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Herriman Journal

 December holidays beyond Santa Claus and the Nativity

Dec 16, 2021 09:45AM ● By Karmel Harper

The community candle lighting to celebrate Hanukkah at Sue Tice’s synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Sue Tice.)

By Karmel Harper | [email protected]

From colorful lights and gingerbread to holiday music and candy cane decor, December in Utah generally signifies Christmas. While most Utahns celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, others celebrate different December holidays such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Yule.

Hanukkah

Sue Tice of Kaysville celebrates Hanukkah and shared what the holiday means to her family. 

“After the Temple was desecrated and then recaptured, it was then re-dedicated on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 164 BCE and made holy again.  This is why Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah beginning on this day every year which usually occurs sometime in November or December.  Hanukkah lasts for eight nights which is a recognition of the holy oil that was found and thought to be only enough for one night but actually burned for eight nights.  

“We also eat fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly donuts) for this holiday to commemorate the miracle of the oil.  In our house, as in many other Jewish households, we say the prayers each night before lighting the candles that represent whichever night of Hanukkah we’re celebrating. The reason there are nine candles is that one of them is called the Shamash, or helper candle, which is used to light the others.   We also play dreidel which is a top with a Hebrew letter on each side representing the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which is Hebrew for "a great miracle happened there," referring to the miracle around which Hanukkah is centered. We use Hanukkah gelt when we play dreidel which are foil covered chocolate coins.  

"Another tradition we take part in is to exchange small gifts each night which is an American Jewish phenomenon established in the early 1900s. We also participate in a party that our synagogue holds every year.  While there we have a community lighting of everyone’s candles.  

"Hanukkah is a joyful holiday, although a minor one in the lexicon of Jewish holidays.  It’s a reminder that the darkness of winter can be pierced and banished with the lights of Hanukkah,” Tice said. 

This year, Hanukkah is Nov. 28 - Dec. 6. 

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, which is a Swahili word meaning “first” and signifying the first fruits of the harvest, is an annual celebration of African-American culture that is held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually held on the 6th day. Malunga Karenga, professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a response to the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Karenga's hope was to use Kwanzaa as a means to bring African-Americans together as a community. 

During the week of Kwanzaa, seven core principles are discussed: 1) Umoja: Unity, 2) Kujichagulia: Self-Determination, 3) Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility, 4) Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics, 5) Nia: Purpose, 6) Kuumba: Creativity, and 7) Imani: Faith. 

Kwanzaa also incorporates seven core symbols: 1) Mazao: Crops, 2) Mkeka: Place Mat 3) Muhindi: Ear of Corn, 4) Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles (3 red, 3 green, 1 black), 5) Kinara: The Candleholder,  6) Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup, and 7) Zawadi: Gifts.

Yule

Yule is a centuries-old winter festival beginning on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, An ancient Germanic tradition to honor the god Odin, Yule had been celebrated long before Christianity emerged. According to Kate Bishop who works at Salt Lake City’s Crone’s Hollow shop, Yule is mostly celebrated by pagan, heathen, and the Wiccan religions. 

“The celebration means saying good-bye to the old and welcoming the new year and new birth,” Bishop said. Customers at Crone's Hollow  come from all over the valley, from Herriman to Davis County, even out-of-state residents. Many practice these religions and come to the shop to purchase their Yule decor. Common items include  red, green and silver cloths, a chalice, and a drinking horn for their Yule altar, as well as decorations such as fir, pine, holly and other evergreen foliage to celebrate life and rebirth. 

Many Christmas customs today originate from Yule. The burning of the Yule log originally symbolized the sun and spring’s imminent arrival, but the modern interpretation is associated with beacons guiding the Christ child. The Christmas tree was seen as a symbol of continual life, especially at the time of solstice. Other evergreen plants such as holly and mistletoe were also solstice traditions first. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe originates from Norse mythology. 

Layton’s Emily Burton and her wife, Ashley, who practice Heathenry, the Norse version of Pagan, celebrate Yule by feasting, baking, and decorating the tree. “As part of our feasting and decorating, a portion of what we eat is left for the Gods. They don't actually ‘eat’ our offerings, just enjoy the essence and the smell. We basically ask the Gods for good health during the winter months,” Burton said.

While December ushers in various customs, the common threads of  joy, family, new life, and tradition are cause for celebration and gatherings, in whichever form is meaningful to us.

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