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Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa – reasons to Celebrate this December

Published:Saturday | December 17, 2016 | 12:00 AMCarl Gilchrist
Some members of the Jewish community in Jamaica celebrating Hanukkah in St Mary in December 2015.

On December 25 each year Jamaica joins more than 160 countries (contributing over two billion people) in celebrating Christmas, a Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ. In a few countries, the occasion is referred to as Family Day, while in some other countries such as Pakistan and Jordan, the day is a holiday only for Christians.

Jamaica, regarded as a Christian country, has a strong tradition in observing Christmas which is considered by some as the 'most wonderful time of the year' not only because of its Christian origins but also because of the spirit of goodwill that it kindles.

Over the years, especially in the last decade or two, Jamaicans have been exposed to other international celebrations that have gradually grown in popularity locally, during the month of December.

Two of these are Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday, which is being celebrated this year from December 24 to New Year's day, January 1, and Kwanzaa, traditionally celebrated from December 25 to January 1.

Whereas Christmas is strictly a religious holiday, despite its increased commercialisation, Hanukkah is the celebration of the triumph of the Jewish people over religious persecution and is considered by many as a cultural and not strictly a religious observance.

Kwanzaa, on the other hand, is a secular festival that is observed by many African Americans as a celebration of their cultural heritage and traditional values. It too, may also be considered a cultural event.

Christmas is generally observed in various ways in Jamaica. Food is an integral part of this celebration, with sorrel drink and fruit cake readily coming to mind, not to mention the special Christmas dinner, which many families take pride in. Decorations also play a major part, with homes, offices, business places and even public spaces being adorned with beautifully decorated Christmas trees. Then there is the gift giving, which is generally preceded by massive spending which culminates on Christmas Eve night in what is called in some towns across Jamaica, grand market. In most major towns, some roads are closed temporarily to vehicular traffic in order to facilitate street vending, while music blares through speaker boxes placed at strategic locations.

Toys, new clothes, electronics and sometimes even cash, are among the more popular gifts.

On Christmas Day, a lot of Jamaicans go to church, Christians and non-Christians alike, but believers just the same.

With the advent of Kwanzaa, first celebrated in 1966, and Hanukkah (to a lesser extent) some Jamaicans who would not necessarily celebrate Christmas, seem to be finding these two celebrations interesting. And in fact, some Christians too, celebrate Kwanzaa.

What Kwanzaa has in common with Christmas is gift giving and feasting. But there are more cultured celebrations, which involves seven core principles


Created by Maulana Karenga as the first specifically African American holiday, Kwanzaa has spread to include the African Diaspora in the West and is not considered an alternative to any religious holiday.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa (and their meanings) are as follows:

Umoja which means unity, Kujichagulia which means self-determination; Ujima which means working together; Ujamaa which means supporting each other; Nia which means purpose; Kuumba which means creativity, and Imani which means faith.

With Hanukkah being a Jewish celebration, participation is limited to the few hundred Jews who live in Jamaica.

Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, (the Hebrew calendar) and this date may fall anywhere from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar which is widely used across the world, including here in Jamaica.

This year, the date for Hanukkah is from December 24 to January 1. Also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched menorah, with one additional light on each night of the holiday, leading to eight lights on the final night.

Despite the decrease in numbers of Jews in Jamaica over the years, Hanukkah is becoming more recognised than before.

Last year, Rabbi Yaakov Raskin and his wife Mushkee, who are directors of Chabad Jewish Centre of Jamaica, located in Rose Hall, Montego Bay, staged Hanukkah at Bamboo Beach Club in Prospect, St Mary, for the second successive year.