Several cultural holidays fill the winter season

Now that everyone has eaten Thanksgiving leftovers and survived Black Friday, it’s time to really get into the holiday season. It’s hard to go anywhere in East Tennessee without getting swept away by the Christmas spirit, but around the globe, and even here in Johnson City, people are celebrating more holidays than just Christmas.

Kwanzaa is a nonreligious, seven-day African-American and Pan-African tradition that takes place from Dec. 26-Jan. 1. On each day of Kwanzaa, celebrants light a candle on the kinara. Each candle represents one of seven principles of African culture: Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. On Dec. 31, families gather for a feast called Karamu. Many people worldwide celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas.

Kwanzaa is a tradition that’s only 52-years-old and has origins in some of America’s darkest history. After 34 people died and 1,000 people were injured in the Watts Riots, most of who were African American, civil rights activist Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa to honor African heritage and unite the African American community. He sought to give African Americans the opportunity to celebrate their unique history and culture, rather than simply conforming to mainstream traditions from the dominant, white, Christian society.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish celebration that begins on Kislev 25 on the Hebrew calendar, which is Dec. 2 this year. On each day of Hanukkah, celebrants offer a blessing and light a candle on the menorah. The ritual lighting of the candles stems from the miracle of the oil, in which tradition holds that a one-day supply olive oil burned for eight days during their Temple re-dedication. During Hanukkah, people eat foods made of olive oil, such as potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts, to allude to the miracle of the oil. Other Hanukkah traditions include giving children gifts and playing dreidel.

Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” originated as a re-dedication of the Jewish Temple after Jewish leader Judah Maccabee and his followers took the Temple back from the Syrians, who had desecrated it in 168 B.C.E. Hanukkah celebrates triumph over overwhelming odds and is a time for Jewish people to celebrate their history and culture.

The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, falls on Dec. 21 this year, and it takes place on the shortest day and longest night of the year for the northern hemisphere. After the winter solstice, the days begin to get longer, and Pagan tradition celebrates the rebirth of the sun on this day. The Feast of Yule lasts 12 days and includes a ceremonial burning of a Yule log, a Nordic tradition.

Celebrating the winter solstice is one of the oldest winter traditions around the world. Iranians, Scandinavians, Romans and East Asians, among others, have traditions associated with the winter solstice. In Scandinavian and Germanic traditions, people would light candles and gather around campfires to celebrate the surrender of darkness to light. Many of Christmas traditions originate from Pagan celebrations of winter solstice, including hanging mistletoe and decorating with a tree.

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The festival takes place between mid-January and mid-February, depending on the lunar calendar. The first day of the festival falls on the new moon, and people celebrate by cleaning their homes to get rid of bad luck, called huiqi. During the festival, people decorate with red paper lanterns and cutouts, set off fireworks and wear red clothing to symbolize happiness, prosperity and luck. The last day of the festival, which coincides with the full moon, is the Festival of Lanterns, in which people hang lanterns in temples and parade them on the streets.

One-sixth of the world’s population celebrates the Chinese New Year. It is celebrated in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and Chinese communities around the world. It is a public holiday in China, and most people get 7-12 days off work during the festival.

Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights and is India’s most important holiday of the year. This year, Diwali falls on Nov. 7. Indians of all faiths, including Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains, light clay lamps called deepa outside their homes for five days. Deepa lamps symbolize the spiritual inner light that wards off darkness. On the first day of Diwali, people clean their home. On the second day, people decorate their homes with clay lamps and use colored powders to create designs called rangoli on the floor. The third day of the festival is the main day: people gather to pray to the Goddess Lakshmi, then feast and set off fireworks. Friends and family visit and exchange gifts on the fourth day, which falls on the first day of the new year. On the fifth and final day of the holiday, sisters welcome and cook for their brothers.

People interpret the origins of Diwali differently depending on whether they live in northern, eastern or southern India, each of which has a different Diwali story. All interpretations share the common theme of good triumphing over evil and light overcoming darkness.

The winter season is an important season for all cultures and religions. Ask your neighbors and friends what traditions they celebrate to learn more about the unique complexities of other people’s holidays.

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