This month, Jewish people will be observing Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Those of African descent will celebrate Kwanzaa, and Christians will celebrate Christmas. And those of us who unabashedly seize any opportunity to gather, connect, and celebrate may choose to revel in the magic of all three holidays!
What may have started as a clever seasonal marketing gimmick over a decade ago (game point, Virgin Mobile) is suddenly extra relevant right now. Because for the first time in roughly 30 years, we’re in for an extra festive landslide as three winter solstice holidays collide! And despite its fictitious beginnings, we’re embracing Chrismahanukwanzakah in 2022.
Chrismahanukwanzakah is a blend, in word and concept, of the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the African-American Kwanzaa. Over the years, the idea has evolved and taken on new life as an inclusive celebration around the December holidays for friends and family of diverse, interfaith backgrounds. It’s often used playfully as a fun way for diverse-minded individuals to honor and respect our multi-cultural world.
Before you start sending out your Chrismahanukwanzakah invitations, consider how much you really know about these individual converging holidays. Because informing ourselves before embracing cultural traditions – even the quirky new-age ones – is the respectful thing to do!
As a former expat with a diverse, interfaith family (and a passionate learner and celebrator of all cultures) I’m here to help. Here is what you need to know about this extra-festive time of year:
Starting chronologically, this year Chanukah comes first, having started on the eve of December 18.
For eight consecutive nights, the Jewish community around the world will light candles, eat traditional foods such as potato latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), spin dreidels, sing songs, and exchange gifts. By eating oil-laden foods and lighting candles, they’ll commemorate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE. They’ll also be remembering the Maccabees, who secured religious freedom from their Greek-Syrian oppressors.
In Mumbai, India, there’s a small Jewish community with 10 synagogues. According to some expats I spoke with who will be joining the celebrations, there will be a lighting of the menorah in front of the Gateway of India. Instead of wax-covered candles as one would see in the US or Israel, in India, the local tradition is to use wicks dipped in coconut oil. And in lieu of potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts (Sufganiyot), traditional Indian milk-based treats enhanced with sweet fruits, called barfi are served.
Christmas, the reigning December celebration in much of the Western world, falls on December 25, and follows many different customs that are familiar to most: tree lighting, mistletoe, gift giving. But depending on location, some assignees are looking forward to lighting the barbeque and decorating palm trees (in lieu of pine trees) in their adopted homes!
While in North America, people traditionally eat ham or turkey, Christmas celebrations in Egypt take place according to the Coptic calendar, on January 7. The traditional feast features many dishes, usually consisting of lamb shanks and fattah, a rice and bread dish steeped with lamb stock. Families typically exchange kahk (a sweet biscuit) as gifts, and friendly informal competitions over whose kahk is best are common. The designs stamped on kahk can be elaborate and are sources of pride for Egyptian families. Kahk molds, typically made from wood or ceramic, are often passed down from generation to generation.
And last but not least, this year, starting on December 26, the 7 days of Kwanzaa begin; each day devoted to celebrating the seven basic values of African culture, or the “Nguzo Saba”, Swahili for “the seven principles”. Translated, these are:
3. Collective work and responsibility
4. Cooperative economics (building Black businesses)
The Kinara is a special candle holder. It holds one black, three red, and three green candles, each representing one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. A candle is lit on each day to celebrate each one of these principles. On the last day, a black candle is lit, and gifts are shared. I am told by one of our expats in the US that Kwanzaa brings together the Black community, not on the basis of their religious faith, but to celebrate a shared cultural heritage.
This assignee observed that similar to Chanukah, Kwanzaa is a cultural observance that acknowledges solidarity with the struggles of the past and “resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” Just as friends and families gather to light the Menorah in Jewish families, so is the Kinara lit by families celebrating Kwanzaa.
Some families eat a special meal each night of Kwanzaa. However, the largest feast takes place on the final evening of January 1. Called karamu, it is also often followed by gift giving. Hmmm, sound familiar?
We all long to belong. And shared celebrations are such an integral part of experiencing belonging. Sure, Chrismahanukwanzakah is an opportunity to celebrate even more beyond your traditional December festivities. But it’s also a reminder of the many similarities each of these holidays hold and how closely intertwined our cultures are.
How do you celebrate and honor your special occasions when far from home? What new traditions have you embraced along the way as your family or community has changed? Let us know!