By Sarah Massah
The holiday season encompasses a variety of cultural celebrations, with Christmas at the forefront for many residents in Metro Vancouver. When fully immersed in all things red, green and shimmery, it’s easy to forget that there are other celebrations happening on the blustery, winter days in December. By taking a step away from the forest of decorated trees and gingerbread houses, there is an opportunity to partake in traditions celebrated worldwide in our very own neighbourhood.
People of the Jewish faith celebrate eight days of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights. The celebration starts on the 25th day of Kislev – the third month of the civil year and the ninth of the religious year for people in the Jewish community.
The celebration marks the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem following a battle with Greek-Syrian oppressors thousands of years ago, according to Michelle Price, a member of the White Rock/South Surrey Jewish Community Centre.
“There was no religious freedom and they were not allowed to practise (Judaism), so it was hidden and they rose up against it with a small army,” said Price. “When they got back their temple, they wanted to light their holy lamp, which needed oil. They only found a little bit of that oil that would last for one night, but they miraculously found that there was enough oil for eight nights. So now, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights.”
Because the oil played such a significant part in the story, it is prominently used to make food during Hanukkah, such as latkes (fried potato pancakes, see page 34 for a recipe).
“Sometimes a group of women will get together and make (latkes), and when you fry them, the delicious smell permeates all over the home,” Price said.
In another homage to the oil, it is tradition to light the menorah, which is similar to a candelabra but has nine arms.
The eight candles represent the eight nights of Hanukkah and every night a candle is lit. The one candle that stands apart is known as the shamash or “attendant” and is used to light the eight candles.
“Lighting the menorah is quite emotional. We stop everything in the house and we’ll dim the lights and the music will go quiet and we’ll light the menorah,” Price said. “Each of my daughters will light their own and that’s just our tradition.”
After lighting the menorah, it is tradition to sing hymns or songs – most traditionally the hymn Ma’oz Tzu.
Although Price said Hanukkah does not traditionally have an abundance of decorations like Christmas does with the trees, mistletoe and lights, she has noticed more options for those who do want to go all out for the holiday. Stores now carry Hanukkah-themed wrapping paper with patterns of menorahs and other holiday symbols and decorations to put on windows and and doors. But for those who lean towards tradition, the lights, oil, food and games are the most important elements.
One particular game that uses a dreidle – a four-sided spin top imprinted with a Hebrew letter on each side – is played by children during Hanukkah. The letters (Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin) are an acronym for the Hebrew words ‘Nes Gadol Haya Sham,’ which means, ‘A great miracle happened there,’ referring to the oil that lasted eight days in the temple.
Although there is plenty of fun to be had during Hanukkah, the message behind the celebration is an important one, said Price.
“It’s a celebration of Jewish survival and religious freedom and the power that we all have the right to practise our own religious beliefs,” Price said. “There is a word, L’dor V’dor, which means ‘from generation to generation.’ It’s quite moving to know my parents are still alive, I’m still alive and I’m letting my children know what my beliefs are. I would hope it would continue when they’re adults.”
The winter solstice begins in Canada when the northern hemisphere starts its tilt back toward the sun, slowly leading to longer days. On winter solstice, which will be on Dec. 22 this year, the earth tilts as it orbits around the sun, putting the northern hemisphere farthest away, making it the shortest day of the year and marking the official start to winter. Although winter solstice is often overlooked around the holiday season, ancient civilizations considered it one of their most important celebrations. In ancient Rome, winter solstice was celebrated with the Saturnalia, a major holiday with feasts and gift-giving that lasted between three to seven days. Norseman in Scandinavia would celebrate Yule, which would be on a date determined by the Lunar Germanic calendar. Eventually, the term Yule would become a part of Christian beliefs and Christmas, but before that the Norse people would also celebrate with food and drinking, as well as sacrifices to their gods.
Although winter solstice is not widely celebrated in the modern day, there are still remnants of the holiday to be found. On Commercial Drive in Vancouver, there is the annual Winter Solstice Lantern Festival on Dec. 21.
Kwanzaa is fairly new to the holiday scene, first celebrated in 1966-1967. The weeklong celebration is more common in the United States (where it originates) and honours universalAfrican-American heritage and culture. Kwanzaa – which was created by Maulana Karenga, an American activist and professor – is observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 each year and activities during the celebration include gift-giving and feasts.
The celebration includes what Karena called the seven principles of Kwanzaa or ‘Nguzo Saba’, the seven principles of blackness. These principles include: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Family), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). The seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. For each principle, there is a day of celebration.