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The phrase “Happy Holidays” is often spoken this time of year and for good reason. There are dozens of holidays observed in November and December across religions, cultures, ethnicities, and nations. (While many of these groups observe different calendars, November and December refer to the last two months of the Gregorian calendar.) Some of those holidays have transcended their cultural roots and are engrained in secular and popular culture, but others are not as well known outside of their observers. Many of those are celebrated right here in the Mahoning Valley.

Woman with lit earthen lamp, a diya, at Diwali Festival; Subir Basak; courtesy Getty Images
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Diwali (Deepavali, Dipawali, or Divali) is a five-day Festival of Lights that is celebrated by millions of Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs in India and around the world. The name has Sanskrit origins and means “rows of lighted lamps”. The roots of the Festival are varied across traditions with the victory of good over evil at the heart of each. Families place diyas, oil lamps made from clay, around their doors and windows to bring light in. In the Gregorian calendar, Diwali typically falls between mid-October and mid-November.

Krishna Battles the Armies of the Demon Naraka: Page from a Dispersed Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Stories of Lord Vishnu); courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art; public domain
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In northern India, people celebrate King Rama’s return to the city of Ayodhya after defeating the demon King Ravana by lighting a row of lamps. King Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, was exiled for 14 years. This story is told in the “Ramayana”, an ancient Sanskrit epic written between the 6th and 7th centuries BCE. In southern India, the story centers on the day that Krishna defeated Narakasura. Narakasura was a demon that held 16,000 women captive before Krishna, another incarnation, or avatar, of Vishnu, set them free. In western India, it is the day that Bali was sent to the netherworld by Vishnu.

In Jainism, the festival marks the date that Mahavira reached the final stage of enlightenment and knowledge, or nirvana. Mahavira was the last of the Jain Tirthankaras, spiritual leaders of dharma, or the righteous path. Mahavira’s dharma, established in the 6th century BCE, set the standard followed by Jains around the world. Sikhs celebrate the freedom of Guru Hargobind in 1619.

Across each culture and faith, Diwali is marked with fireworks and lights, and homes are decorated with candles, often in clay pots. Families often leave windows and doors open to help Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, find her way in. The Festival features five days of distinct traditions. On the first day, families clean their homes and often purchase gold or new kitchen utensils. Observers decorate their homes on the second day with diyas and rangoli. Rangoli is a colorful design on the floor created with sand, powder, rice, or flowers. Prayers for Lakshmi are the main focus of the third day along with feasts and fireworks. The fourth day marks the first day of the new year with visits to friends and relatives. The fifth day is dedicated to siblings who gather with food, gifts, and parties.

Some Indian confectionery desserts, mithai, from hundreds of varieties; photographer Sam Sharma
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A main focus of Diwali feasts is sweets, or mithai. At the Sri Lakshmi Narayan Temple of Youngstown, located in Girard, Ohio, participants go to the temple and their Priest leads the Pooja, or prayer to Lakshmi. “Then we have a big feast that is sponsored by devotees and we also do very basic fireworks.”

Armed National Guardsmen force a line of Black men to stand against the wall of a building during the Watts riots in 1965; courtesy Hulton Archive via Getty Images
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Light is a theme that threads its way through many holidays throughout the season, including Kwanzaa. The Pan-African and African American holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a response to the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Over the course of six days, 34 people were killed with more than 1,000 injured during the racially charged protest. It started as a traffic stop when 21-year-old Marquette Frye, an African American man, was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer. The scene erupted with more than 33,000 people involved and nearly 3,500 arrests as protesters fought to bring attention to racial discrimination by police along with discrimination in housing and schools.

Dr. Karenga’s goal was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday [Christmas] and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” Karenga added, “Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality. Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa.” The word comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits”. It is said that the extra “a” was added when seven children wanted to be involved in the holiday’s first celebration, each with their own letter. The number seven, though, has much more significance in the holiday.

There are Seven Principles, Nguzo Saba, of Kwanzaa and they serve as the focal point for each of the seven days. A candle represents each principle and one is lit each night.

Umoja: Unity – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Kujichagulia: Self-Determination – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility – To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and solve them together.

Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia: Purpose – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba: Creativity – To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani: Faith – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Lighting the Mishumaa Saba; courtesy NY Daily News via Getty Images
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In addition to the Seven Principles, there are seven core symbols:

Mazao (The Crops): These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.

Mkeka (The Mat): This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.

Kinara (The Candle Holder): This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people – continental Africans.

Muhindi (The Corn): This is symbolic of our children and our future, which they embody.

Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup): This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity, which makes all else possible.

Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles): These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the matrix and minimum set of values, which African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.

Zawadi (The Gifts): These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.

Karamu is a feast held on the sixth night complete with traditional African foods like beans, rice, chicken, and sweet desserts. The Zawadi are exchanged on January 1, the final day of the holiday celebration. Homemade gifts are incredibly common and encouraged, typically with a focus on education or art. Many participants wear traditional African clothing throughout the holiday, or the colors of the Pan-African flag: red, black, and green.

A group of children perform an African folk dance during a Kwanzaa celebration in New York, 1995; courtesy photographer James Leynse via CORBIS
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The Christmas season is joined by several other Christian observances, mostly in the Roman Catholic Church. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception falls on December 8 and celebrates the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Mary was conceived without original sin, a belief that other Christian Churches do not follow. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates The Feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary on December 9. These are both part of the Advent season which Christians observe as the anticipation of Jesus’s birth.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, or Twelvetide, celebrates the Christmas season beyond the birth of Jesus. Epiphany marks the visit of the Magi to Jesus. The National Shrine of St. Jude notes that the Feast of Epiphany is typically celebrated on January 6. “The Wise Men – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – were the first people outside of the stable to come and pay homage to Jesus. These unlikely royal visitors showered Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, herbs typically used for burial, possibly foreshadowing Jesus’ destiny.”

There is a holiday that falls on December 26 that many people question – Boxing Day. No, it has nothing to do with fighting, the number of empty boxes after Christmas presents are opened, or even the amount of boxes returned to stores. Boxing Day has roots that go back hundreds of years when wealthy land and manor owners would gift small boxes to their servants and staff.

The Adoration of the Magi, 1904, by Edward Burne-Jones; public domain
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Typically, the boxes were filled with leftovers from the manor’s Christmas celebration. Another origin might be the alms boxes that filled churches during the Advent season. The money and items donated was then given to the poor and less fortunate. Today, folks observe Boxing Day by visiting friends, watching sports, and eating leftovers. December 26 is also known as Saint Stephen’s Day, Day of Goodwill, or Second Day of Christmastide.

Many other cultures and faiths have holidays and celebrations this time of year but their dates change in the Gregorian calendar. For more information about other calendars, stay tuned for our next Time Capsule post, “Many Calendars, Many Traditions: New Year’s Around the World.”