A Celebration of Winter Holidays

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Each December, Christians and Jews worldwide celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and many African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. While Christmas’ and Kwanzaa’s dates are fixed, Hanukkah’s date changes each year. Hanukkah’s seven day celebration begins each year on the 25th day of the Judaic month of Kislev. This corresponds to sometime between late November and late December on the Georgian calendar. Most years, the three holidays do not overlap, but this year they do. As always, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, Kwanzaa between December 26 and January 1, and this year, Hanukkah falls from December 20 through the 28.

To commemorate this unusual coalescing of winter holidays, this week you will turn your attention to the history and traditions of three singular holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Begin by reflecting on your own family celebrations: what do you celebrate and what are your family’s traditions? What do you know of each holiday? What does each commemorate and how? What do Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Hanukkah have in common and how do other holiday traditions contrast with your family’s celebration?


It is difficult to ignore Christmas, even if you do not celebrate it. Christmas marketing begins at the end of October. Before Halloween decorations have been dismantled and buried in boxes, images of jolly St. Nick appear, encouraging you to buy this and buy that. But the heavily marketed Santa version of Christmas is not how the holiday began. On December 25, many Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. To learn more about the history and traditions of Christmas, visit

Scholastic’s site shares several interactive features about Christmas. As you explore the scrapbook entries, be sure to take advantage of the audio and video features by clicking on audio icons and opening video links. Begin by reading What is Christmas? Do all Christians celebrate on December 25, and how do we know that was the day Jesus was born? To find out, click on the calendar icon. What does Santa Claus have to do with Christmas? Wonder why many people top their Christmas tree with a star, or what the candy cane signifies? Discover how these symbols connect to the story of Jesus’ birth by opening the Decorate a Christmas Tree feature.

Turn the page of the scrapbook (use the arrow icon) to read about Christmas traditions, including gingerbread homes, Christmas cards, songs, presents, and stockings. Click on each image to read more. If you have not already, click on the post card in the bottom left corner to learn how Christmas celebrations differ around the world.

The History Channel can answer your most unusual Christmas questions. Ever wonder which states grow the most Christmas trees, how many candy canes are produced, or how many Christmas cards are mailed? Check out Christmas by the numbers to find out. Consider the life of those 25-30 million live Christmas trees; what do they grow through before they reach your home? Watch The Life of a Christmas Tree. Learn more about the history of the Christmas tree, and how winter solstice traditions became adopted by Christmas celebrations.


Like Christmas, Hanukkah is historically a religious celebration. (Though, unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is not an important or “high” Jewish holiday. It receives extra attention because of its proximity to Christmas.) In 165 BC, after a war to free themselves from persecution, the Jews lit a lamp to rededicate their holy temple. There was only enough oil for the lamp to remain lit for one day; yet, it burned for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the holy temple and the miraculous burning lamp.

Revisit Scholastic, this time to peruse the Hanukkah scrapbook. Answer the question, What is Hanukkah? and watch a History Channel video that explains the origins of the holiday. Learn why families light a menorah, how to light the menorah, and what prayers are sung. Be sure to listen to Hanukkah songs and to read the postcards from around the world.

If you wonder how Hanukkah is celebrated, ask a Rabbi to find out or check out the infographic, What is the deal with Hanukkah, anyway?

Of course no holiday would be complete without some special foods.  For Hanukkah, this means latkes, or potato pancakes. If you have not already, click on the latkes. As with many traditions, latkes were added to the Hanukkah table generations after Hanukkah was first celebrated. Read more about the history of latkes, and then try your hand at making some. You need not be Jewish to enjoy a latke!

Older readers may enjoy a Hanukkah story written specially for NPR’s Hanukkah Lights 2011. There are four stories to choose from, simply click on the audio icon beneath the author’s photograph.


Kwanzaa is a uniquely American holiday. It was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga in hopes that African-Americans might celebrate their African roots. Kwanzaa is based on African harvest festivals; however, you will find it shares some features of both Hanukkah and Christmas. This seven day holiday is observed from December 26 through January 1.  For an overview, explore the Kwanzaa scrapbook at the Scholastic site. A good place to begin is with the question (in the bottom left corner) What is Kwanzaa? Read about the kinara and the seven principles of Kwanzaa. What are the colors of Kwanzaa and what is the significance of each? Read the postcards from Kwanzaa on the second page of the scrapbook.

If you are interested in a more thorough examination of Kwanzaa, visit the official Kwanzaa website. Here you will find more detailed information about the roots and branches of Kwanzaa. View the principles and the symbols of Kwanzaa. How does the celebration unfold? What are the procedures for celebrating Kwanzaa? You might also be interested in reading the responses to the frequently asked questions.

Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa were inspired for three very different reasons. What do the three have in common? What themes about celebrations emerge? What similarities exist in their traditions?

Wishing you a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, or a festive Kwanzaa. May it be a joyful and peaceful one.


Newspaper Activities

Read the news in your local newspaper . Look for articles that capture the principles of Kwanzaa or the spirit of Hanukkah or Christmas. In small groups, share the articles you each selected and discuss how they connect to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas.

How might you extend this holiday season? What can be done to capture the principles or spirit of the winter holiday(s) on a regular basis? Design a project that extends the spirit of the holiday(s) beyond January 1st. Three examples:

Design and implement a community service project that is inspired by and continues the spirit of the winter holiday(s).

Create a picture book that illustrates how the spirit of the winter holiday can be included in daily life. Read your book to a group of elementary aged children.

Form an across-the-ages game group. With friends, schedule regular visits to a retirement home to play card or board games with older residents.

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