Global Celebrations


Photo by Natasha Thomas

Red Lanterns are hung during Chinese New Year.

Natasha Thomas and Daniel Lubliner

Chinese New Year marks the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar. Upon China’s adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, the holiday gained another name: the Spring Festival. Each year receives an animal name in accordance with one of twelve Chinese zodiacs: 2019 will be the year of the pig. Each of the animals are associated with different traits that can be used to characterize the year; for example, the good-natured pig symbolizes wealth and good fortune. Celebrations of the new year last for approximately fifteen days between late January and mid-February. It is celebrated around the world in countries with significant Chinese demographics like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the United States, Cambodia, and the Philippines. In the upcoming year, Chinese New Year will occur on February 5th.

Freshman Benjamin Liu explains how he celebrates the holiday.

“We usually get together as a family. My grandparents are very culturally involved, so they are the main reason we celebrate it. Two years ago, we went as a family to the huge celebration in Chinatown,” said Liu.

Aspects of Chinese New Year today have deep roots in mythology. Ancient texts tell the story of the Nian, a man-eating monster who had villagers living in a constant state of fear. One fateful year, the villagers decided they would hide from the Nian. As they were prepared to hide, a brave old man declared that he would seek revenge on the beast that had devoured their friends and families. This development surprised the villagers, but they hid nonetheless. The old man hung red papers up and set off firecrackers, and waited for the Nian to rear his ugly head. The day after, the villagers returned and saw their town perfectly intact. The villagers later realized that the Nian was terrified of the color red and loud noises; henceforth, the villagers would wear vibrant red clothes, light firecrackers, hang dazzling red lanterns, and post red spring scrolls on every door and window in sight to ward off the vile beast. The Nian never returned to the village. Due to the power of red, the Chinese adopted the color as a symbol for their New Year. Thousands of years later, the letters, lanterns, and iconic parade costumes that are synonymous with Chinese New Year burn bright with scarlet red, reminding the Nian that his presence will never return to China.

Unlike many other holidays which originated in centuries past, Kwanzaa was born just over 50 years ago in 1966; during this time, the Civil Rights movement was in progress and sweeping tension encompassed America as various African American groups fought for social change. In response to the racially-tense period following the Watts riots in Los Angeles and many others, a Jamaican-born professor named Maulana Karenga sought to combine traditional African harvest celebrations with the plight of the modern Afro-Americans to create a sense of community and hope. Kwanzaa is named after the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanzaa” which translated to “first fruits of the harvest,” and is modeled after a combination of values from various African harvest festivals including the Zulu and Ashanti tribes.

Kwanzaa’s celebration lasts seven days and each day is associated with one of seven principles, called the Nguzo Saba. The first day, Umoja, commemorates the unity within the family and the community as a whole. Following this is Kujichagulia, which is a promotion of self-determination and individuality. Then, Ujima celebrates collective work and responsibility to help those around them succeed, Ujaama celebrates cooperative economics and a network of businesses that can all profit together, and Nia honors a sense of purpose to bring back the pride and values of the people. The sixth day, Kuumba, celebrates creativity, with the final seventh day, Imani, honors faith in the community, in teachers, and in families as well as the having faith in their struggle for equality.

Kwanzaa is celebrated in many different ways across America. Traditionally, families decorate their homes with colorful African cloth, give thanks to their ancestors, and light flat candle holders called Kinaras on top of celebratory mats known as Mkekas. Kinaras old three red, three green, and one black candle in the center, and are often made from wood. The coloring of the candles has multiple meanings that are attached to them, representing the seven values as well as aspects of African mythology. Black is to symbolize the people and the earth, red is to show the pain and the struggle, and green is to incite hope for the future.

Many holidays are very important to family values, but Kwanzaa’s focus on the people and the community illuminate the roots of their celebrationthe African harvest festivalsas well as the more recent history in the long fight for equality and respect within the U.S. Kwanzaa is wonderfully unique due to these holistic values and its ability to unite and foster pride in those who celebrate, even as hatred and racism worked to tear that apart.

Each candle lit in the Kinara represents a different day of Kwanzaa.

Hanukkah is a well-known Jewish holiday commemorating the reclaiming of the Second Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks. Also known as Chanukah, meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, it lasts for eight days and nights and begins on the 25th of the Jewish month Kislev; this year, it is observed from Dec. 22 to Dec. 30. However, Hanukkah does not always occur this late in the winter season- it can occur anytime from late November to late December, depending on the lunisolar calendar. Traditionally it did not include gift-giving but due to its close proximity to the Christian celebration of Christmas, this has become a part of the holiday.

Hanukkah is commonly symbolized by the traditional chanukiah, featuring nine candle holders. The chanukiah has become synonymous with the menorah, but the menorah holds only seven candles. When the celebration begins, one candle—the shamash—is held higher than the rest and is used to light the other candles. Chanukiahs are lit in homes, synagogues, and public places each night of the celebration following prayers and placed by windows or entrances. On the first night, only the shamash is lit and the shehecheyanu blessing is added to mark the first lighting of the candles; each night after, an additional candle is lit so by the last night every candle is burning. Sophomore Becca Lewis, who celebrates Hanukkah, explains the significance of the chanukiah, which is a staple of the holiday’s tradition.

“It was a miracle because they used the only oil that they had leftover from the destruction to light the menorah, and it lasted eight days. That is why Hanukkah is eight days,” said Lewis.

Hanukkah is celebrated in many ways, but an important part of the celebration is the various traditional foods consumed during this time. Many of these foods are eaten and enjoyed as a representation of a meal of their Maccabee ancestors, and are fried with oil as an homage to the oil that burned all those nights following their battle. Deep-fried pastries dipped in honey, called loukoumades, are a representation of the cakes the Maccabees ate long ago. Latkes are also quite popular during the holiday and are considered one of the most popular Hanukkah foods. These potato pancakes are fried with oil and are often served with sour cream and applesauce.

Most people choose to spend time with their families and loved ones during the Hanukkah nights. Lewis explains how the importance of family is evident during this holiday.

“Hanukkah is very family based, there is a lot of time with family. It’s not about the presents, it’s not a materialistic kind of holiday. It’s more about celebrating the religious factor and the miracle that happened thousands of years ago,” said Lewis.

The Shamash candle lights each of the eight candles in the menorah as Hanukkah progresses.

Diwali, celebrated on Nov. 7 in 2018, is the Indian festival of light. Observed every autumn in the northern hemisphere, Diwali represents the triumph of light over darkness. Diwali first appeared in ancient Sanskrit texts from 2,500 years ago. Different regions of India attribute the victory of the light to different myths; Northern India celebrates the return of King Rama and subsequent defeat of Ravana through the lighting of clay lamps. Southern India believes the light of Diwali is rooted in the defeat of Narakasura by Lord Krishna. Western India’s festivities occur on the day Lord Vishnu condemned King Bali, a demon, to life in the netherworld. Historical differences aside, the defeat of a dark figure by a figure of positivity and moral goodness is a common theme in the primary three regions; therefore, the celebration of light over dark, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil is universal to the holiday. In observance of Diwali, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist people around the world light DiyaIndian oil lamps—and place them in and around the boundaries and entrances of their homes. Offerings, called Puja, such as prayers, invocations, and rituals are presented to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity in order to attain spiritual prosperity and material abundance. Desserts, known as mithai, are shared among friends and families. Diwali also marks a major shopping period in India. As the holiday nears, those who partake in the festivities rush to stores to buy new clothes, materials for renovation, gifts for loved ones, jewelry, and other extravagant items. After all, the festival is dedicated to Lakshmi, the aforementioned goddess of wealth and prosperity. Ultimately, quality offerings are ideal if one is to achieve good fortune and prosperity in the upcoming year. Eventually, preparations and rituals peak on the third night of the festival. This third night is the darkest night of the Hindu lunisolar month Kartika; thus, the festival of light reaches its climax on the darkest day of the month. Sophomore Suparna Kompalli explains what Diwali means to her, and how she celebrates.

“I’ve done Diwali for as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a tradition that has carried along for a long time; it’s very important to me that I keep doing it throughout my life. We have get-togethers with the whole Indian community in the Bay Area, usually we invite friends and family over.” said Kompalli. She goes further in depth, elaborating on how her family celebrates Diwali.

“We’ll rent out a place, and have food. My favorite part is lighting the candles, and you draw stuff on the ground with chalk, and you put the candles around the drawings, called rangoli. It’s a lot of bright colors.”