Kwanzaa uses symbols to remind people of African ancestry to be proud of their heritage.
As we approach the end of the year, we find ourselves on the brink of multiple holidays observed by a diversity of Americans. Each one of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas and Yule is marked by its own traditions and symbols. These unique emblems will be our focus here.
Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 by Ron Karenga. Its purpose is to give people of African ancestry in the U.S. a community ritual that unites them while they celebrate the other winter holidays with people of different ethnic backgrounds. The three symbols of Kwanzaa we will touch upon are the number seven, the pan-African colors and fresh fruits.
The number seven is important to Kwanzaa because of the principles it enumerates: umoja (unity), kujichaguila (self-determination), ujima (collaboration), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).
The language of Kwanzaa is Swahili, an Eastern African language used in various countries as a common means of communication. When celebrating Kwanzaa over the course of a week, repetitions of seven remind participants of these principles.
The pan-African colors are red, black and green. This color combination can be seen in many African flags and acts as a symbol of unity across political boundaries. Red symbolizes the “noble blood that unites all people of African ancestry.” Black is symbolic of the ethnicity of the people in the community. Green represents “the rich land of Africa.”
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of the consecrated oil that burned for eight days in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Matunda ya kwanza is Swahili for “first fruits.” The bounty of the earth and the fruitfulness of the cultures it supports are remembered through decorations made of assembled fruits and vegetables.
Hanukkah’s most famous symbol is the menorah. Here we will speak briefly on the story surrounding its use, the number of candles used and the reason for one candle being in a place of distinction compared to the others.
Hanukkah is the festival of lights. The lights referred to in particular are the fires lit in the Temple of Jerusalem. At the end of the Babylonian captivity the Hebrews were led by a family named Maccabee. Upon regaining their independence the Maccabees entered the temple to relight the eternal flame that once burned there.
However, it was discovered that there was only one day’s worth of oil and it would take eight days to harvest, press and consecrate a new batch. The flame was lit and miraculously burned all eight days while more oil was prepared.
In remembrance, each evening over the course of eight nights candles are lit at sundown. So, why do menorahs have nine candles? The central candle (called shammash) is raised in a place of prominence. This is the lighting candle used to light all the others. For this reason there is always one extra candle burning — two candles are lit the first night, three candles on the second, etc.
Each evening prayers and meditation accompany the candle lighting as participants consider the meaning behind the festival. Menorahs are not meant to provide light to homes, but to be an external light that lets passers-by know the occupants are united in a common faith.
Christmas and Yule share many symbols. Christianity migrated to areas occupied by European pagans who already had winter festivals in place. Evergreen décor, lights and Santa Claus figures (complete with mounted rides and helpers) all make appearances in Christmas and Yule.
Christmas uses a blend of pagan and Christian symbols, such as the Yule log. Yule is a time to make plans for the
Yule was particularly common in parts of Europe heavily forested by pine and fir. Decorating homes with the boughs of trees and shrubs not only lent them color and fragrance, these items also served as a reminder that life was merely sleeping beneath blankets of snow. Evergreens were a symbol of the continuity of life through dark times.
Christmas lights are a reference back to Yule logs. The logs were burned as participants ate and celebrated and each spark was seen as representing a calf or lamb that would be born in the coming months. Fire served to remind people that the sun would be reborn in the spring (much in the way the “Son” would be resurrected in the spring).
Santa Claus is a Western combination of the main Norse god Odin, a wanderer who was celebrated at winter festivals during the last hunt of the season, and St. Nicolas, a Turkish saint known for his anonymous gift giving.
Odin had a flying horse named Sleipnir. Children would put straw, carrots or sweets in shoes or baskets near doorways or fireplaces as treats for Sleipnir to encourage Odin to stop and leave gifts for the children.
Rudolf, secret presents and stockings on mantle places derive in part from these traditions. As with several Christian holidays, the imagery is deeply connected to pagan sources and thus it becomes difficult to talk about one without including the other.