American Holiday Celebrations for December
People of America
American Culture Training in Holiday Customs
Holidays in America
The major federal, religious, traditional, and informal holidays celebrated in the United States.
* These holidays begin at sundown on the evening before the date given.
Eid al-Adha (Dec. 9)
Winter begins (Dec. 21)
1st Day of Hanukkah (Dec. 22)
Christmas (Dec. 25)
1st Day of Kwanzaa (Dec. 26)
First Sunday of Advent
Four Sundays before Christmas
Advent is the season in which the faithful must prepare themselves for the coming, or advent, of the Savior on Christmas. The four Sundays before Christmas are marked by special church services.
Advent has probably been observed since the fourth century. Originally, it was a time when converts to Christianity readied themselves for baptism.
During the Middle Ages, Advent became associated with preparation for the Second Coming. In early days Advent lasted from November 11, the feast of St. Martin, until Christmas Day. Advent was considered a pre-Christmas season of Lent when Christians devoted themselves to prayer and fasting. The Orthodox Eastern Church observes a similar Lenten season, from November 15 until Christmas, rather than Advent.
Many Christians still view Advent as a season to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus. In the last fifty years, however, it has also come to be thought of as a time of anticipating the Nativity, on Christmas Day.
Advent wreaths have their origins in the folk traditions of northern Europe, where in the deep of winter people lit candles on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreen. Both the evergreen and the circular shape symbolized ongoing life. The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the longer days of spring.
Later, Eastern European Christians adopted this practice. By the sixteenth century, they were making Advent wreaths much as we know them today. An advent wreath traditionally contains four candles-three purple and one rose. Purple dyes were one so rare and costly that they were associated with royalty; the Roman Catholic Church has long used this color around Christmas and Easter to honor Jesus. The three purple candles in the Advent wreath symbolize hope, peace, and love. These candles are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose candle, which symbolizes joy, is usually lit on the third Sunday.
Sometimes a fifth candle is placed inside the Advent wreath. This candle is lit on Christmas Day. It is white, the color associated with angels and the birth of Jesus.
An advent calendar is a card or poster with twenty-four small doors, one to be opened each day from December 1 until Christmas Eve. Each door conceals a picture. This popular tradition arose in Germany in the late 1800s and soon spread throughout Europe and North America. Originally, the images in Advent calendars were derived from the Hebrew Bible.
Considered a fun way of counting down the days until Christmas, many Advent calendars today have no religious content. Now, alongside traditional Advent calendars depicting angels and biblical figures are those whose doors open to display teddy bears, pieces of chocolate, or photos of pop stars.
25th of December
Also known as the Feast of the Nativity, the most widely celebrated holiday of the Christian year, Christmas is observed as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Christmas customs are centuries old. The mistletoe, for example, comes from the Druids, who, in hanging the mistletoe, hoped for peace and good fortune. Comparatively recent is the Christmas tree, first set up in Germany in the 17th century. Colonial Manhattan Islanders introduced the name Santa Claus, a corruption of the Dutch name St. Nicholas, who lived in fourth-century Asia Minor.
By 336 A.D., the Christian church in Rome celebrated the festival of Christmas on December 25. The same day, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). In observance of the "birthday of the unconquered sun," they exchanged gifts and made merry with a festival. On the Roman New Year (January 1), people decorated houses with greenery and gave gifts to children and the poor. Evergreens were a symbol of survival.
Modern-day Christmas borrows many of these traditions. St. Nicholas became a popular figure by the 11th century, known for his great generosity and healing powers. With the rise of the Protestant Church, he was nearly forgotten, except in the Netherlands, where they called him Sinterklaas.
Dutch colonists settling in New Amsterdam (now New York City) brought the story of St. Nicholas with them. In English, he became known as Santa Claus. Added to the legend of this kind old man were old Nordic folk tales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The Santa Claus we recognize in the U.S. today, with his red suit, jolly laugh, and long white beard, began to appear in story and song in the 19th century.
Some children write letters to Santa at the North Pole asking for things they want. Some leave milk and cookies out for St. Nick the night before. Some families attend morning mass, while others gather around a Christmas tree to open brightly wrapped boxes.
10th day of the Islamic calendar month of Dhu'l-Hijjah
Also known as the Feast of Sacrifice commemorates the Prophet Abraham's willingness to obey Allah by sacrificing his son, Ishmael. According to the Qu'ran, just before Abraham sacrificed his son, Allah replaced Ishmael with a ram, thus sparing his life. Lasting for three days, it concludes the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims all over the world celebrate, not simply those undertaking the hajj, which for most Muslims is a once-a-lifetime occurrence.
The festival is celebrated by sacrificing a lamb or other animal and distributing the meat to relatives, friends, and the poor. The sacrifice symbolizes obedience to Allah and its distribution to others is an expression of generosity, one of the five pillars of Islam.
25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev
Also known as the Festival of Lights, this festival was instituted by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 B.C. to celebrate the purification of the Temple of Jerusalem. It had been desecrated three years earlier by Antiochus Epiphanes, who set up a pagan altar and offered sacrifices to Zeus Olympius. In Jewish homes, a lamp or candle is lighted on each night of the eight-day festival. It starts on the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev with blessings, games, and festive foods. Hanukkah celebrates the triumphs—both religious and military—of ancient Jewish heroes.
Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish year. In the United States, however, its closeness to Christmas has brought greater attention to Hanukkah and its gift-giving tradition. Amid the ever-growing flood of Christmas advertising, it may seem especially fitting that the Hanukkah story tells of Jewish culture surviving in a non-Jewish world.
The Hanukkah Story
Nearly 2,200 years ago, the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV tried to force Greek culture upon peoples in his territory. Jews in Judea—now Israel—were forbidden their most important religious practices as well as study of the Torah. Although vastly outnumbered, religious Jews in the region took up arms to protect their community and their religion. Led by Mattathias the Hasmonean, and later his son Judah the Maccabee, the rebel armies became known as the Maccabees.
After three years of fighting, in the year 3597, or about 165 B.C.E., the Maccabees victoriously reclaimed the temple on Jerusalem's Mount Moriah. Next they prepared the temple for rededication—in Hebrew, Hanukkah means “dedication.” In the temple they found only enough purified oil to kindle the temple light for a single day. But miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days.
The lighting of the menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiya, is the most important Hanukkah tradition. A menorah is a candle stand with nine branches. Usually eight candles—one for each day of Hanukkah—are of the same height, with a taller one in the middle, the shamash (“servant”), which is used to light the others. Each evening of Hanukkah, one more candle is lit, with a special blessing.
The menorah symbolizes the burning light in the temple, as well as marking the eight days of the Hanukkah festival. Some say it also celebrates the light of freedom won by the Maccabees for the Jewish people.
Long a favorite Hanukkah toy, the dreidel once had a serious purpose. When the Syrians forbid study of the Torah, Jews who studied in secret kept spinning tops—sivivons, or dreidels—on hand. This way, if they were found studying, they could quickly pretend that they had only been playing.
Outside of Israel, a dreidel has the Hebrew letters “nun,” “gimel,” “hay,” and “shin” on its four sides. These letters stand for “Nes gadol haya sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there,” referring to Israel. An Israeli dreidel has the letter “pay” rather than “shin.” This stands for “poh,” meaning “here”—“a great miracle happened here.”
The Hebrew letters also represent Yiddish words that tell how to play the dreidel game. Each player starts with the same amount of candies, chocolate coins (gelt), or other tokens, and puts one in a pot. Players take turns spinning the dreidel, waiting to see which letter lands face up. Nun is for “nisht,” nothing—do nothing. Gimel is for “gants,” whole—take the whole pot. Hay is for “halb,” half—take half. Shin is for “shtel,” to put in—add to the pot. The game ends when a single player wins all the tokens.
Many traditional Hanukkah foods are cooked in oil, in remembrance of the oil that burned in the temple. In the United States, the most widespread Hanukkah food is latkes, or potato pancakes, a custom that may have developed in Eastern Europe. In Israel, the favorite Hanukkah food is sufganiya, a kind of jelly donut cooked in oil. Israelis eat sufganiyot for more than a month before the start of Hanukkah.
Eating dairy products, especially cheese, is another Hanukkah tradition. This is done in memory of the Jewish heroine Judith, who according to legend saved her village from Syrian attackers. Judith fed wine and cheese to the Syrian general Holofernes until he became so drunk that he fell to the ground. She then seized his sword and cut off his head, which she brought back to her village in a basket. The next morning, Syrian troops found the headless body of their leader and fled in terror.
26th of December
The name comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits of the harvest." This secular seven-day holiday was created by Black Studies professor Dr. Maulana "Ron" Karenga in 1966 in the United States. At this time of great social change for African Americans, Karenga sought to design a celebration that would honor the values of ancient African cultures, inspire African Americans who were working for progress and serve as a communal celebration among African peoples in the diaspora.
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor is it meant to replace Christmas. Kwanzaa is based on the year-end harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years. The name comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits of the harvest." Karenga chose a phrase from Swahili because the language is used by various peoples throughout Africa.
The year 2007 will see the 42nd annual Kwanzaa, the African American holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It is estimated that some 18 million African Americans take part in Kwanzaa.
Nguzo Saba- The Seven Principles
Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa honors a different principle. These principles are believed to have been key to building strong, productive families and communities in Africa. During Kwanzaa, celebrants greet each other with "Habari gani," or "What's the news?" The principles of Kwanzaa form the answers; Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.