posted on Dec. 22: ‘Tis the season: Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa


[img_inline align=”right” src=””]The month of December is notable for containing four religious observances.

For Muslims observing Ramadan, it is a month-long period of self-reflecting and fasting. For Christians celebrating Christmas and for Jews celebrating Hanukkah, it's a time for remembering an important historical event. For persons of African origin, Kwanzaa is a harvest celebration.


Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar, began on November 27. Fasting is its main focus. The daily period of fasting starts at the break of dawn and ends with the setting of the sun. During the daylight hours, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex. Typically a Muslim will have a light meal before dawn and a dinner after sunset.

For many Muslims, Ramadan is a time of intensive worship, for reading the Qur'an, for charity and good deeds. The last 10 days are believed to be a time of special spiritual power as everyone tries to come closer to God through devotions and good deeds. The 27th night is known as the Night of Power for it is the night when the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet, Mohammed.


Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights or Feast of Dedication. Beginning on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month, Kislev, it lasts eight days and is notable for exchanging gifts and making contributions to the poor. Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of the Jews over the Maccabees in 165 BC, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.

Traditional symbols include the menorah and latkes. The Hanukkah menorah contains nine candleholders, and one candle is lit every night of the festival. Latkes, or potato pancakes, are the most commonly prepared food served during the festival. They are fried in oil, symbolizing the miracle of the oil which burned for eight days.


The word Christmas comes from Cristes maesse, an early English phrase that means “Mass of Christ.” While customs differ from country to country, they all centre on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ almost 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. Although no one knows the exact date of Christ's birth, most Christians observe Christmas on December 25, the day that ancient astronomers thought was the winter solstice. During the Christmas season, gifts are exchanged and homes decorated.

Probably the most recognized symbol is the Christmas tree. The evergreen tree has been an important part of winter celebrations in pagan festivals for many centuries. Even the Romans used to decorate a tree with trinkets and candles for a festival called Saturnalia. The use of a Christmas tree indoors appears to have begun in Germany. The idea was popularized by the English Royal Family when Prince Albert and Queen Victoria decorated the first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841.

Another symbol, Santa Claus, also has its origins in early times. Saint Nicholas (270-310) was bishop of Myra, a town in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas, who is remembered for his great generosity, is supposed to have died on December 6. In some countries of Europe, children put out their shoes and hang up their stockings on the night of December 5 and, early next morning, rush to see what gifts Saint Nicholas left for them.


Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” In Africa, the success of the harvest is dependent upon the whole community working together. At harvest time, all the members of the village join together to celebrate and give thanks for their good fortune. Not surprisingly, food is a major part of Kwanzaa festivities. The seven-day festival, which begins on December 26, ends on New Year's Day.

In 1966, Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga adopted these harvest celebrations to create a United States-based observance of Kwanzaa. While the majority of African-Americans do not live in an agricultural setting, Karenga recognized that the basic principles found in the traditional methods of producing the community harvest are vital to building and maintaining strong communities. More than 20 million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the United States, Canada, England, the Caribbean and Africa.

The highlight of Kwanzaa is Karamu, the main feast held on the last evening, December 31. Families gather and celebrate the closing of Kwanzaa with prayers, songs, dance and toasts to their ancestors. Traditional African dishes, with ingredients such as yams, sesame seeds and hot peppers – along with modern African-American variations – are served. The room is often decorated in the black, red and green colors of Kwanzaa. The table setting includes a candle holder for seven candles (one black, three red, and three green), a placemat made of straw, a crop item (vegetable), ears of corn to match the number of children in the family, a communal cup, and gifts.

Photo: This Winter Night sketch by Ashlee Calder is one of 14 sketches arranged in the window of the Health Sciences Bookstore ( in the Ewart Angus Centre. The display of artwork is a joint project of Bookstore buyer Marlene Monster and Cheryl Petkoff, a child life specialist with the McMaster Children's Hospital. Monster wanted to decorate the bookstore for the festive season and spoke with Petkoff about the idea. Petkoff arranged for the chalk and black construction paper drawings by several young artists in the Children's Hospital.