Getting Familiar with Winter Holidays


December 26. To most, the mention of this date arouses thoughts of the post-Christmas slump: removing ornaments from the tree and discarding shrewn wrapping paper. However, the more significant meaning of this particular Tuesday, indicating the start of Kwanzaa, a weeklong holiday cherished in African American culture, is only recognized by a small fraction of the world’s population. Similarly, December the 12th of this year, aside from being 13 days prior to Christmas, denotes the first sundown of the eight-night-long Hanukkah celebration, a holiday commemorated by Jews around the world.

Oftentimes come late November and early December, minds begin to drift to Christmas: presents under the tree, peppermint hot cocoa, and twinkling lights lighting up otherwise unassuming neighborhoods. Materialism aside, the Christmastime spirit is indeed magical, even for those who do not practice Christianity.

A High-O-Scope survey of students at Corvallis High School revealed that almost 94% are aware of the history of Christmas, and all of those respondents partake in the holiday traditions at home. On the contrary, there are several winter holidays significant to other religions that often go by unnoticed by a very worldly Corvallis. While only 55% of survey participants are aware of the origins of Hanukkah, barely 3% celebrate the holiday. In the case of Kwanzaa, just 20% know what the holiday represents, with less than 1% celebrating the holiday with family. While lesser-known holidays such as these may not hit close to home, it only takes a few minutes to educate oneself and be informed of the different traditions practiced by friends and peers.

Hanukkah (also called Chanukah) is a traditional Jewish holiday that dates back over 2000 years. According to, the name, meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates the battle won by the Jews over Syrian persecution. After the rebellion took place, the Jews discovered that the Syrians had left only enough oil to last them one day of light. Extraordinarily, the small sum of oil burned for eight days and nights, providing the Jews with enough time to locate more. To this day, the miracle of the oil is celebrated through Hanukkah. The holiday entails the recital of a Hebrew blessing at the nightly lighting of the menorah, a lampstand holding the eight symbolic candles as well as an additional one, the shamash, which is used to spread the flame to the others. Oily food such as latkes (fried potato pancakes), and donuts are eaten to commemorate the oil. Children play Dreidel, a game involving a spinning top and gelt— money which is commonly substituted with chocolate coins. Because of its commercialism in the United States, it is a common misconception that Hanukkah is the major holiday of the Jewish religion, when in actuality it is quite minor compared with other celebrations.

Kwanzaa, a significantly newer holiday, originated in 1966 as a festival celebrating the first harvest, according to Official Kwanzaa Website. A time to appreciate community, culture, and family, Kwanzaa is observed by an estimated half million to one million African-Americans and Pan-Africans each year between the dates of December 26th and January 1st. The holiday was formed around the Nguzo Saba, a Swahili term that translates to “Seven Main Principles”: Unity (Umoja), Self-Determination (Kujichagulia), Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima), Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa), Purpose (Nia), Creativity (Kuumba), and Faith (Imani). These principles exist as a reminder to those celebrating of the values that should be prioritized. Similar to Hanukkah’s use of candles, seven candles are lit to represent the seven values. Gifts are exchanged for Kwanzaa, and traditional African cuisine is prepared. Kwanzaa is approached by participants with a sense of respect and honor for the meaning of the holiday.

It is commonplace for even non-churchgoers to partake in the Christmas spirit by decorating trees, idolizing Santa Claus, and listening to classic carols on repeat. Likewise, those who do not follow Judaism can still enjoy the traditions of Hanukkah, as can those not of African-American descent be educated on the culture of their neighbors who celebrate Kwanzaa.

Official Kwanzaa Website. 2016,


“Hanukkah.” History, A&E Television Networks, 2017,


Akwansosem Arfrican Studies Program. “Kwanzaa- What is It?” University of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, A&E Television Networks, Mar. 1990,

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