The month of December is the host of many holidays, celebrations and remembrances worldwide. first tuesday invites you to pull up a soft, comfortable chair, sit down with a cup of hot cocoa (or your preferred winter beverage), and take a look at the different customs, traditions and beliefs of holidays celebrated around the world.

The Story of Chanukah

Two thousand, three hundred years ago, in the land of Judea (which is now Israel), a Syrian king named Antiochus ordered all the Jewish people to stop serving their God and to worship Greek gods. Among those who refused to give up their faith in God was a man named Judah.

Judah and his four brothers took the name of Maccabee, meaning “hammer”, and with their followers, they fought for three years to drive the Syrians from Judea. They reclaimed the Temple of Jerusalem and began to clean it, removing all Greek symbols and adornments. After the work was finished on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the Maccabees wished to light the Eternal Fire, the N’er Tamid, to rededicate the Temple. Every Jewish home had a fire lit from oil which was never to be extinguished. The Maccabees searched the Temple but could only find one jug with enough oil to last for one day. By a miracle, the oil remained lit for 8 days.

Today, Jewish people everywhere celebrate Chanukah, meaning “rededication”, for 8 days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. It is a time for Jewish people to rededicate themselves to their faith, to contemplate the teachings of the Torah and to remember the miracles and wonders God has provided for them. In older times, rabbis used to travel to towns and villages during Chanukah to teach the Torah, and people would live on the inspiration of those teachings for another year.

Fathers traditionally give their children Chanukah money in a gesture to remind the children that in exchange for the gifts, they must accept and be bound to the teachings of the Torah.

On each day of Chanukah, people exchange gifts and light a candle on the menorah. The menorah is a candelabrum holding nine candles. The middle candle is the shamash, or server. It is the first candle lit, the only one on the first day of Chanukah. On the second day of Chanukah, the shamash and another candle are lit. On each successive day of Chanukah, the shamash and one more candle than on the previous day are lit. The menorah demonstrates the miracle of the oil that lasted for 8 days.

Family and friends gather during Chanukah time. They eat special foods, such as potato cakes, called latkes, which are fried in oil in honor of the miracle. They mend any misunderstandings or feuds and start over with good will. The children, with Chanukah money in their pockets, play dreidel games. (Chocolate coins or other candy can also be used in dreidel games.) The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top. On each side of the dreidel is a letter: nun, gimel, hay, shin. These letters are abbreviated from the phrase, Nes Gadol, Haya Sham, which means “a great miracle happened there”. However, in Israel, the fourth letter is peh, not shin, because of the phrase “a great miracle happened here“.

To play the dreidel game, begin with a common pot of coins or candy. One person spins the dreidel. When the dreidel comes to rest, the letter on top determines whether the person takes, gives, or leaves money in the pot. If the letter on top is nun, the person leaves the pot alone. The letter gimel means the person will take all the coins but leave one in the pot. When only one coin is left in the pot, everyone must put in a coin. If the letter hay shows up on top of the dreidel, the person will take half of all the coins plus one if there is an odd number of coins in the pot. The letter shin tells a person to put a coin in the pot. Each person in turn spins the dreidel and either collects or contributes coins or candy. The person with all of the money or candy at the end of the game wins.

Chanukah is celebrated throughout the world for the miracle of the oil, for the military and political victory of the Maccabees, and for religious freedom.

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The Origins and Affirmations of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is an African-American and pan-African holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to reaffirm the African culture and to strengthen the values of family and community among all Africans and African-Americans. The focus of Kwanzaa is on the Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one principle. On any given day during Kwanzaa, a person passing another on the street might say, “Habari gani?” to which the other person says the name of the principle being celebrated that day.

Umoja or Unity is the principle of striving for and maintaining unity within the family, the community, the nation and the race.

Kujichagulia or Self-Determination is the principle of an identity, to give oneself a name, a voice and a purpose.

Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility is the principle of building and maintaining a community so that everyone shares and helps to mend one another’s troubles.

Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics is the principle of constructing and maintaining African shops and stores and profiting by these businesses together.

Nia or Purpose is the principle of cultivating a community together in order to restore the African people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba or Creativity is the principle of doing everything possible in order to leave the community a better and more beautiful place than how it was found.

Imani is the principle of believing in the African people, in the parents, teachers and leaders who have paved the way, and in the victories earned in their struggle.

Kwanzaa developed from the cultural, nationalist philosophy of Kawaida, which argues the key challenge for African-Americans and Africans is one of culture. The chief aim of the African people in celebrating Kwanzaa is to discover and illuminate the best of their culture in order to maximize their possibilities and to reach heights of human excellence.

The name of Kwanzaa comes from the phrase, matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits”. The holiday resembles an ancient African first-fruits or harvest celebration. Homes are decorated with African baskets, art objects, cloth patterns and harvest symbols. The Kwanzaa colors are black, red and green. Black represents the African people. Red stands for their struggle. Green is for the future and the hope that comes out of the struggle. Before Kwanzaa begins, a person chooses a central place in the home in which to display the holiday symbols. Then a table is spread with a piece of African cloth. The mkeka or mat is placed upon the cloth and all Kwanzaa symbols are either laid upon the mat or beside it. The Kinara or candle holder is put down on the mat. The Kinara holds seven candles called the Mishumaa Saba. The candle in the center is black and stands for umoja. Three red candles, representing kujichagulia, ujamaa and kuumba, are placed to the left of the black candle. Three green candles, representing ujima, nia and imani, are placed to the right of the black candle. On the first day of Kwanzaa, the black candle is lit. The other candles are lit, one each day, from left to right. The lighting of the candles in this order symbolizes that the people come first, then the struggle followed by the hope that comes out of the struggle.

The next symbols displayed on the mkeka are the mazao, or crops, and at least two ears of corn, which symbolize the children that belong to the African community. The kikombe cha umoja or Unity Cup is used to pour out tambiko, or libation, in remembrance of those who have led the way through the struggle and taught others the good in life. Finally, African art objects and books on African culture are placed all around the mkeka to show the people’s dedication to learning and commitment to their heritage.

Gifts are given to children during Kwanzaa and must include a book, to emphasize African values and the importance of education, and a heritage symbol, to reaffirm African tradition and history.

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Christmas Around the World

Every year as the Christmas season approaches, houses are adorned with lights; store fronts put up garlands and ribbons and fake evergreen trees; malls create a winter wonderland for a visiting Santa Claus; parking lots boast of red, green, and gold banners; and radio stations play a score of new and traditional Christmas songs. Thus a religious holiday has become a national tradition, and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you may feel that the true meaning of Christmas is hidden behind “a big commercial racket”, as Lucy van Pelt says. The lights and grandeur are part of the Christmas celebration, but beyond that, there still remains the spirit of Christmas, that which calls each person to be kind to their neighbors and to rejoice in their family, friends, and the good things they have. Christians around the world celebrate Christmas as the day Jesus was born, but each country has its own traditions and customs.

In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity marks the site where Jesus was born. On Christmas Eve, people gather at the church to watch from the roof and doorways as an ancient effigy of the baby Jesus is carried to the church in a  holy procession. A cross is painted above the door of Christian homes, and each home displays a manger scene. In the village square stands a pole with a star at the top.

The Three Wise Men who came bearing gifts to the baby Jesus are believed to have lived in the land now known as Iran. From the first of December to Christmas Day, the Christians of Iran fast from all animal products. On Christmas Day, the children wear new clothes, and after church, everyone partakes of a great feast that features a traditional chicken stew called harasa.

Christians in Greece fast for 40 days before Christmas. The main symbol of the season in Greek homes is a small wooden bowl, with a piece of wire suspended over the rim, holding a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water in the bowl keeps the basil fresh. Every day, a member of the family (usually the mother) dips the the cross and basil into the bowl and sprinkles water in every room of the house to ward off the Killantzaroi, or mischievous sprites that come up from the core of the earth and slip through the chimneys of homes to play tricks on people during the twelve days of Christmas, from December 25 (Christmas Day) to January 6 (Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Wise Men’s visit to the baby Jesus). On Christmas Eve, village children go from house to house, offering good wishes, singing kalanda, or carols, and playing little metal triangles and clay drums. As a reward, the children are given fruits and nuts. On January 1, St. Basil’s Day, people exchange gifts and celebrate the “renewal of waters”, replacing all the water in jugs in the house with fresh St. Basil’s water.

On Christmas Eve in Rome, a cannon is fired from Castel St. Angelo to herald the beginning of the season. Italians begin a fast that lasts until the Christmas Day feast. Gifts are exchanged on January 6 (Epiphany). Children are told the story of La Befana (literally meaning “Epiphany”), a woman who refused lodging to the Three Wise Men on their journey to the birthplace of Jesus. After the wise men had gone, the woman had a change of heart, but it was too late. Now she wanders the earth, searching for the Christ Child. She visits the children and gives gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. The original nativity scene was created in Italy by Giovanni Vellita of Greccio at the request of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis performed mass in front of the nativity scene, which inspired awe and wonder among the people. Since then, the popularity of displaying a nativity scene in people’s homes and in churches has spread.

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia who brings presents to children. During the reign of communism in the former Soviet Union, St. Nicholas had to be referred to as Grandfather Frost. Since the fall of communism, Christmas has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity among the general public. Since the Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, Christmas is celebrated on January 7. Christians in Russia fast until after the first church service on Christmas Eve. Then they eat a special Christmas dish called kutya, consisting of wheatberries or other grains, honey and poppy seeds. The grains stand for hope and immortality and the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, success and untroubled rest. Everyone eats the kutya from a common bowl to symbolize unity. A priest may be invited to bless the home.

On Christmas in Iraq, families gather and one child reads aloud the story of the birth of Christ. All others hold lighted candles. After the reading, a bonfire of thorn bushes is lit. If the fire burns down to ashes, good luck will come for the new year. Each person jumps on the ashes three times and makes a wish.

In Latvia, Father Christmas brings presents to the children for each of the 12 days of Christmas.

The children in China decorate trees with colorful paper ornaments of flowers, chains and lanterns. In Hong Kong, the skyscrapers are lit from top to bottom with Christmas designs, and on Christmas Eve, family and friends gather for large parties. The next morning, families go out for Christmas Day brunch.

In India, mango and banana trees are decorated for Christmas. Sometimes the Indians use mango leaves in their home decorations and place small clay, oil-burning lamps on the edges of flat roofs and on the tops of walls.

The English have passed on most of their Christmas traditions to America, but another custom they have is called mumming, where people put on masks and perform Christmas plays, mostly in small towns and villages. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, boys traditionally go from house to house, collecting money in boxes. When the boxes are full, the boys break the boxes and take out the money.

St. Stephen’s Day is Ireland’s equivalent to Boxing Day. In the Wren Boys’ Procession, boys wear elegant clothing (and sometimes masks) and parade through the streets carrying a long pole with a holly bush on the top, supposedly harboring a captured wren. The money is collected for the wren.

The Welsh go caroling, called eisteddfodde, often playing the harp as they sing. In some rural areas of Wales, a person is chosen to be Mari Ilywd and to carry a horse’s skull on a long pole throughout the village. Anyone “bitten” by the horse’s jaws must pay a fine.

In the Netherlands, children are told that St. Nicholas will come on a steamboat from Spain on December 6, the saint’s feast day. Gifts are exchanged on St. Nicholas Eve (December 5), and the children leave out their shoes and fill them with hay and sugar for St. Nicholas’s horses. In the morning, the children awake to find the hay and sugar have been replaced with nuts and candy.

Children in France also leave their shoes out by the fireplace and receive gifts from Father Christmas. Every Christian home displays a nativity scene. The traditional dessert of a Christmas dinner in France is the bûche de Noël, a Yule log-shaped cake with marzipan and buttercream.

Germans have a special wreath of leaves with four candles, called the Adventskranz. The candles represent the four weeks before Christmas.

The Finnish children believe that Santa Claus lives in Korvatunturi, in the north of Finland. The Finnish people have created a theme park in the area decorated as Santa’s home village. On Christmas Eve morning, everyone eats rice pudding and drinks plum juice. At noon, the “peace of Christmas” is broadcast on television and on the radio from Turku by the mayor of Turku.

In Slovakia, children believe that Svaty Mikulas, or St. Nicholas, comes down into their homes by a golden rope held by an angel. When Svaty Mikulas visits, the children rush to pray. If they are good, Svaty Mikulas tells the angel to reward them with gifts. The patron saint of Slovakia is King Wenceslaus, the very one sung about in that traditional Christmas carol. King Wenceslaus was a Christian who was murdered for his beliefs by his own brother, on the steps of a church. A Christmas custom for Slovakian girls is to put a cherry twig in water on the fourth of December. If the buds on the twig blossom before Christmas Eve, it is a sign the girl will marry within the coming year.

One thousand years ago in Sweden, King Canute proclaimed that Christmas would last a month, from December 13 (the feast day of St. Lucia) to January 13 (the feast day of St. Canute). On the morning of St. Lucia’s Day, the eldest girl in every family traditionally wears a white dress with a red sash, and an evergreen wreath with seven lit candles sits on her head. She brings coffee and buns to each member of her family in their respective rooms. The Swedes have a Christmas gnome, called the tomte, who lives under the floorboards of the house or barn and delivers presents at Christmastime.

A mischievous elf, called Nisse, lives in Denmark. Danish families leave out bowls of rice pudding or porridge for Nisse to keep him from playing his tricks on them. Parents decorate the Christmas tree in secret, and children are not supposed to see the tree until Christmas Eve dinner. The first course of Christmas Eve dinner is a rice pudding holding a magic almond. Whoever finds the almond in their serving of rice pudding wins a prize. A traditional Danish gift is the Christmas plate, which originated from the times when rich Danes would give their servants plates of biscuits and fruits.

The Portuguese have an early Christmas morning feast, called the consoada. They set extra places at the table for the souls of the dead and leave crumbs on the hearth, since they believe the dead have the power to ensure a bountiful harvest.

On Christmas Day in Lima, Peru, there is a special bullfight.

Venezuelans attend a church service every morning between December 16 and Christmas Eve, and it is customary to roller-skate to church. Every night, children tie a piece of string around their big toe and hang the other end out their bedroom window. In the morning, any roller skater must give a tug to any string they see as they pass by.

In Mexico, young people reenact the story of the Holy Family seeking lodging before the birth of Christ in a procession called Las Posadas. Every night, from December 16 to Christmas Eve, a young girl is chosen to be the Virgen Maria, and she leads the procession sitting on top of a burro. Beside her walks a young boy as San Jose. Following are other children portraying shepherds, angels and the Three Wise Men. Each child is dressed in a homemade costume and carries a lantern and a walking staff. The procession stops at a designated house, where the children sing a traditional song asking for lodging. They are turned away. Then they come to a second house and repeat the song. Again they are rejected. When they come to the third house, they are told that, while there is no room in the house, they may seek refuge in the stable. The doors of the house are opened, and everyone is welcomed inside for a celebration.

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