December celebrations for all. Today is December 23. The Hanukkah celebration has concluded, Christmas is two days away, and Kwanzaa is three days away. December is a month of celebrations with traditions that lead us through the days. As I prepared for our own family Christmas I suddenly realized that the celebration of each of these holidays involves plants, plants which are essential in one way or another.
Hanukkah is a moveable feast because, like Christian Easter, it depends on the sun to set the celebratory date. This year the eight days of Hanukkah began on December 12. I celebrated a day early when I read a story about Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, to first graders at Four Corners School. The dreidel played a part in the story – and the children taught me how to play dreidel.
The dreidel is a four sided top with four Hebrew symbols for the words nun, shin, gimmel, and hey. A common gelt in this game is chocolate coins and every one starts out with an equal number with a pot of gelt in the center. The player who spins the dreidel and get nun, doesn’t get or lose any gelt; when the shin symbol comes up the player gets two gelt; gimmel and the player gets all the gelt in the center; and hey makes the player put two gelt in the pot. As he started to play with me, one very serious boy, explained that this is not a game about winning. And I could happily accept the idea that it is about sharing the chocolate gelt.
Playing dreidel was a rousing way to conclude my reading session, but the book made clear that the celebration was a commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees over a greater Greek army in 165 BC. The Holy Temple had been greatly damaged, but when the temple was purified and ready for rededication there was only enough holy oil to keep the seven branched menorah burning for one day. The miracle was that this bit of oil kept the menorah burning for eight days, when more holy oil was ready. The oil was olive oil, and olive trees were an important part of agriculture and cuisine in Israel.
The solemn lighting of menorahs, and the joy of frying up and eating delicious latkes could not happen without olive oil
Christmas has many plant symbols, but the most common might be the Christmas tree. As early as the 12th century Paradise Plays were performed in Germany in December on what some considered the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. Set in the Garden of Eden, where fir trees were arranged and ornamented with fruits, the play told of their sin and banishment, but it ended with the promise of a Savior.
There is another story, not proven, that Martin Luther was walking home through the forest on Christmas night. He was struck by the beauty of the evergreens, with their boughs touched with snow, and the brilliant stars above. When he arrived home he put up a little fir tree and decorated it with candles for his children to celebrate the Christ Child’s birth.
However it began the German Christmas tree custom was carried to England when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria – and thence to other parts of the world including the United States where there is a substantial business in growing Christmas trees..
Kwanzaa is a new December celebration created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Kareng, a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Originally, Dr. Kareng thought to replace Christmas for the black community and bring them together in their own special celebration, but the meaning shifted over time. Now it is a holiday that the black community can celebrate in ways referring to their own original culture without denying their religious beliefs. The celebration focuses on family, community and their culture, which includes the Swahili language, a lingua franca language used in many parts of Africa allowing the different areas to communicate with each other.
Like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is a week long celebration beginning on December 26 and ending January 1. A kinara, candle holder, on the holiday table with seven candles reflects the Seven Principles including unity, self-determination, cooperation and creativity.
The Kwanzaa celebratory table is set with the colors of black, red and green, the colors signifying the people, the struggle and the future. Corn, Muhindi, is placed on the table, a symbol of the children and the future. Kwanzaa is such a new holiday that the menu is not as specific as that for Christmas and Hanukkah but it might include chicken, hoppin’ john made with black eyed peas, rice and some ham, or sweet potatoes in any form. These are foods that anyone who enjoys Southern soul food would welcome at a Kwanzaa feast.
I hoped to describe a Muslim December celebration but when I spoke to Liza Lozovaya, the Muslim Chaplin at Mt. Holyoke College she explained “there are no Muslim holidays celebrated in December . . . In Islam we follow the lunar calendar so there are no fixed dates for any holiday. Ramadan and both Eids will be celebrated in December with the movement of the dates – but not at this point.”
And so, today as I prepare for my Christmas family celebration, I wish joy to all in their celebrations, in December and every month of the New Year.
Between the Rows December 23, 2017
Since my column ran in the Greenfield Recorder on December 23, I got a nice note from Diane Kurinsky. She corrected and added to my description of the dreidel game, and really explained what the game was about. As the little boy told me, it is not about winning. I did want to let you know that your explanation of what a dreidel is is slightly incorrect. The four sides of the dreidel have the four Hebrew letters : nun, gimmel, hay and shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew sentence: ness gadol haya sham which means, a great miracle happened there. It is meant to remind us of the miracle of the lights. It is said that in ancient times when studying the Torah was forbidden by the Greeks, the dreidel was used to disguise Torah study by allowing players to make it look like they were playing a game instead of discussing scripture. I am always happy for corrections and additions so I look forward to more of these comments from all my readers. Happy New Year!