Holiday traditions across cultures

By Victoria Snell

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is a celebration lasting 15 days and takes place either in January or February, depending on the lunar calendar.

Hui Wang, senior in LAS, described Chinese New Year as a holiday similar to Christmas but without a religious connotation.

“It’s more like the biggest festival we have, (with) all the families getting together,” Wang said. “(If family members work) somewhere far from home (they) will come back home to get together.”

Wang explained that fancy dinners and a national television show take place each year. The television program showing a festival with singing, dancing and fireworks, all of which have a traditional meaning behind them.

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    “There is a monster and the way you do the fireworks is to scare them away,” she said. “And it just means a new start, a new beginning.”

    Because Wang is an international student at the University, she said she hasn’t returned to China for the celebration in a few years. However, she said she remembers everyone wearing red during the festivities.

    According to the History Channel’s website on Chinese New Year traditions, red envelopes, called “hong bao,” are, “filled with money” and “typically only given to children or unmarried adults with no job.”

    Wang described that this money gets placed under the child’s pillow on New Year’s Eve, so that he or she has luck and something to start off the new year.


    Kwanzaa started in 1966 when Dr. Maulana Karenga was looking for a way to bring African-Americans together after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. The celebration is seven nights long and includes songs, dances storytelling and poetry.

    Among many symbols is the Seven Candles, or “Mishumaa Saba.” Explained by the History Channel, the two purposes behind the candles are to provide light and recreate the Sun’s power.

    The seven candles represent the Seven Principles of African culture, “which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans,” according to the Channel’s website. The seven principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The colors of the candles (red, green and black) represent the colors of African gods and the principles. The single black candle is lit Dec. 26 and represents the principle of unity and the beginning of Kwanzaa.

    Overall, the candle-lighting process lasts all seven nights that Kwanzaa is celebrated, and is meant to bring everyone together to discuss the meanings of Kwanzaa.


    Hanukkah is a Jewish celebration that lasts eight days and begins Dec. 16 this year. The holiday falls on the 25th of the third month “Kislev” within the Hebrew calendar.

    Tori Weinstein, junior in LAS, explained that the Menorah is an important symbol in the miracle that occurred long ago, when the Maccabees, the Jewish army that fought against oppression from the Seleucid Greek government, succeeded in the revolution and rededicated the sacred temple. It was customary to light the Menorah every night in the Jewish temple, but because of the war, there was only enough oil to last one night. However, the oil burned for eight days, just enough time for new oil to be prepared for the Menorah.

    “You light the candles to remember each day that the oil lasted longer than it was supposed to,” she said. “So every day that you’re lighting the candles, it’s another day that the light lasted.”

    Weinstein also explained that oil takes an important role when it comes to traditional foods. Both Latkes, potato pancakes that are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah, as well as jelly donuts, otherwise known as a “Sufganiyots” in Hebrew, are cooked in oil.

    Weinstein said the oil used to fry these foods is another reminder of the Hanukkah miracle.

    “The importance of frying the food,” she said. “It’s kind of a custom in remembering the oil.”

    Gift giving has become a tradition that Weinstein said was adopted from the American tradition during Christmas. However, it’s customary for children to receive gelt, or chocolate gold coins, from parents and family members.

    Las Posadas

    Las Posadas is a celebration lasting nine days, which begins Dec. 16, generally in Latin America and Mexico. Posada is Spanish meaning “shelter,” which plays a part in the tradition of the holiday.

    During Las Posadas, singing and praying is done within neighborhoods and families. Processions with people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, will enter a different family member’s home each night.

    The number nine, representing the nine days of the holiday, represents the nine months that Mary carried Jesus, or, alternatively, the nine-day journey to Bethlehem.


    Christmas is a holiday with both religious and commercial implications. Natalie Novak, junior in Social Work, explained that Christmas is the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, which is celebrated on Dec. 25.

    Among traditions, candy canes have had a history beginning in 1670. Better Homes and Gardens Magazine said that the tradition begun when a German choirmaster gave sugar sticks to his singers, and “he bent the sticks to resemble shepherd’s crooks.”

    Eventually, colors and peppermint flavoring were added. The magazine also explained that the white of the cane represents Christ’s purity, while the red stands for his blood.

    Novak explained she celebrates the holiday by going to a local theater to watch Christmas plays with her family. Figures such as the Nutcracker originated from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, while characters like Frosty the Snowman came about in 1950, in a song created by Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins.

    Novak said that the tradition is one that she holds with her family, in order to reflect on being together during the holiday.

    “That’s just a time for us to come together and spend family time because Christmas is also about celebrating with the people around you,” she said. “It’s just about remembering and how we should be close with our family…it’s just a way to reconnect with everybody and catch up.”

    Victoria can be reached at [email protected].