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Why we celebrate: How the December holidays are unique on their own but bind us together

Happy Holidays
Posted at 12:43 PM, Dec 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-06 12:43:52-05

ATLANTA — December is a month full of holidays, from religious to secular. Each is special in its own way, but as a whole they tell us so much about why we celebrate.

We talked to a variety of strangers and experts about the holidays we embrace:

CHRISTMAS: DECEMBER 25

When we walked up to Haylee Gould and Tim Martin to ask for their thoughts on the holidays they celebrate, we didn't realize they were on a first date.

"I think it's going pretty well," Gould said. Then Martin added, "Definitely you showing up made it lot more interesting."

As befits two people on a first date, their visions of Christmas had some common ground but their own distinct flairs.

"Christmas is always a happy time in my household," Gould said. “We usually start decorating. We make cookies to give to our neighbors. It's just more about spend time with the family together.”

Martin said he also saw Christmas as a family holiday, but it's one where he chooses to look outward.

“Around Christmas time, I'll think about what I would like for Christmas," he said, "but then it gets me thinking, 'What would other people want? What would what do people need in their life?' So, I'll start doing stuff like that.”

Of course, the roots of Christmas are steeped in faith. That faith was described by two other individuals we met: Karyn Newstead and David Huffman.

"It's the birth of Jesus," Newstead said. "We feel that it’s a time of renewal and that he’s come to save us. We feel that Christmas is a time to renew your faith, to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to honor each other.”

Huffman echoed this. “Christmas is very much a celebration of the gift of Jesus to the world by God."

But he also added a special sense of joy for this holiday: "We're celebrating life because we just had a new granddaughter literally a month ago and we're celebrating that life - and all the lives that we're able to touch.”

As widespread and meaningful as Christmas is, that meaning can vary depending on the person. Brittany Baker spoke of the timing of the holiday.

"It's time to spend time with your family," she said, "and take time from work. We're really a society where you really are grinding all the time. And so for everybody to take a pause, that's unique. And so, that's why the holidays are important or special to me is that everybody takes a break.”

HANUKKAH: (dates vary every year)

When we speak with Mackenzie Sherman and Rabbi Brian Glusman, Hanukkah is halfway over. It's early this year, wrapping up Monday, December 6th, at sundown.

But while the eight days of Hanukkah vary from year to year, the holiday always arrives sometime in late November or December, in the season known for another holiday.

“With Hanukkah falling in a season where Christmas is here," Sherman said, "you assume that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas, and it is not.”

Instead, Hanukkah is a historical holiday. "It represents a moment in Jewish history," Rabbi Glusman said. "A small band of Jews fought for religious liberty and religious freedom."

It's also a celebratory holiday, featuring the lighting of a menorah, the passing of gifts, and the eating of a variety of oil-based foods.

“This is the festival of light," Rabbi Glusman said, "and that light represents the potential that each of us has of becoming a beautiful and significant light. It means that we each have the opportunity to bring light and warmth and love to this sometimes dark and broken world we live in.”

Sherman spoke about themes that popped up regardless of holiday: family and time.

“it just makes our really convenient time to sit and to have memories," Sherman said, "and to recap and plan for next year. No matter what you're celebrating and how you're celebrating it. It seems to be a pretty dramatic throughline to be with your family and be with your community.”

KWANZAA: DECEMBER 26 to JANUARY 1

Like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is a holiday that takes place over an extended period: in this case, seven days.

Unlike Hanukkah - and unlike Christmas, Kwanzaa is a modern holiday barely a half-century old that celebrates not a religion but a persevering spirit.

“You don’t have to have a particular religious affiliation," said Yolanda Jack of Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. "You don’t have to have a particular nationality. You have to have a certain sensibility.”

Kwanzaa began in the 60s as the creation of a teacher in California. It celebrates Pan-African principles but, as Jack said, "is fully an American holiday." It has gained great momentum in recent years as an expression of pride and principles.

"I don’t care what background you come from," Jack said. "Every practice, every human understands self-determination. We take the seven days to celebrate these principles that have been at the crux or the optimism and hope.”

Jack continued: "There are seven symbols of the Kwanzaa table. So if you’re going to celebrate Kwanzaa, one of the first things you should do is to have those seven symbols. We do give gifts, and the gifts are representative of acknowledgment of goals achieved, promises kept."

Ultimately, she said, "It’s a new holiday, but this holiday is celebrating principles that are old as humanity.”

AND MANY MORE ...

December brings a variety of holidays beyond the three that garner the most attention. Bodhi Day, on December 8th, is a Buddhist celebration of "the day of Buddha's enlightenment," according to resident priest Reirin Gumbell of the Milwaukee Zen Center. Pancha Ganapati is a five-day Hindu festival from the 21st to the 25th. The Winter Solstice is the cause and catalyst of numerous holidays.

So, many of these days arrive during the darkest days of the year. They can be about family, celebration, religion, and reflection. But so often, they revolve around light.

“The common thread that brings all of the holidays together is the theme of light," Rabbi Glusman said. "It's no coincidence that all of our winter holidays take place during these days when our days are at their darkest.”