Christmas: December 25
Christmas begins at sundown on December 24 and may be observed through sundown on January 5, hence the renowned Twelve Days of Christmas. Representing the birth of Jesus, Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25.
Christmas gift-giving in the US and Canada is borrowed from Dutch, German, and British customs. The legendary bearer of gifts in North America is Santa Claus, a “resident” of the North Pole who evolved from the European St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children.In North American tradition, Santa climbs down the chimney at night delivering gifts to all children who have been “good” during the previous year. He’s escorted by eight reindeer pulling his sled through the night skies. Santa’s famous team is led by the red-nosed Rudolf.
The illuminated and decorated Christmas tree was introduced to America by German settlers. For many Americans, it’s customary to encircle their lighted tree with a train track and train set. Gifts, to be opened on Christmas Day morning, are also placed under the Christmas tree.
Canadians of French extraction celebrate Christmas immediately following Midnight Mass with an elaborate dinner known as Reveillon, or “waking up.” The tradition of Reveillon is a relatively recent custom, celebrated since the 1930s. In Quebec, Christmas ends on La fête du Roi, which falls on January 6.
Boxing Day: December 26
Boxing Day originated at the time of the Feast of St. Stephen. It honors a deacon of the early Christian community in Jerusalem and the first martyr of the church. St. Stephen distributed the wealth of the church amongst the needy of Jerusalem. Come Boxing Day, clothing and other valuables are collected and distributed to the less fortunate through a network of religious organizations in North American and abroad.
In Canada, Boxing Day became a legal holiday in only in the 20th century. By creating a holiday immediately after Christmas, people had more time to travel and be reunited with their families. Boxing Day in Canada is a major sale day for retailers; consequently, it’s the most popular shopping day of the year!
Hanukkah: December 22 – December 29
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is one of the most joyful holidays in the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah is celebrated by eight days of gift-giving, music, children’s games and feasting. The theme of blue and white is often used in floral designs in honor of the colors of the prayer shawl and the flag of Israel.
Hanukkah commemorates the purification of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 B.C. following the dramatic and unexpected Maccabean conquest over Syria. The most important holiday observance is the kindling of the Hanukkah candles on the menorrah, or hanukkiya, a nine–branch candelabra. The burning candles honor the miracle of how a tiny cruse of sacred oil burned for eight days when there was only enough oil for one, after the Temple of Jerusalem was defiled by the Syrians. The ninth candle is used to light a new candle each night ending with the lighting of all eight candles on the last day of Hanukkah. The lighting of the menorrah symbolizes the light of religious, national and cultural freedom won by the Maccabees and for all who followed.
Each night, special foods are prepared and games are played. Oil is used in many of the dishes prepared for Hanukkah, including the much loved potato pancakes called latkes. A favorite game is played with family and friends which involves the spinning of a four-sided wooden top called a dreidl. Home entertaining often occurs each night.
Kwanzaa: December 26 – January 1
The celebration is based on festivals in Africa and concentrates on the need for unity of family, community, and race, as well as the need for self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at the California State University, originated Kwanzaa in 1966.
To prepare for Kwanzaa, a straw place mat is put on the table, along with a candle holder with seven candles — one black (to represent African-American people), three red (to represent their struggles), and three green (to represent hope for the future). Fruit, ears of corn (one for each child in the family), assorted gifts, and a communal cup are other items traditionally placed on the table during the celebrations.
Each day before the evening meal, family and friends gather around the table for the ceremonial lighting of the candles. One person pours water or juice from the unity cup into a bowl. That person drinks from the cup and raises it high saying, “Harambee,” which means “Let us all pull together.” All repeat, “Harambee!” seven times and each person drinks from the cup. Next, the names of African-American leaders and heroes are called out, while everyone reflects upon the accomplishments of these role models. The ceremony concludes with a lavish meal.
Events outside of the home during the week of Kwanzaa include lectures, singing, and other special events commemorating the African-American culture and its origins.