Written by Eric Seitz
Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are traditional winter celebrations. We take a deeper look at the origins of each holiday’s popular symbols and aesthetics.
The holiday season is here, and the typical symbols of the impending holiday season surround us — red, green, blue and white herald December’s arrival. Many metropolitan areas — Cleveland included — are decked with grandiose Christmas trees, ornaments, colorful lights and hopefully a bit of snow. Our city and campus represent a diverse melting pot of people, and students are lucky enough to be exposed to many different cultural celebrations. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are among the holiday celebrations observed by students at Cleveland State. The aesthetics vary from celebration to celebration; read along to discover the origins of each.
We’ll start with the most popular holiday celebration, Christmas. Christmas is celebrated by 90% of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. Christmas trees can be seen dotting residential front yards, storefronts and inside many businesses during the year’s final months. The classic symbol of holiday cheer originates from Germany, dating back to the 16th century. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought Christmas trees—or Tenenbaums—to America in the 19th century. At first, Christmas trees were considered an oddity and took quite a while to catch on, due to the Puritan value of eliminating frivolous elements in celebrating the birth of Christ. Christmas trees did not become very popular until Queen Victoria and her family were depicted in the news, standing next to a Christmas tree. Because of Queen Victoria’s immense popularity, the Christmas tree soon became a staple in an increasing number of homes during the holiday season.
Interestingly, Americans typically have bigger trees than Europeans and have since the Christmas tree’s rise in popularity. Decorating the trees with ornaments began in Germany with dried fruits and items found in nature. In America, commercial organizations quickly caught onto the potential for increasing their capital in a new Christmas tradition. Ornaments of every color, shape and size began cropping up in businesses across the nation. Now, ornaments can commemorate a special trip, memories and milestones. Decorative ornaments are available as well!
Christmas lights adorn fences, trees, bushes, and almost every other surface one can wrap a string of lights around. Although these lights do not relate directly to Christmas, they often go hand-in-hand with Christmas aesthetics. The origin of Christmas lights begins not with electricity, but fire. Candles once sat upon the branches of Christmas trees but would soon be replaced by Edward Johnson with the Christmas lights we’re familiar with today. Candles were a little problematic as they were prone to starting fires, especially when wired onto a tree. Johnson made bulbs to replace the dangers of the candles on a tree, but they took a while to gain traction. The bulbs were bulky and expensive. Grover Cleveland popularized Christmas lights after he lit the White House Christmas tree with lights, which had recently been made more accessible and affordable by General Electric.
Mistletoe is another facet of Christmastime aesthetics, and a hallmark of nearly every Hallmark Christmas movie. Mistletoe’s romantic lore began with the Celtic Druids, as its ability to bloom in the winter symbolized vivacity. Kissing under the mistletoe most likely hails from an old Norse legend that depicted the gods reviving Odin’s son, Baldur, from the dead. Frigg, the goddess of love implored plants and animals to revive Baldur, and when he was risen, Frigg declared the mistletoe a symbol of love and promised to kiss anyone who passed beneath it.
Hanukkah is another holiday that has specific symbols and aesthetics attached to it. This year, Hanukkah will begin the evening of December 10, and end the evening of December 18. The menorah is most strongly associated with Hanukkah, and it is used during the eight day celebration, and each day a new candle is lit. This originated in the Israelites’ escape from slavery. Today, menorahs are available in different styles and makes. The dreidel is another interesting symbol associated with Hanukkah, a spinning top-like instrument. The dreidel song is familiar to almost all children, regardless of religious affiliation, but the origin story is not one typically shared in the same way.
The dreidel began as a “toy” rabbis and faithful Jews employed to study the Torah, a practice that had been outlawed by the Greeks and was punishable if caught. The Hebrew letters embossed on each side of the dreidel read nun, gimmel, hey and shin. Contrary to popular lore surrounding the explanation behind the letters, such as their connection to kingdoms that tried to destroy the Jewish religion, the letters and dreidel itself existed and been played with around the world in several different languages.
Switching gears, Kwanzaa is next on the list. Kwanzaa as a celebration, along with all of its symbols, originated in Los Angeles in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman for Black Studies at California State University. He wanted to instill a way for the African-American community to come together after the Watts riots. The Watts riots were a series of riots that took place in Watts, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. The riots lasted six days, and resulted in 34 deaths, and numerous injuries and arrests.
Keep yourself educated on celebrations that differ from your own, and you may just learn something you didn’t know before.
Kwanzaa includes several symbols, including mazao, mkeka, vibunzi and muhindi, mishumaa saba, kinara, kikombe cha umoja, and zawadi. The first of these, mazao, is a mat that the rest of the following symbols will rest on. Vibunzi and muhindi is a singular stalk of corn. This stalk of corn represents fertility and family.
Mishumaa saba are the candles that rest upon the kinara. There are three red candles, three green candles, and one black candle. These stand to pay homage to and represent the Pan-African flag. The kenara is the candleholder, similar to the menorah, that houses the mishumaa saba. Kikombe cha umoja is a cup of unity that promotes giving thanks to African ancestors. Lastly, zawadi are gifts. These gifts are given to those close to one, especially in the family.
No matter what you’re celebrating this season, enjoy the coziness and aesthetics across the board! Keep yourself educated on celebrations that differ from your own, and you may just learn something you didn’t know before. Take time to appreciate the beauty surrounding us in this season.