Kwanzaa: History and Traditions

For the last post in our series about holiday histories and traditions—take a peek at our previous posts on Hanukkah and Christmas—we bring you Kwanzaa. Fairly new to the lineup of December holidays, it wasn’t until 1966 that Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African Studies professor, activist, and author established Kwanzaa. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa to bring African-Americans back together as a community, and “give [them] an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history.” (more)

Every year, Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st.

So, let’s chat and chew about Kwanzaa’s history, main principles, and symbols.

THE HISTORY

The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits” in Swahili. (more) Most Kwanzaa celebrations include songs and dances, African drums, stories and poetry, and a large traditional meal. Similar to the lighting of the Jewish menorah, during Kwanzaa, one of the seven candles is placed in the Kinara (candleholder) every day, and then that day’s principle is discussed.

The candles range is color—there is one black, three green, and three red candles. The first candle lit is the black one, which is followed by alternating green and red candles depending on the day’s principle.

THE MAIN PRINCIPLES

Kwanzaa focuses on seven core principles, which are referred to in Swahili as the Nguzo Saba. Listed in order of observance, The History Channel explains the principles and their meanings as:

  • UnityUmoja – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Self-determinationKujichagulia – To define, name, create for, and speak for ourselves.
  • Collective work and responsibility Ujima– To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Cooperative EconomicsUjamma – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • PurposeNia – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Creativity Kuumba – To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • FaithImani – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

THE MAIN SYMBOLS

In addition to a main principle, each day of Kwanzaa is also represented by a symbol. See below for a look at each symbol. Click here for a more in-depth explanation of each symbol’s meaning. 

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Although Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa are different, each holiday has the power to bring friends, family, and tradition together under one roof. As this year’s Chrismahanukwanzaka season officially wraps up, on behalf of everyone at Compass Rose Benefits Group, we wish you a very Happy and Healthy New Year!

Christmas: History and Traditions

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Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God.  It wasn’t, however, until third century A.D.—when Roman church officials decided on December 25th—that Christ’s birth was first celebrated.  While Christmas stems from a religious meaning, since the 19th century, the holiday has developed into something more—tree decorating, sending holiday cards and gifts, putting up lights, and visiting Santa at the local mall.  It has become the biggest commercial holiday of the year, and is typically celebrated by a large majority of Americans, Christian or not.1      

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Christmas, it’s generally recognized as a season for giving, sharing, and rejoicing, and has become a cherished holiday. 

So, lets chat and chew about popular Christmas traditions!

CHRISTMAS TREE

Prior to Christianity, plants and trees that remained green year-round held special meaning in the winter.  People hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows because it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.1

The Germans are credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition, as we know it today.  Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since around 1850, and are now sold in all 50 states. 

In 1933, the first lighting ceremony was held in Rockefeller Center.2   The tradition dates back to 1931, when a small tree was displayed in the middle of the Center’s construction site.  Nowadays, an estimated 750,000 people visit Rockefeller Center each year to view the 30,000 lights, which cover the famous 75-100 foot tree. 

One of my fondest memories growing up—and still to this day—is going into New York City to see the iconic, multi-colored lit tree.

SANTA CLAUS

The tale of Santa Claus, whose name is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”, is traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas.1   It was said that he gave all his inherited wealth and instead traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.  By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas—known as the protector of children and sailors—was the most popular saint in Europe. 

St. Nicholas started making his way into American pop culture after a New York newspaper reported that Dutch families gathered to honor his death. By 1820, stores began advertising Christmas shopping, and by 1840, drawings of Santa Claus were included in all the newspapers and magazines.  In 1890, James Edgar of Brockton, MA gave America the first-ever department store Santa Claus3!  One-year later, Santa appeared in many major department stores, and by the turn of the century became a staple during the holiday shopping season. 

EXCHANGING GIFTS

In the Christian religion, giving gifts at Christmas is traced back to the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which the Three Wise Men, or the Magi, delivered to baby Jesus.  Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas,” also wrote that bands of young, rowdy men, would travel from home to home, demanding handouts from the gentry.4   In the 1800s, Christmas was domesticated, shifting the focus of gift-giving from the lower classes to children. 

Today, American families have their own system for how and when they open gifts, making each of their Christmases that much more special.

CANDY CANES

In the 1660’s, in Cologne, Germany, the once straight white sticks of sugar were bent at the end to remind children of the Shepard’s crook.  It also helped keep kids quiet in church!

MISTLETOE

Frigg, goddess of love, did everything she could to make the world a safe place for her son, Baldur. Everything on Earth promised to bring her son no harm, except for the one play Frigg overlooked – Mistletoe. As evil spirit named Loki crafted and killed Baldur with an arrow made from the mistletoe’s wood. Frigg’s tears turned into the plant’s white berries and revived her son. From that moment, to pay thanks, Frigg promised to kiss anyone who passed under mistletoe.5

So, whether you stick to your own traditions or incorporate more modern-day ones, simply put, holidays are a time to spend with friends and family. If you are looking to revamp your holiday plans, see this list of 50 Christmas Traditions. Check out our Pinterest page for fun Christmas decorating ideas, recipes, and more!

References:

  1. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas
  2. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-12-05/what-would-the-christmas-tree-at-rockefeller-center-be-worth
  3. http://www.newyorkjourney.com/rockefeller_center.htm
  4. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2013/1221/Christmas-How-did-gift-giving-and-caroling-get-started
  5. http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/why-do-we-kiss-under-the-mistletoe

Hanukkah: History & Traditions

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Image / Copyright © Compass Rose Benefits Group.


Hanukkah, or Chanukah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is the eight-day and eight-night festival of light.  The Jewish holiday celebrates a miracle that symbolizes faith and never losing hope.  Hanukkah begins at sundown today, December 16th and ends on Wednesday, December 24th.

In preparation of Hanukkah, let’s chat and chew about its history and traditions.

THE HISTORY: WITNESSING A MIRACLE

Hanukkah commemorates the successful rebellion of the Jewish freedom fighters called the Maccabees against the Greeks in the Maccabean War. (More) After their victory, a ritual cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple took place.

After restoring the Holy Temple, only enough consecrated oil was found to keep the menorah’s candles burning for one-day; yet, the flames remained lit for eight nights!  This event is why Hanukkah is referred to as the Feast of Lights or Festival of Lights.

HANUKKAH TRADITIONS

  1. Light the Menorah: The Menorah—a candelabrum that holds nine candles—is the centerpiece of the Hanukkah celebration.  Eight of the candles symbolize the number of days the oil lasted, which are placed in the Menorah right to left, BUT lit left to right.  The ninth candle, known as the Shamash, is used to help light the other candles. Families light one new candle every day after sundown during the eight days Hanukkah, while saying prayers and singing songs.
  1. Holiday Songs: Speaking of singing, Hanukkah has its own carols that are sung around the Menorah.  Songs are about a variety of things—topics range from the glory of God and the ancient Temple of the Jews, to the iconic dreidel. See a list of songs here.
  1. Tasty Foods: As with most holidays, Hanukkah comes with traditional foods that are always served—but you don’t have to celebrate Hanukkah to enjoy them!  If you’re looking for some new twists on traditional foods, see below for some yummy, HEALTHIER, Hanukkah recipes to try in the coming days.
  1. Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel: Playing with dreidels, or spinning tops, is customary during the holiday.   Sometimes bets will be placed on which side of the dreidel will fall face up.  The story goes “that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah, which had been outlawed.” (More)  The characters carved into the four sides of the dreidel are the letters nun, gimmel, hey, and shin, which represent nes gabol haya sham­, or “a great miracle happened there.”
  1. Gold Coins: Better Homes and Gardens describes that the tradition of handing out gelt—the Yiddish word for “money”—dates back to 17th century Poland.  It’s suggested that the gesture relates back to after the Maccabean revolt—the only time Jews were historically free to mint their own coins, in their own state. (More)

If you have some recipes or family traditions of your own, please feel free to share with us!  In the meantime, check out our Pinterest board, where you’ll find fun DIY Hanukkah-inspired activities and more recipes to enjoy this holiday season!