Festivities for all

Third Place, Feature Writing

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Winter is a time for family and friends to come together and participate in festivities. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Christmas. It’s important to acknowledge that many students celebrate holidays other than the most popular, commercialized ones. The Acalanes population chooses to celebrate the colder months in an assortment of religious and cultural ways. In light of this, Blueprint put together some profiles to highlight a handful of diverse celebrations.

Chinese New Year

With dancing lights and vivid colors, Chinese New Year remains vital to many Chinese-Americans living in the Bay Area. The traditional holiday is typically celebrated in late January or early February, as it is dependent on the lunar calendar. Senior Monica Wang always grew up celebrating this festivity.

“Chinese New Year is like Chinese people’s Christmas,” Wang said. “It’s a time where my family and my extended family can get together and really just enjoy each other’s company and appreciate each other.” Like many other families who celebrate Chinese New Year, Wang and her family enjoy a feast alongside many family members. Afterward, elders and couples participate in the traditional act of giving out red envelopes to any unmarried relative.

These little red envelopes contain cash, with the price range dependent upon the certain family. “When this time of year comes around, it’s just really comforting, warm, and happy. It also allows me to enjoy and take pride in my Chinese identity more,” Wang said.

The substantial amount of Chinese-Americans residing in the Bay Area makes local festivities even more significant. During the week of Chinese New Year, lion dances and folk-dancing performances can be found in parades on the streets of major centers in and around San Francisco. “It’s just really nice to have my Chinese culture recognized and celebrated and have this unity with my Chinese community,” Wang said.

When setting aside her textbooks, Wang participates in a Chinese folk dance program– making school strenuous during the week of Chinese New Year. “It’s quite irritating because while it is supposed to be a time when I can celebrate with my whole family I can’t,” Wang said. “I’m kinda just constantly busy around that time.”

Although Wang believes there is not a strong need for Acalanes to cancel school on her winter holiday, she would like it to be recognized. “Something as small as having a small event for it or lessening the workload on the day of Chinese New Year would be very nice,” Wang said.

Hanukkah

During the week of Dec. 22-30, lit menorahs will mark the celebration of Hanukkah. This festival of lights contains a rich history behind it, a likely reason it is one of the oldest holidays in the world still celebrated today.

Traced back to around 168 B.C., the Jewish holiday stems from the Jewish Maccabees’ struggle to liberate themselves from the Greek Syrians. The Maccabees, led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, began a large-scale rebellion. Eventually, his son Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple. During this, they witnessed a miracle in which a small amount of olive oil created lasting light for an unexpected eight days. To commemorate the phenomenon, Hanukkah was created.

“I’m taking part in an ancient custom that’s been around for awhile and it’s how I can express my religion,” junior Elizabeth Paul said. The Hanukkah menorah, a candelabra with eight branches and a raised lamp, holds a candle for each night of the eight day long celebration. The raised lamp provides the shammash, or helper, candle that is used to light the others.

“My favorite part is lighting the menorah and saying the blessings while we light it,” Paul said. Paul grew up celebrating Hanukkah her whole life, due to the religious beliefs of her family and her synagogue. Many traditions surround the centuries old celebration and, according to Paul, it is customary to go to the synagogue and celebrate with the community.

“It’s tradition to eat foods that are made with oil in celebration. Also, we play a game of dreidel,” Paul said. Although Hanukkah comes with a unique set of customs, it is not a major Jewish holiday. “It’s typically such a minor holiday, it’s not one where you need to take the day off of school,” Paul said. “The holidays I get more in the way of school are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

In fact, present-giving during Hanukkah is only common in American culture. “It’s more popular here in America versus Israel because here in America, Christmas happens, and I guess it’s Jewish people’s way of taking part in the festivities during the winter,” Paul said.

Christmas

Immediately after Thanksgiving, stores transition into a holiday marketing frenzy. For Americans, the sweeping commercial culture of wintertime indicates the start of Christmas. Christmas, to most American families, means stockings, presents, and of course, jolly old Santa Claus. Yet the history of Christmas dates far back to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the most celebrated holiday. Due to the influence of religious leaders, though, the preeminent Christian holiday eventually became Christmas. Modern day Christmas traditions are largely based on stories written by Washington Irving. His series of stories published in the 19th century established Christmas as an important European holiday. Eventually, Americans built off his ideas with their own customs and traditions.

“I love the Christmas spirit, everyone is always happy around the holidays. I also enjoy the company of my family and friends on Christmas,” Watson said.

The lively atmosphere of Christmastime is, of course, enhanced by the character of Santa. The classic tale of Santa Claus is based off Saint Nicholas, a Turkish monk. His acts of kindness and fame reached America in the late 19th century in New York, where he was celebrated by Dutch people. In 1881, his modern image was created as a result of Thomas Nast’s cartoon that depicted a jolly, plump, red man with a white beard.

Although the celebration of Christmas varies by family and individual, a Christmas tree has become the icon of the cold season. With presents tucked underneath, the holiday spirit prompts families to come together and connect.

“I get to see all of my family and all of my relatives come to town, it is really fun to celebrate a special event for me and my family,” junior Luke Watson said. “The holiday spirit just makes everyone more joyful.”

While Watson celebrates Christmas as an important family tradition, as a Presbyterian he also honors the religious significance of the holiday. “For the religious aspects, my family and I get a tree and decorate it with an angel on top, we pray at Christmas Eve dinner and in the morning on Christmas, and we have many things around our house that represent Jesus like a nativity scene, crosses and angels,” Watson said.

For many, December 25th ties the religious, social, and family aspects of Christmas together. “My family and I love to celebrate Jesus on this day because he has a really big impact on many people’s lives that really help bring out the holiday spirit,” Watson said.

Diwali

In celebration of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, Diwali is known as the festival of lights. Celebrated across India and in surrounding countries, Diwali falls during the darkest day of the lunar month each year. Since the holiday is lunar based, its timing changes every year. This year, Diwali was celebrated during late October. However, next year’s festivity is scheduled for mid-November.

Although Diwali is technically a fall holiday, it shares the same qualities of family and celebration as a winter holiday.

“I’m from Nepal so we don’t celebrate the same way as Indians do, but we celebrate it to bring wealth and prosperity into our home but also pray for the prosperity of others,” sophomore Aviruchi Dawadi said.

During the celebration, families gather together and light candles. The five-day festivity is primarily celebrated by Hindu, Sikh, and Jain followers; it is a national holiday in many Southeast Asian countries, including India. Each day of Diwali is celebrated differently. The first day is spent cleaning and making rangolis, intricate designs made on the floor of the home.

The second day consists of buying sweets and praying to ancestors, as family remains a central theme for those taking part in Diwali. Large families will gather to eat sweets and other special foods and pray to their ancestors. The third day is typically the greatest of the festivities; families light lanterns and candles, and fireworks often light up the sky. Followers of the holiday celebrate a bond between husbands and wives on the fourth day, while focusing attention on the appreciation of siblings on the fifth.

“I love how bright my house is because we decorate everything with lights just how people do Christmas decorations,” Dawadi said. “I love doing rangolis outside.” Since Dawadi is Nepalese, she also celebrates a festival called Bhai Tika during the fifth day of Diwali, a day to solely celebrate siblings.

“Family is really important in our culture so celebrating siblings is important to us,” Dawadi said.

Although Acalanes doesn’t recognize Diwali as a holiday on its calendar, Dawadi hopes for its recognition. “Even though Diwali lasts for five days most of the rituals don’t require much work so I don’t think it is necessary to have no school,” Dawadi said.

“There are definitely other festivals in my culture that should be school holidays because of its importance to us.”

St. Lucia’s Day

Symbolized by a young girl dressed in white with a red sash wearing a crown of candles, St. Lucia’s Day celebrates Swedish Christian faith. The holiday, which takes place on Dec. 13, honors the martyr of a young Christian girl in the year 304 A. D. St. Lucia’s day is important to most Swedes and many neighboring Scandinavian countries. Junior Lova Heiman, a foreign exchange student from Sweden, celebrates St. Lucia’s day despite not being religious.

“There is a belief that a woman came to Sweden on that day with light in her hair and walked from town to town,” Heiman said. “We celebrate it by having what we call a ‘Lucia train’; basically a girl with light in her hair and a white dress is followed by girls and boys in white gowns, and they sing.”

Heiman grew up surrounded by the festivity, as Lucia trains had a place in her Swedish education.

“[Lucia trains] happen early in the morning so either you watch it on television because there is always a famous Lucia train in Uppsala, or you join your school’s Lucia train,” Heiman said.

In addition to Lucia trains, Swedish schools typically reduce the workload to allow students to celebrate the holiday. If the holiday falls on a school day, students will often trade their normal academic studies for fika, which is roughly translated to a relaxing coffee and cake break.

“That day we do not have any normal classes, but we still go to school to watch singing, but then we have ‘fika’ in class and watch a Christmas movie instead of doing schoolwork,” Heiman said. “It’s just fun class bonding time. People will dress up in school as Santa or the gingerbread man.”

According to Heiman, foods typically eaten during the festivity are “Lucia fika,” a special kind of Swedish saffron buns, or lussekatter.

“To write about St. Lucia’s Day in Blueprint is great because people can get a good picture of it and embrace different cultures,” Heiman said.

Kwanzaa

Derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits”, Kwanzaa is a distinctively African-American holiday. Created by Dr. Maulanga Karenga in efforts to unite the African-American community in 1966, Kwanza celebrates African heritage and culture.

During Kwanza, seven principles are honored: unity, self-determination, responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. For each day of Kwanzaa, there are seven symbols: crops, a place mat, an ear of corn, seven candles, a candleholder, a unity cup, and lastly, gifts. A huge feast, called Karamu, is held on Dec. 31. This year, Kwanza takes place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

While Blueprint was unable to receive a student interview for this holiday, it remains a vital element of American culture today.

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.