maccabees held the rededication celebration and rekindled the menorah, they found they only had and enough untainted oil to light the menorah for one night. Miraculously, the flickering flames continued to burn for eight nights, giving them enough time to find a fresh supply.
There are other interpretations of the Hannukah story. Still, no matter which one a person ascribes to, Hannukah is celebrated for eight nights, with ritual blessings recited upon lighting each candle of the prominently displayed menorah. There are particular foods prepared to celebrate the Hannukah tradition including potato latkes and jam-filled donuts, and children delight in playing with the four-sided spinning tops called Dreidels—Chag Hannukah Sameach or Happy Hannukah to all, and blessings on your families.
Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that after Herod Archelaus, a Roman client king, converted his territory, Judea, into a Roman province, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the newly-appointed governor, was assigned to carry out a tax census.
According to Christian scripture, Joseph and his wife, Maryam, devout Jews, went from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from the house of David. When they arrived, Maryam began her labor and there was no room for them at the inns. Without lodgings, they found shelter in a nearby cave, which was also stable, and there Jesus was born. Mary placed her sleeping baby in an animal trough filled with clean hay.
Out in the cold, dark night, in the countryside near Bethlehem, angels appeared and announced the good news to the shepherds, watching their flocks. The Messiah had been born. The shepherds listened to the angels and found the baby Jesus, sleeping in the manger in Bethlehem.
Traveling for days, following a brilliant star shining over the stable where Jesus was born, the Magi, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar came from distant eastern countries, arriving days after the birth with gifts for the newborn king. Gold to honor his kingship, Frankincense to recognize his deity, and Myrrh a particular anointing oil.
Over centuries, the gift-giving ritual commemorating the gifts brought by the three wise men devolved into a fully commercialized event. It pays less attention to the significance of Christ’s birth but is still a celebration of light and joy. Whether celebrating Christmas as a gift-giving holiday tradition or commemorating it as the birth of Jesus, it is a time of joy, hope, and love.
And so, the dark days and long nights of December are lit by traditions and celebrations of light, love, and the blessings of family and friends.
Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hannukah, and Happy Christmas!