Candles play a major role in two cultural celebrations this month: Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. In one, candles symbolize the history of the Jewish people. In the other, the candles celebrate African culture and principles.
This year, Hanukkah is celebrated from sunset on Dec. 7 through sunset on Dec. 15. The holiday commemorates events in 165 B.C., when the Maccabees drove the Greek-Syrians out of Jerusalem.
“The Greek-Syrians had outlawed the practice of Judaism and desecrated the Holy Temple, which needed to be purified,” explains Alana Aldort, manager of the Bariff Shop at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. The eight candles of the Hanukkah menorah symbolize the “miracle of the oil,” in which one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days.
Families gather together and light a candle in the menorah each night of the eight-day holiday. “The Hanukkah candles are placed in the menorah from right to left. The lights are kindled with the shamash, the helper candle, from left to right with the newest candle lit first,” says Aldort. During the celebration, Jewish families “remember those who fought and died for the ability to practice our traditions and beliefs publicly,” says Aldort.
African Americans celebrate African culture during the seven days of Kwanzaa, which begins each year on the day after Christmas and runs through New Year’s Day. “Kwanzaa began in 1966 as a nonreligious holiday ... to create, recreate and circulate the African culture as a way to build community, enrich black consciousness and reaffirm the grounding for life and struggle,” says Stephanie Davenport, director of educational Services at DuSable Museum of African American History. The museum will host Kwanzaa Karamu, a celebration of the first night of Kwanzaa, on Dec. 26.
Based on the traditional African harvest celebration of the first fruits, Kwanzaa focuses on seven essential principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).
As viewed by an audience, the kinara, which holds the candles, has a black candle in the middle with three red on the left and three green on the right side. The black candle, which symbolizes umoja (unity) is lit on the first day. Over the next six days, alternating red and green candles are lit, says Davenport. While lighting each candle, families reflect on the importance of the day’s value and make statements similar to New Year’s resolutions.
Davenport says Kwanzaa “reinforces community among us and around the world African community. When you reinforce the community, you begin to strengthen the ties of culture, the ties of economics, the ties of unity, the ties of faith and the ties of family.”
Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies is at 618 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, www.spertus.edu, (312) 322-1747. The DuSable Museum of African American History is at 740 E. 56th Pl., Chicago, www.dusablemuseum.org, (773) 947-0600.