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Learning Diversity Through Celebration and Observances

Rebecca Serviss

The holiday season is upon us once again; a time when in a world that seems very uncertain, people can come together safely to celebrate and observe in unity.

2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year bringing us obstacles, anxiety, and hope. Almost anyone can agree that they are eagerly awaiting the holiday season to spread some joy for the remainder of this atrocious start to a new decade and usher in new year of optimism and opportunity.

One of the ideas to consider is to learn about holidays from other cultures, not only to connect with your colleagues, but to continue to absorb ways to diversify and accept different cultures from around the world.

Diwali (Nov. 14th-19th)

Diwali is the biggest and most important holiday of the year in India and is the closest comparison to Christmas for Hindus. India’s “Festival of Lights,” Diwali, gets its name from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) placed outside the home to symbolize the inner light that protects from spiritual darkness.

Diwali is celebrated over the span of five days and traditions vary depending on the region of India’s culture. All observers follow the five-day routine. The first day is when people clean their houses and shop for gold kitchen utensils to help bring good fortune to the home. Day two is decorating day, when people scatter their homes with clay lamps and create design patterns, known as rangoli on floors by using colored powders and sand. The third day dedicated to prayer and feasting, when families gather together for Lakshmi puja, a prayer to the Goddess Lakshmi, ending the night with beautiful fireworks festivities. Day four is the first day of the new year, when friends and families visit each other and bring gifts and best wishes for the new year. The last day is filled with more visits and feasts.

Stories of the holiday’s origin vary by region as well. People from northern India celebrate the story of the defeat of Ravana by King Rama, who lighted rows of clay lamps and his return to Ayodhya. In southern India, the day marks the defeat of the demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna. Western India has a unique Diwali origin story of its own as well.

Throughout time, Diwali has been enjoyed by many people around the world no matter their religious or cultural background. For example, in Jainism, Diwali is the spiritual awakening (nirvana) of Lord Mahavira, which took place on October, 15 572 B.C.E. In Sikhism, the day celebrates the day that Guru Hargobind Ji was freed from imprisonment. The holiday is also celebrated by Buddhists in India too.

Thanksgiving (Oct. 12th – Canada/ Nov. 26th U.S.A)

Thanksgiving is a staple of both Canadian and American culture, celebrated two different times during the fall season. It symbolizes the harvests and feasts the pilgrims had with the Native Americans when they first arrived to the new world.

Both holidays are filled with feasts consisting of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, corn, and plenty of that sweet cranberry sauce with everyone not afraid of stuffing it all inside their mouths and gaining a few pounds in the process, saving the new year’s resolution workouts for 2021.

In America, some of the festivities include watching the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, the National Dog Show, and some good old-fashioned American football. No matter what team you’re rooting for, it’s always something to look forward to while preparing the holiday feast.

Hanukkah (Dec. 10th – 18th)

In Judaism, Hanukkah is known as its “The Festival of Lights” and celebrates the miracle that a small, limited amount of oil used to keep the candles burning during the weekly Sabbath lasted for eight nights. It’s also a holiday to remember the end of religious persecution by the Greeks, who ruled over the land of Israel around 200 B.C.E., forcing the Jewish people to part ways with their traditions and ways of worship and adapt to Greek culture.

Hanukkah begins on the twenty-fourth night of the Hebrew month of Kislev and one of the main traditions of this week-long holiday is the lighting of the menorah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. Eight candles represent the eight nights of the Festival of Lights and one helper candle, called the Shamash, is used to light the others. Each candle is lit as the days progress starting from the right side of the menorah and by the last night, it adds a fully festive glow to the dark night atmosphere.

Many Hanukkah traditions vary depending on the distinct culture of Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Eastern European Decent) and Sephardic Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and African decent). Ashkenazi Jews celebrate the holiday by making latkes, potato pancakes that are fried in oil to represent the miracle of the oil. On the other hand, Sephardic Jews, especially those of Israeli decent make sufganiyot, which are traditional powdered, jelly doughnuts solely sold in Israel throughout the duration of the holiday.

When many Americans think of Hanukkah, they think of Adam Sandler and eight crazy nights of presents, but Hanukkah only became a gift-giving holiday during its Americanization during the early 1900s when Eastern European Jews started immigrating to the United States and began witnessing the country’s Christmas traditions.

Another tradition that varies depending on where you live is the game of dreidel, a spinning top with Hebrew letters on it. For all countries, except Israel, the letters on the dreidel are Nun נ, Gimmel ג, Hay ה, and Shin שׁ. These letters stand for “nes gadol haya sham,’” which in English translates to “a miracle happen there,” however, in Israel, the letter Shin שׁ is replaced with a Pey פּ, changing the meaning to “nes gadol haya poe, a miracle happened here,” because the miracle actually occurred in the land of Israel. Players gather around in a circle and place a piece of gelt, a gold coin, into the middle and each player takes a turn to spin the top. If someone lands on Hay ה, the player takes half of the amount of gelt in the center. Landing on Gimmel wins the entire pot of gelt, Shin requires the player to put another piece of candy into the pot, and Nun means the player gets nothing.

Christmas (Dec. 25th)

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the messiah for Christians and some branches of Catholicism. This is the holiday that brings most of the world together in peace and harmony. Shops and restaurants are shut down for the day for everyone to go and celebrate with family and friends.

Celebrations and preparations begin the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday, when millions of people rush to malls and stores to shop the biggest holiday sales of the season. Especially in the era of COVID-19, many of these purchases are expected to take place online at retailers like Amazon. If you are planning to go in person, it is important to take extra precaution and plan ahead as many stores are most likely to have capacity limits. The best idea to tackle holiday shopping this year is by ordering online and having your packages delivered home, to the store for curbside pickup, or straight to your loved one’s home.

Aside from the holiday shopping rush, celebrations begin with picking out a Christmas tree as the holiday centerpiece for the home. Families gather around and decorate the tree with tinsel, lights, and plenty of holly for the Christmas Eve arrival of Old Saint Nick, or as most people know him, Santa Claus and his magical reindeer.

People are greeted the morning of Christmas with presents under the tree and perhaps, an empty glass of milk and cookie crumbs in the kitchen. Families gather around the tree and unwrap their presents together, usually sipping some hot chocolate in their pajamas.

Those who are more religious will usually go to church, but this year, many should expect Christmas Mass to be held virtually this year to discourage crowds and further prevent the spread of COVID-19. The night usually concludes with a traditional Christmas feast, similar to Thanksgiving with a Christmas Ham and plenty of side dishes and desserts to choose from.

One of the best and safest ways to celebrate Christmas this year is with a Christmas movie marathon leading up to the day. There are so many titles to choose from like family comedies like “Elf,” to classic films like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Create a lineup and save the bests for last. You can even plan a virtual streaming party with friends and family.

Kwanzaa (Dec. 26th – Jan. 1st)

The holiday of Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which translates to English as “first fruits.” This seven-day, African-American cultural celebration is unique to how each family celebrates it but usually includes traditional dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, a large feast, and the lighting of the Kineara, a candelabra similar to a Hanukkah menorah, but contains seven candles.

During the candle lighting ceremony each night, starting with the black center candle, it is tradition to discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba (seven principles) and seven symbols.

Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) Courtesy of history.com

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagula (Self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujuma (Collective Work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problem our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamma (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity: 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.
  • Imani (Faith) To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The Seven Symbols:

  • Mazao (The Crops): Symbolizes the historical joyous foundation of Kwanzaa and how people gathered for the African harvest festivals. Usually, its represented by fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
  • Mkeka (Place Mat): The cloth the place mats are made from traditionally are from Africa to represent history, culture, and tradition because it is the foundation for people to build their lives off of.
  • Vibunzi (Ear of Corn): Represent fertility and hopes of creating families for future generations
  • Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles): Symbolizes the sun’s power and provides light. Each individual candle represents each of the seven principles. The black candle symbolizes Umoja, the three green candles represent Nia, Ujima, and Imani, and the three red candles represent Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba.
  • Kinara (The Candelabra): Represents the our ancestry and to learn from their problems and mistakes to protect against danger and evil.
  • Kikombe Cha Umoja (The Unity Cup): Used to perform tambiko, a libation ritual during the Karamu feast on the sixth day of the celebration. In many African societies, libation are poured for the living dead, whose souls continue to stay on earth.
  • Zawadi (Gifts): On the seventh day, gifts are given to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement, and success.

Wrap up

The holiday season is going to look a lot different than it has in previous years. With COVID-19 still making an impact worldwide, it is important to have fun and celebrate, but safely. It may not be the best idea to invite the entire family over or even travel in these conditions, but don’t let it stop you from trying virtual get-togethers with loved ones.

There have been a lot of reminders of problems with diversity in our world and one of the best ways to make other feel welcomed is embracing their culture and traditions. Do some research and some holiday greetings and traditions from around the world and wish your friends and coworkers a happy holiday when it comes around. This is one of the best ways to connect with each other and remind them that they’re not alone.

If you’re looking for some ways to shake up the holiday season this year, try out some of the different cultural traditions and put your own spin on it. Google recipes for each holiday and have some safe fun at home. Decorate your house with lamps, menorahs, tinsel, and holly. Pose for some selfies in your favorite ugly sweater and take some time to rejoice and relax because we all deserve it.

2020 hasn’t been anyone’s year, but everyone is ready to part ways with it and usher in the new year ahead filled with endless possibilities and hope for a better future.

One day, we will be able to celebrate together again, but for now, Happy Holidays and please remember to stay safe!

November 25, 2020

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