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Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah

Three celebrations, one season - So how do they relate?

Kwanzaa is new; Christmas and Hanukkah are old. All three are December celebrations, variations on the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition and three different ways to bond with one's family and community.

Christmas has its origin story in the birth of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. But the earliest Christians appear not to have treated his birth with the same importance they gave to his death and resurrection. After Emporer Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, the faith began to spread across Europe. These continental Christians took local winter-solstice rituals and changed them to reflect their faith in Christ. Instead of celebrating the arrival of the sun after the longest night of the year, these Christians used such Solstice-ritual elements as trees, holly leaves, and Yule logs to celebrate the arrival of God's hope to a world in spiritual darkness.

Hanukkah is a secondary Jewish holiday, relatively less important than Passover and Yom Kippur. But because it coincides with the weeks before Christmas, it's achieved the status of an alternative to Christmas in many 20th-century Jewish households.
As Leah Akins writes, Hanukkah origins date back to about 167 B.C. A Jewish army, led by Judah the Maccabee, recaptured Jerusalem from the Greeks (who had conquered the city during the reign of Alexander the Great, some three centuries before). Judah's men tried to re-consecrate the Jewish temple by lighting its menorah (a sacramental lamp). But, as the legend tells it, there was only enough of the special ritual oil on the premises to keep the menorah lit for one day. Interestingly enough, when they lit the lamp, it stayed lit for eight days--long enough for the Jews to make more oil. Over the years, the miracle of the oil became the central focus of Hanukkah celebrations. Families lit one candle on each of nine consecutive nights, remembering a different aspect of the holiday and of Jewish tradition.

Kwanzaa (the name means "first fruits" in Swahili) was started by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga in 1966. As noted by an article on MelaNet, Karenga wanted a holiday specifically for African-Americans; a celebration that would not supplant or replace any religious practices, but would rather focus on the heritage and strengths of black families--"to reinforce the bonds between parents and children, and to teach parents and children new views and values that will aid them in self-consciousness and providing support and defense for our people." Each night during the week between Christmas and New Year's, families light candles on in-home shrines (decorated, according to Roz Fruchtman, in the colors of "black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future").