December Celebrations and Culture

The calendar year is ending, but the multicultural learning opportunities are not. December ushers in a few well-known winter holidays, but are you familiar with their cultural significance?


Hanukkah (Hebrew for dedication), also known as the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish holiday observed over eight days. This celebration commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem after it was invaded and desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It was decided that the restoration of the temple would be celebrated annually.

The observance begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which falls between late November to late December. Hanukkah includes the important tradition of lighting the menorah each evening. The candelabra has eight branches and a shammash (servant) candle that is used to light the other eight candles. Scriptures and prayers are typically recited as the candles are lit. Historically olive oil was used rather than candles because a small vile of oil was the last item found in the temple that Antiochus did not defile. The oil was only expected to last for one day; however, it burned for eight days, which is why the eight-day observance was established.

Other festivities include playing the game of dreidel, sharing traditional oil-based foods, singing hymns, and exchanging gifts.


Christmas is both a religious holiday and a worldwide commercial marvel. On December 25, Christians observe the day as the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus Christ), the spiritual leader on which Christianity is based. The birth of Jesus is often celebrated by decorating Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, attending church, and sharing a meal with family and friends. The non-religious forms of celebration closely align with Christian celebrations as the holiday has become highly commercialized with the legend of Santa Claus. It acts as an economic stimulus, with the average American spending $886.00 on gifts.

The decision to observe the birth of Jesus on December 25 is a longstanding debate as being chosen to align with the celebration of the winter solstice. Winter solstice is referred to as the rebirth of the sun. The Roman Catholic church is documented as first celebrating Christmas as far back as the 9th century. Pagan festivals were held to celebrate the rebirth of the sun, which was popular during the reign of the Roman Empire. Americans began embracing Christmas in the 19th century with the federal holiday established in 1870.


Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday celebrating community, family, history, and culture from December 26 to January 1.

The holiday was created to unite the African American community after the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, CA, by reaffirming African heritage and culture. There are seven principles (Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa, which come from the Swahili phrase, matunda ya kwanza, which means first fruits. The principles are Ujoma (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

“The symbols of Kwanzaa includes crops (mzao) which represents the historical roots of African-Americans in agriculture and also the reward for collective labor. The mat (mkeka) lays the foundation for self- actualization. The candle holder (kinara) reminds believers in the ancestral origins in one of 55 African countries. Corn/maize (muhindi) signifies children and the hope associated in the younger generation. Gifts (Zawadi) represent commitments of the parents for the children. The unity cup (Kkimbe cha Umoja) is used to pour libations to the ancestors. Finally, the seven candles (mishumaa saba) remind participants of the several principles and the colors in flags of African liberation movements — 3 red, 1 black, and 3 green.”

Families and friends gather on December 31, greeting each other with the phrase, “Habari gani,” or, “what’s the news?” Gifts are often exchanged, games are played, and a feast (Karamu) is shared.