Season Of Celebration

By Valerie Lemke

September 5, 2008 6 min read


A guide to other festivities, from Thanksgiving to New Year's

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

As the days grow short and the weather crisp in much of the United States, Americans enter into what is known as "the season." It's that time from November to early January when, in addition to Christmas, no less than five very different holidays occur.

Thanksgiving and New Year's Day are bookends: holidays that loosely mark the beginning and end of both the religious ceremonies and the revelry. Some holidays date back thousands of years, but joyous Americans celebrate many of them.

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. The first U.S. Thanksgiving in 1621 set the tone, with Pilgrims and the Native Americans who supported them in the New World gathering around a table to give thanks for the first harvest. Unlike current traditions, there was a major part of it the holiday that was religious.

Today, the holiday is first and foremost food-based, offering a timeless menu. Guests can usually count on turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pies. But there are surprises, too.

Drawing upon their own traditions, families run the gamut when it comes to the trimmings. Dressing can be corn, sage, sausage or apple-based. Sweet potatoes can be baked or topped with marshmallows; cranberries can be whole, jellied or ground into relish. Lines are drawn in the sand over gravy and green bean casserole is traditional or eschewed. Lasagna is as important as the turkey in Italian families, as is ambrosia where Southerners gather.

While Thanksgiving lasts but one day (plus sandwiches, of course), Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday with beginnings more than 2,000 years ago. It may occur from late November to late December, depending on the Hebrew calendar.

The holiday, which is also known as the "Festival of Lights," celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem following a victory over the Syrians and the "miracle of the oil," when a small amount of oil kept candles lit in the temple for eight evenings. A menorah, the familiar Hanukkah candelabra, is placed in a window to remind others of the miracle and, one by one, candles or lights are lit and prayers said at sundown each evening of the holiday.

In addition to the sundown ceremony, many Jewish families celebrate with an exchange of gifts and foods that are either fried or baked in oil. In some non-traditional households, Hanukkah cards and a Hanukkah bush are also part of the holiday. This year Hanukkah begins at sunset December 21 and ends at sunset December 29.

Kwanzaa, created 42 years ago to honor African-American heritage, is a week-long harvest festival held from December 26 to January 1. Each festival day is dedicated to one of the Kwanzaa principles: Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Still-evolving traditions include decorating the home in the official holiday colors of red, black and green and lighting candles each day. The holiday ends in feasting and gift-giving.

Although numbers vary, it is estimated about 4.7 million African-Americans currently take part in Kwanzaa festivities. "Kwanzaa has become a household word," Makeda Dread-Cheatom, executive director of the World Beat Cultural Center in San Diego, Calif., said.

The center hosts an ever-growing festival annually. While the holiday is only once a year, adherents work to keep Kwanzaa principles every day, Dread-Cheatom said.

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are the culmination of the five holidays. The first celebration of a new year occurred in ancient Babylon about 4,000 years ago -- although it was celebrated in the beginning of spring until the time of the Romans. However, New Year's Eve and Day are by far the oldest of any of the world's holidays and the most widely celebrated.

While staying up and watching television as fireworks and cheering crowds greet the New Year, you'll see the scope of a celebration that literally circles the globe. Dazzling pyrotechnic displays emanate from such major cities as Prague, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York City, Sydney, Hong Kong and Dubai.

Given its venerability, New Year traditions abound, no more so than in the United States. Looking back and looking forward, people make resolutions, throw confetti, dine and drink champagne and watch the ball drop in Times Square. Across the country, people on New Year's Day watch the Rose Parade broadcast from Pasadena, Calif. or a football game. Some families have a final holiday feast that includes black-eyed peas, a Southern tradition that's supposed to bring luck in the New Year.

Somewhere during those hours, many will also pause and lift a cup for "Auld Lang Syne," the traditional Scottish song that is sung all over the world for the holiday.

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