We’re More Alike than You Know. 3 Western Holidays: Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanzaa
By Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D.
As the December sky darkens, I look through my kitchen bay window at the zig zag of orange falling off the edge of the mountain tops behind my house. My bones feel a weariness in the fading light. The ache in my shoulders tell me how much we in this country have had a tense and fractious year, bombarded by polarized politics, cultural collisions, and social schisms that sometimes seem like chasms too broad to see convergence and too deep to imagine a bottom resolution.
As the twilight fades, I notice my deep longing for peace. A wish for calm. Even a small smile of safety. Shush to the chatter among us. We can yakety yak at one another like sibling rivalrous monkeys clamoring for attention in the tree tops. I’m fine with celebrating diversity, intrigued by our differences. But as I look into the day disappearing into night blackness….. it all looks the same. The same darkness descends over my house and my neighbor’s house.
My mind wanders to the December holidays. They look so different. At least on the surface. I open my computer and start to research the purpose and history of three popular Western holidays – Hanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. I am surprised to find that the details about each reveal more similarities than differences.
So I share with you what I’ve learned.
3 WESTERN HOLIDAYS: DIFFERENT HISTORIES
HANUKAH celebrates two aspects of Jewish history: a religious and political fight for freedom and a “miracle.” First, it celebrates how the Maccabee family, Mattathias the Hasmonean, a rural Jewish priest, and his 5 sons, led a successful revolt 167-160 BCE to overthrow the Seleucid Empire and regain control of Jerusalem.
THE MIRACLE. When the victorious Jews reclaimed and purified the Holy [Second] Temple, there was only enough sacred oil for the wicks of the menorah to burn for one day’s lighting. Miraculously, the story goes, the wicks burned for 8 days. Hence, the name “Hanukah”means in Hebrew “to dedicate.” It’s become known as the Feast of Dedication, or the Festival of Lights.
CHRISTMAS’ evolution is deeply embedded in political social cultural history, mostly in Europe. So the darkest coldest days of mid-winter was a typical time to celebrate light and birth: especially after the winter solstice [December in the Northern Hemisphere].
The worship of the Sun (Sol) [necessary for growing crops] was indigenous to the Romans, since the 8th century BC. The upper Roman classes celebrated the birthday of MIRTHA, the god of the “unconquerable sun” [Sol Invictus]. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated YULE, where sparks from their huge log fires heralded soon-to-be-born pigs and calves. The Germans honored the pagan god ODEN, who flew through the night sky to observe his people and decide who would live well and who would die. The SATURNALIA festival in Rome, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture marked the end of the planting season in December.
THE MIRACLE: Both Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:26 and 2:40 describe how Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, but no date is mentioned. The “Chronography of 354AD,” an illustrated manuscript/calendar is the first literary reference to connect the pagan feast of Sol Invictus to Jesus’ birth on December 25 feast day. Its Part 6 notes: "Birthday of the unconquered, games ordered, thirty races"…"Birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea." The December 25th date may have been chosen to correspond to the day nine months after early Christians believe Jesus was miraculously conceived. Or possibly some sources say, Pope Julius I in the 4thc. chose December 25th to integrate Christian observances with the traditional pagan Saturnalia Festival. By the middle ages, Christianity basically replaced such pagan religious practices.
KWANZAA. Jump ahead several centuries, and to the USA. Maulana Karenga in 1965 created a specifically African-American holiday , Kwanzaa, Swahili for “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” At first, he suggested Kwanzaa as a “oppositional alternative” to Christmas. But, by 1977, he integrated its celebration with Christmas.
The goal is to celebrate “Kawaida”, Swahili for tradition and reason, of the “best of African thought and practice” expressed through 7 principles [Nguzu Saba]. Celebrated on each of 7 days, they highlight self-determination in maintaining unity in the family, community, nation, and race; “To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”
3 WESTERN HOLIDAYS: 3 SIMILARITIES
1st SIMILARITY. It’s striking that all three celebrations emerged from a basic human need: to survive, physically and spiritually, even in the face of struggle and hardship. The sun, planting, and harvesting are central for human life and development. An important reminder of this is celebrated in December, during the dark cold days of Northern Hemisphere winters.
2nd SIMILARITY. Another important theme is light, shedding light, literally and figuratively, as learning, knowing one’s history and passing it on to our children. Struggle, and resistance to oppression, is mentioned or inferred in descriptions of all three holidays. A great man stepped forward to lead at a crucial point in time. There is also the “miracle“ of the Temple’s sacred oil lasting for 8 nights, and the “miracle“ of Jesus’ conception. A fundamental teaching is that all people are created in God’s image [however you believe in God] and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
3rd SIMILARITY. And finally, values and principles either motivated, or are the offspring, of celebrating in a way that highlights family and community. We depend upon one another and are crucial in one another’s lives, in spite of our differences.
The mountains behind my house have disappeared into the inky black sameness of night. In contrast, my kitchen table holds a new light. My viewpoint is enlightened by how celebrations emerged throughout history to be thankful for survival and to strengthen relationships in our communities. I’ve been reminded in writing this blog that the similarities in our holidays are greater than our differences. The same holds true in our relationships with people. The similarities indeed may be stronger than our differences. If we just looked for them. So, we can choose to celebrate both differences and similarities. We can play in our samenesses. And connect to those we love. We can celebrate Holidays with different names and histories, but similar values. Go forth friends known and unknown, and celebrate how alike we really are! Have a healthy start to your New Year: claim it as your own!
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