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Celebrating Cultural Holidays

Nov 27, 2017 11:00AM ● By Kimberly Boney

What a Wonderful World

December 2017
By Kimberly Bonéy

In this culturally diverse melting pot that is the United States, the warmth of the holiday season radiates from an array of celebrations that, although different in their structure, rituals and history, are connected through the common thread of love, faith, family and goodwill. Take a journey with us as we get to know a few of the cultural traditions celebrated in America during the month of December. 


Christians worldwide acknowledge this day, Dec. 25, as the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The religious holiday includes the tradition of gift giving, symbolizing the gifts brought by the Three Wise Men to Baby Jesus in the manger. The manger scene is still central to many Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Over the years, many worldwide traditions have combined to bring about Christmas as we know it here in the United States, with beautifully decorated Christmas trees, stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” sipping eggnog by the fire,  caroling, charitable donations to those in need, Santa Claus, warm wishes sent to friends and family through greeting cards, the baking of cookies and pies, and quality time spent with loved ones. 

Eid Milad Un Nabi

This holiday, whose name means “birth of a prophet” in Arabic, is celebrated in some Muslim communities worldwide, commemorating the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. This year’s celebration takes place Dec. 12, although dates vary from year to year. During Eid Milad Un Nabi, some Muslims fast as a way to honor their faith. Celebrants gather for night-long prayer, listen to stories and poetry about the deeds and teachings of Muhammad and enjoy communal meals together. Participation in the communal meals is often extended to non-Muslims as a way to promote understanding of the Islamic faith for those who are not Muslim, while warmly welcoming friends and neighbors to the birthday celebration. Homes and mosques are festively decorated, birthday cake may be served and the streets are filled with people parading in jubilation. Eid Milad Un Nabi is also known as a time of charitable works to those in need.


Hanukkah, Hebrew for “dedication,” is often referred to as the Festival of Lights. This year’s celebration takes place from sundown Dec. 24 through sundown Jan. 1. The eight-day Jewish celebration represents the miracle that took place during the rededication of the Jewish Temple. According to the Jewish faith, there was only enough oil to light the lamp for a single day, but miraculously, it managed to remain lit for eight days. The menorah, the candelabra that has nine candles – one which lights the other eight – is often prominently displayed in the window to honor the miracle. One candle is lit each night after sundown as blessings are recited. The tradition includes sharing foods fried in olive oil and baked goods, potato latkes and sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts) among the most popular. One gift is given to each member of the family for every night of the celebration. Children often enjoy the gift of chocolate coins called “gelt.”  Dreidel, a gambling game that was a secret way of acknowledging the miracle of Hanukkah during a time of oppression, is still common in some celebrations.


This African-American spiritual holiday, Swahili for “first fruits,” was developed in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way to honor the African culture which serves to build and reinforce the African-American community. The non-religious celebration takes place from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. The seven principles upon which the concept was built, collectively known as Nguzo Saba, are Unity (Umoja), Self-Determination (Kujichagulia), Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima), Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa),  Purpose (Nia), Creativity (Kuumba) and Faith (Imani).  The celebration lasts seven nights, with celebrants lighting one candle per night on the Kinara, the seven-pronged candelabra. Each lit candle honors a different principle and that night’s discussion centers on it. Kwanzaa includes story-telling, poetry-reading and a large traditional meal. Gift exchanging isn’t customary, but if gifts are exchanged, they are traditionally handmade. Children are a big part of the celebration, and are often the ones learning and reciting the principles, showcasing the importance of providing a solid foundation for young people. Black, red and green are the primary colors associated with Kwanzaa - the black representative of the people, the red acknowledging their struggle and the green symbolizing hope for the future.  

Las Posadas

A Mexican tradition that means “The Inns” or “The Lodgings” symbolizes the journey of Mary and Joseph to the manger on the night Jesus was born. The nine-day celebration begins Dec. 16 and culminates on Christmas Eve, also referred to as “Buena Noche” or Holy Night. Celebrants travel from house to house until they reach the home where Las Posadas will be celebrated. Children participate in pageants, in which they dress as Mary, Joseph or the Three Wise Men.  Songs and prayers open up the celebration, as Mary and Joseph are finally acknowledged, opening up the way for a jubilee complete with Christmas music, dancing, piñata bashing, sweet edibles and, sometimes, fireworks. Variations on the tradition are celebrated in the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Central America. In northern Mexico, and particularly in Mexican-American communities in the southwestern United States, festivities may include a visit from Santa Claus, a gift exchange and a Christmas tree.