Author: Doug Morrow, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer
While the celebration of Christmas takes up most of the newsprint and holiday sales advertisements in the United States in December, Americans of many different creeds celebrate a wide variety of winter holidays in the run up to the New Year. The other winter holiday most Americans are familiar with is Hanukkah a Jewish eight-day festival. Hanukkah may fall anytime from November to December, depending on the Jewish calendar, and is celebrated by lighting one additional light on a nine-branched candelabra on each successive night (the central light burns every night). Many Jewish-American families have adopted Hanukkah as a kind of Jewish equivalent of Christmas and exchange holiday gifts with friends and loved ones on each of the days. Hanukkah celebrates a story in Jewish tradition when the Jewish Maccabean revolt ended in the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Inside, they found a container of ritual olive oil which should only have been enough to light the Temple lamp for one night. Miraculously, the lamp kept burning for eight nights, the time it took to press and prepare more oil.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. President to take part in a public Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony on the National Mall. Bill Clinton was the first U.S. President to host a Hanukkah lighting ceremony inside the White House. Since then, Hanukkah has been celebrated annually in the White House.
Another popular U.S. winter holiday is Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration of African heritage and African-American culture, which is celebrated from December 26 to January 1. Created by civil rights activist Maulana Karenga in 1966, it celebrates unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with colorful African cloth, fresh fruit, and kinaras – a traditional candle holder with African-American roots. According to surveys, several million Americans celebrate Kwanzaa each year.
For the approximately 1.2 million Buddhists in the United States (40% of whom live in Southern California), December 8 is an important holiday known as Bodhi Day. This date commemorates the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. According to tradition, Siddhartha had resolved to sit beneath a tree and meditate until he understood the root of all suffering and how to liberate himself from it. Buddhists believe that one early morning, as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha found the answers that he was seeking, became enlightened, and experienced Nirvana.
Finally, the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year (usually December 21) – is celebrated by people of many faiths, including Native Americans, animists and Wiccans. Wiccans celebrate this date – the sun’s “rebirth,” – with bonfires, fruits, and other symbols of harvest, as well as a “Yule log,” which holds three candles. The Zuni and the Hopi people, for their part, celebrate “Soyal” on the winter solstice, with a ritual designed to encourage the sun to return from its winter slumber. The Hopi celebrate for 16 days with “Pahos,” or prayer sticks, designed to purify the community for the coming year.
In short, the over 300 million Americans, with hundreds of different ethnic, cultural and religious traditions have always found creative and meaningful ways to celebrate the darkest days of winter, with some holidays evoking thousands of years of heritage, while others have been invented recently to meet the needs of various communities. Whatever holiday you should chose to celebrate, we wish you all a very happy winter holiday season!