Hanukkah and Kwanzaa: Knowing the Holidays

Aidan Altmirano

The holidays are here, the unfolding timeline of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas, and then capping it all off with flaming optimism, New Year’s Day. But other holidays occur in this period as well. Some popular ones that people around you may celebrate are Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Let’s take a look at them; maybe we can learn something.

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday with a lengthy history, according to History.com. Let’s go back all the way to 200 B. C., to a Greek-occupied Jewish nation. The Greek leader, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, confiscated their temple and sacrificed pigs to Zeus on the altar. This was a double blow to the Jews who did not worship Zeus and viewed pigs as unholy. Judah Maccabee revolted and routed Epiphanes’ force. He then rededicated the altar to the Hebrew God. This led in part to the instituting of Hanukkah, but it would not have happened if not for the menorah.

The menorah, a large nine-armed candlestick, was a key part of the Jewish temple. After the revolt, there was not enough oil to keep the menorah burning. According to tradition, it continued burning anyway, for eight straight days. Maccabee, viewing this as a divine miracle, instituted Hanukkah in celebration.

The menorah figures prominently in Hanukkah ritual to this day. One central arm, referred to as the “shamash” or the helper, is lit prior to the celebration. Each day afterwards one more candle is lit until at the end of the celebration, all are set ablaze. Each candle is lit by the flame from the helper.

Hannukkah celebrations involve giving gifts and spinning a four-sided top called a dreidel. Some nice treats include potato latkes (similar to pancakes) and jelly-filled doughnuts called “sufganiyot”. These are fried in oil, also paying homage to the miracle. The festival occurs on varying dates, depending on the Jewish calendar. This year it will be celebrated from December 22nd to 30th.

Kwanzaa is an African American holiday. Founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is much younger than Hanukkah. History.com also reports that the title comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits”. It lasts an entire week with a special feast, called a Karamu, on December 31.

It is distinctly African, drawing on many traditions from that heritage. It celebrates seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. It also has a special candlestick, one additional candle being lit each day of the celebration. It has seven candles which, according to the Offical Kwanzaa Web Site,

Like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa meals often have symbolic meanings. Food Network lists some of them. These meals often have fruits and vegetables to represent the harvest and a chalice to represent unity. Food Network also says that common dishes include curry, jollof rice and others. Kwanzaa is celebrated December 26th to January 1st every year.


These two holidays offer a special perspective on family, life and celebrations. They also offer a unique insight into the Jewish and African heritage that can broaden our minds.