You’ve Heard of Them, But Here’s What Hanukkah and Kwanzaa Actually Are

There’s a reason they call it the holidays.

It’s because there are more than one. Most Americans are aware that “the holidays” include Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. And in the recent past, lesser-known holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa have gained recognition as part of the diversity of the season.

Yet, many people still don’t know much about what those holidays actually are. The names are familiar, but outside of certain Adam Sandler songs, the celebratory details elude the general public.

Since you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in what these holidays are all about, so let’s get right to it.


Hanukkah this year begins on the night of December 12 and continues through December 20. All in all, in lasts eight nights, and there’s a very good reason for that.

The celebration finds its origin in the rededication of the Second Jewish Temple after the Maccabean Revolt in the second century BC. After Jewish religion was outlawed by the governing Greek-Syrians in Judea, the Jews fought back under the leadership of Judah Maccabee. Stunningly, they drove the Syrians out of the area.

The Jews reclaimed their beloved Holy Temple, and in the wake of the victory, Maccabee urged the people to cleanse and rededicate the temple. Only a small amount of olive oil was available to light the temple’s menorah, yet the oil miraculously lasted eight days until new oil could be obtained to keep the flames burning without stopping.

Hanukkah celebrates these events, and particularly the miracle of the oil. In response, Jewish celebrants have incorporated several elements into the holiday:

1) Lighting the menorah – Just as this was done in the temple, celebrants light one candle of their menorah each of the eight nights and display the menorah in windows and other public areas. There are nine places for candles in the modern menorah, but one is used to light the others in turn, one each night.

2) Gifts – Today, children are given all manner of gifts during Hanukkah, but traditionally, they were given money. This money was called gelt and was meant as positive reinforcement for good behavior and religious study. This tradition also gave way to the production of “chocolate gelts,” which are chocolates wrapped in foil in the shape of coins.

3) Eating fried foods – Here’s one Americans can fall in love with! Since oil played such a prominent role in the Hanukkah story, celebrants now each several types of food fried in oil. The most common foods are “latkes” (fried potato pancakes) and jelly-filled doughnuts.

4) Dreidels – Lots of people have heard of dreidels, but have no clue what they are. Sewing machines? Outfits? Utensils for scooping soup?

None of the above. Dreidels are actually toys. Specifically, they are spinning tops with four sides, each of which displays a different Hebrew letters. The top spins and lands on one of the letters, and there are different outcomes based on the result. Altogether, the letters are an acronym that means “a great miracle happened there.”


According to, “Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966.”

The celebration was “created to introduce and reinforce seven basic values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community.”

The seven basic values are as follows (in Swahili and English):

  1. Umoja – Unity
  2. Kujichagulia – Self-Determination
  3. Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility
  4. Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
  5. Nia – Purpose
  6. Kuumba – Creativity
  7. Imani – Faith

There are also seven symbols, such as crops and a unity cup, that coincide with the principles.

Kwanzaa lasts seven days to emphasize each symbol and principle. It is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 each year.

There are even some similarities with Hanukkah. Celebrants light seven candles of different colors each year. The colors are representative of African gods and aspects of life (e.g., struggle, creativity, and hope). Additionally, celebrants give out gifts to encourage self-determination and Umoja (unity).

Boxing Day

And then there’s Boxing Day, which is basically just Post-Christmas.

Celebrated mostly by a handful of English-connected countries (such as New Zealand and South Africa) on December 26, the holiday originated when churches would open their offering or alms boxes to give to the poor. Some churches still do this today.

Whatever the celebration, happy holidays everyone!

By: Ryan Drawdy
December 12, 2017

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or suggestions of CenterState Bank.