It’s a Celebration: The History of the December Holidays

You know it's the season to celebrate, but what exactly are we celebrating? This week, we're breaking down the history of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas.

It’s a Celebration: The History of the December Holidays

You know it's the season to celebrate, but what exactly are we celebrating? This week, we're breaking down the history of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas.
History of Kwanzaa Christmas Hanukkah The Bullet

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Deck the halls, Bullet readers. We’re smack in the middle of holiday mania and those stockings are raring to be stuffed.

But before you reach for the holly and tinsel (or in our case, the spiked eggnog), there’s a lot to learn about the three major holidays that help make this the most wonderful time of year.

Hold onto your reindeer, folks — it’s time to get festive.


Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukkah? However you spell it, one thing is for sure: this eight-day holiday (and inspiration behind this classic ’90s hit) is among the most uplifting celebrations of the year with its emphasis on miracles, the triumph of light over darkness and all the deep-fried food your gut can handle.

• The History of Hanukkah

The story of Hanukkah (which literally means “rededication”) can be traced back more than 2000 years to when a tiny band of Jewish warriors (read: the Maccabees) fought persecution from the tyrant King Antiochus, defeated his massive Greek-Syrian army and liberated Jerusalem.

Led by their leader Judah, the Maccabees embarked on cleansing, rebuilding and rededicating their holy temple that was left in ruins by their enemies. And here’s the miraculous part: Despite only finding one vial of purified oil to light the temple’s holy menorah, the oil burned bright for eight straight days (hence the nickname: Festival of Lights).

• How It’s Celebrated

We’ll bet dollars to donuts that Hanukkah is every Jewish kid’s favourite holiday because it literally involves dollars and donuts.


Children are given symbolic chocolate coins (a.k.a. gelt) to remind them of the importance of charity while deep-fried donuts (a.k.a. jelly-filled sufganiyot) and potato latkes are traditionally served to commemorate the miracle of the long-lasting oil.

The most confusing part about Hanukkah is when it’s celebrated. The date changes every year based on the Jewish calendar — some years it’s celebrated around Christmas and Kwanzaa (more on those later) and sometimes it’s celebrated super early (like this year, when it was celebrated from sundown on Dec. 2 to sundown on Dec. 10).

Hanukkah is also celebrated by lighting an eight-branched candelabra (a.k.a. a menorah), spinning the dreidel and giving out presents on each one of the eight (crazy!) nights.

Sounds pretty matzah ballin’ to us.


If Hanukkah centres around the number eight, this next holiday is all about lucky number seven. That’s right, it’s time to get smart about Kwanzaa.

• The History of Kwanzaa

Started in 1966 by professor of Pan-African studies, Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, Kwanzaa is an annual, non-denominational holiday aimed at commemorating all-things African-American culture, community and tradition.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili term “matunda ya kwanza” meaning “first fruits of the harvest” and is marked by customs that honour the past, celebrate everyday blessings, reaffirm African heritage and emphasize the importance of communal service.

• How It’s Celebrated

On each of Kwanzaa’s seven nights from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, celebrants light candles (one black, three red, and three green symbolizing the people, the struggle and the future) on the seven-branched Kinara.

• The Principles

Every candle represents one of the holiday’s unique core principles, or Nguzo Saba.

  1. Umoja: Unity
  2. Kujichagulia: Self-determination
  3. Ujima: Responsibility and community work
  4. Ujamaa: Building and supporting community businesses
  5. Nia: Purpose
  6. Kuumba: Creativity
  7. Imani: Faith

• The Symbols

In addition to the seven core principles, Kwanzaa also spotlights seven distinct symbols.

  1. Mazao (crops): Representing the joy, thanksgiving and unity that are the fruits of shared labour. To commemorate the Mazao, celebrants place fruits, vegetables and nuts on the Mkeka.
  2. Mkeka (placemat): Just as it underlies the crops, the Mkeka is symbolic of the history and foundation on which people today build their lives.
  3. Muhindi (ear of corn): Representing fertility and the future of family, one ear of corn is placed on the Mkeka for every child in the home.
  4. Mishumaa Saba (seven candles): Each of the seven candles in the kinara represent one of the seven core Kwanzaa principles (see above). The black, green and red candles provide light and symbolize the sun’s power.
  5. Kinara (candleholder): The central symbol of Kwanzaa, kinaras represent ancestry and are placed atop the Mkeka together with other emblems of African heritage.
  6. Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup): During the Karamu feast on Dec. 31, celebrants drink from this ceremonial cup as part of a libation ritual to honour ancestors.
  7. Zawadi (gifts): Presents are given on the seventh and final day of Kwanzaa to encourage growth and success. Handmade gifts are favoured to promote creativity, drive and self-determination.

While Kwanzaa is often viewed as an alternative to Christmas, many celebrants opt to celebrate both holidays making this time of year doubly festive. We can’t argue with that!


From bells that jingle to bellies that jiggle, Christmas has become synonymous with family, celebration and all-around merriment. It’s by far the most widely celebrated holiday of the season and the single best excuse for why you’ve gained (or are in the process of gaining) those five festive pounds.

• The Background

Christmas commemorates the divine birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary and is celebrated annually on Dec. 25 — a tradition dating back to the early fourth century when Pope Julius I declared it so. Christmas is recognized as a federal holiday in every Canadian province and territory and is followed immediately by Boxing Day (just in case you have any money left to spend).

Many Orthodox Christians who follow the older Julian calendar observe Christmas Day on Jan. 7.

• How It’s Celebrated

Christians around the world celebrate Christmas with traditions ranging from ultra religious to decidedly secular.

On the more observant end of the spectrum, celebrants will attend church services and retell the Christmas story, often through a Nativity play depicting the manger where Jesus was born. Another popular and interactive custom is the Advent calendar (we especially love the chocolate variety) which is used to mark the weeks and days leading up to Christmas.

And who could forget the big guy himself? Santa Claus is the symbol most widely associated with Christmas whose origins as a jolly gift-giver (and skilled reindeer pilot) date back to the Christian Saint Nicholas, the British legend of Father Christmas and the Dutch character, Sinterklaas.

Speaking of Saint Nicholas, legend has it he’s responsible for sparking the time-honoured custom of filling Christmas stockings with holiday goodies. The story goes that Saint Nicholas anonymously dropped gold coins down the chimney of a poor widower so he could afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters. The coins fell into the girls’ stockings which were drying on the fireplace and so, the tradition was born!

Those who celebrate typically decorate a fir tree(or a fake fir tree) with garland and ornaments, a throwback to the days when a plant that managed to stay green all year was held in high regard. It was believed that evergreen trees could keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

While spruce, pine and fir have always been a Christmas staple, modern decorated Christmas trees got their start in 16th century Germany. Legend has it thatMartin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was the first to take notice of how beautiful the stars looked twinkling amongst the evergreen trees. To recreate the scene for his family, he added candles to his tree at home.

• The Food

Let’s just say it’s a good thing Christmas falls in the middle of winter so we can pass off our holiday weight gain as an extra layer of warm clothing. Christmas cuisine is not only comforting and delicious, but many of its most popular treats are also decked in holiday tradition.

Gingerbread dates back to the 16th century and Queen Elizabeth I who reportedly commissioned gingerbread men in the likeness of VIPs and others in her court, while the tradition of eating gingerbread specifically around Christmas is at least partly due to all its wonderfully warming spices.

Love it or hate it, fruitcake is another Christmas classic with some serious staying power. Its roots go all the way back to the ancient Romans but it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries when fruitcake ingredients became uber expensive that this dense delicacy became a holiday-only staple.

And no discussion of holiday gastronomy would be complete without eggnog. This frothy favourite — made from a combination of eggs, sugar, milk and (sometimes) booze — is attributed to British nobility who would indulge in spiced warm milk and egg drinks flavoured with pricey liquor during the winter months. (Cheers to that.)

While traditions vary from country to country and household to household, Christmas is generally considered the most festive, family-oriented and food-centric day on the Christian calendar.

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