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Learning about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa

Most American children know the Christmas story, or at least the legends surrounding the celebration-i.e., Jesus and/or Santa Claus and his reindeer. But while you go about your Christmas preparations, you may want to also inform your kids about other holidays celebrated this season-or at least be prepared to answer their questions. For me, I had to take a crash course when my then-five year old son and I were in the post office one holiday season. He saw some Kwanzaa stamps and wanted to know what that was. I didn’t really know, so I had to look it up. And while I was at it, I also decided to learn about Hanukkah.

If you are a non-religious family, studying the cultural and religious practices of others is still a great way to learn about the world around you. For Christians, it can serve as a platform from which to reinforce your own faith, values, symbols and celebrations.

Kwanzaa, a cultural holiday celebrated by some African Americans from December 26 to January 1, was initiated in 1966 and may be observed in addition to faith-based holidays.

The name ‘Kwanzaa’ comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits”. Based on African harvest celebrations, the holiday serves to introduce and reinforce seven principles of African culture. In English, they are:

  • Unity
  • Self-determination
  • Collective work and responsibility
  • Cooperative economics
  • Purpose
  • Creativity
  • Faith

Each day of the week long festival includes a family gathering, a re-dedication to one of the seven principles, and the lighting of one more of seven candles. Celebrants enjoy a feast on December 31 and a Day of Meditation on January 1, intended as a time to recommit to all the values that Kwanzaa celebrates.
All of the objects and decorations used in Kwanzaa festivities are highly symbolic, especially the colors: black (representing the people), red (representing the blood of their struggle) and green (representing the hope of the future). Gifts given to children are often handmade, and are supposed to be books or cultural symbols, an intentional rejection of other commercialized holidays.

Chanukah, or Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day holiday observed by Jewish people, beginning on the 25th of Kislev (December 21st-29th, 2008). Some Messianic Jews also celebrate the birth of Jesus, but rarely does a religious Jewish family recognize Christmas.

Hanukkah, meaning “dedication”, commemorates a successful coup in 165 BC against Antiochus Epiphanes, who had defiled the Temple and prohibited the Jews from observing their religion. A small band of rebels finally recaptured Jerusalem, and the Temple was rededicated-on the 25th day of Kislev.

Upon reentering the temple, they found only enough purified oil to burn the eternal light for one day (ritual purification of the oil takes seven days), but “a great miracle happened there”-the oil burned for eight days, thus, the traditional explanation of the eight days of Hanukkah.

Jewish families give gifts and money, pray blessings, eat foods fried in oil, play the dreidel game, and light one more candle on the menorah, a candelabra with 9 candles (eight to remember the miracle, and the ninth—the servant candle-to light the others).

When you tell your children about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, it’s also a good time to make sure your children know why your family celebrates the way it does. Maybe you can tell them this year about the real St. Nicholas, or where the twelve days of Christmas came from. Why do we have Christmas trees? What’s the reason we give gifts? Why do some people celebrate Christmas on January 7? It’s easy to skip over the symbols and traditions of Christmas, and unfortunately, our children often learn more details about customs foreign to them.

Above all, don’t forget to enjoy the holiday however you like best. It should not be a burden, but a delight. And a terrific way to spend time with family and loved ones.


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