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Holiday Decorations

Where Did All the Holiday Decorations Come From?

We buy them at stores, make them in school, and inherit them from Grandma. Maybe you celebrate Hanukkah and contemplate the ancient meanings of the Menorah and the Dreidel. Then again, you may commemorate Kwanzaa, the non-religious African American holiday with its symbolic straw mat and Unity Cup. Or perhaps your preference is Christmas and you admire your Christmas tree and Nativity scene. From whatever culture or religion you hail, you likely fill your home with holiday decorations. So where did they all come from? Here are some facts about these three holidays' decorations that might amaze you.

The Fascinating History of Hanukkah's Holiday Decorations

Holiday decorations vary greatly throughout the world based on religion and culture. The Jewish people, for example, celebrate a most significant holiday during the holiday season-Hanukkah-and their holiday decorations are highly symbolic. The eight days of Hanukkah are celebrated every year on the 25th of the Hebrew month Kislev (in 2004, the first day of Hanukkah falls on December 8th). Hanukkah commemorates the Jews' victory over the Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE. That victory can be credited to the Jewish revolutionaries called the Maccabees. In the process of restoring Jerusalem, they found their Temple desecrated and in ruins. In order to restore it, they needed to procure ritual oil for the Temple, but could only find one day's worth-eight days of oil was needed. But a miracle occurred that first Hanukkah. The Temple lamps burned for the full eight days so that the Temple could be rededicated. Hanukkah's holiday decorations either emerged or were adapted from this event.

The Holiday Decoration of the Menorah

Appearing like a branched tree, the Menorah (sometimes called the "candelabrum") is a common holiday decoration, especially for Hanukkah. In the ancient Jewish Temple, the Menorah had seven branches, but following the destruction of the Temple, Rabbis forbade the people's using an exact replica to preserve the Menorah's holiness. The replicas have nine branches with eight of the candles on one level and one candle at the end or in the middle and separated from the others. This candle is called the "Shamash" or servant candle and is used to light the other candles. On the first night of Hanukkah the first candle on the right is lit. On the second night, the next candle to the left is lit, so now there are two. And so the process goes, right to left, one additional candle being lit each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. The candles are added from right to left and are lit left to right with the newest candle lit first. The holiday decoration of the Menorah is placed in a window to "publicize the miracle." Blessings spoken in Hebrew are recited before the candles are lit, and worshipers understand the importance of the Menorah's light not being extinguished.

The Holiday Decoration of the Dreidel

The holiday decoration of the Dreidel is one of the symbols most associated with Hanukkah and the Jewish children. However, the story of the Dreidel is one of safety. Too often in history, Jews were prohibited and persecuted for meeting and practicing their religion. When Jewish men would come together to study the Torah, they would have a Dreidel close by. Then when soldiers approached, the men would produce the Dreidel and pretend to be playing a game. Thus, the Dreidel saved many Jewish lives. Now a beloved holiday decoration, the Dreidel is a four-sided top with Hebrew letters inscribed on each side, which alude to the miracle of Hanukkah. In America, the letters stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." In Israel, the letters mean "A Great Miracle Happened Here." The Dreidel is both a holiday decoration and a traditional game that is popular among children and adults--a joyous symbol of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah's Enduring Holiday Decorations

The holiday decorations that are associated with the celebration of Hanukkah have endured centuries of strife and conflict. As with any holiday decoration, the symbolism and tradition runs deep. Whether the holiday decoration is the Menorah, the Dreidel or such delicious foods of the season--latkes, vegetables, fruits, potatoes, sufganiyot, and jelly doughnuts without the holes-it represents a rich history and hope for tomorrow.

Kwanzaa's Recent History and Holiday Decorations

In 1966, the African American holiday of Kwanzaa was created in the United States by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Pan-African studies and cultural leader. This non-religious holiday begins on December 26 and lasts for seven days. Kwanzaa is based on the traditional African festival of the harvest of the first crops. Kwanzaa and its holiday decorations combine traditional African practices with African American hopes and ideals. Karenga developed the holiday's seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

Some Kwanzaa holiday decorations and traditions

Families celebrate Kwanzaa in their own way, including exchanging gifts, singing songs, dancing, playing African drums, telling stories, reading poetry, and having a large traditional meal. As the family gathers on each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, a child lights one of the candles on a candleholder called a "Kinara," a special Kwanzaa holiday decoration, then one of the seven principles is discussed. On December 31st, the family has a "Karamu," a traditional African feast along with traditional ceremonies honoring ancestors, discussion of the old year and goals for the new, family performances, music, and dancing.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of the Mazao

To demonstrate their "mazao," as a Kwanzaa holiday decoration, families place nuts, fruits, and vegetables, which represent their work, on another Kwanzaa holiday decoration called "mkeka" or a traditional place mat. The mazao symbolizes the historical gathering of Africans for their harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity, and thanksgiving were the fruits of their labors.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of the Mkeka

The holiday decoration called the "mkeka" is essentially a traditional African place mat constructed of straw or cloth. The Mkeka represents the firm historical and traditional foundation that Kwanzaa celebrants stand on and build their lives. During Kwanzaa, families remember their history and contemplate their future.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of the Vibunzi

This Kwanzaa holiday decoration is a simple ear of corn. Whereas a stalk of corn represents children as the hope for the future, the "Vibunzi," a single ear of corn, represents each individual child and his/her importance. Thus one Vibunzi is placed as a holiday decoration on the Mkeka for each child in the family. During Kwanzaa, the adults symbolically take the love and nurture that they were given as children and selflessly return it to all children, especially the helpless, homeless, loveless ones in their community. Thus, in the holiday decoration of Vibunzi we remember the Nigerian proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child." Kwanzaa recalls that the Africa culture called for child rearing to be a community affair.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of Mishumaa Saba - The Seven Candles

The "Mishumaa Saba" are the holiday decorations of seven candles symbolizing the sun's power and the sun's giving us light. This holiday decoration is made up of one black candle, three red candles, and three green ones. The back candle symbolizes (unity) and is lit on December 26th. The three green candles, representing purpose, collective work and responsibility, and faith are placed to the right of the black candle. The three red candles, representing self-determination, cooperative economics, and creativity are placed to the left.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of the Kinara

This holiday decoration is the Candleholder-the "Kinara." It is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and symbolizes the original stalk--our ancestors--from whom we descended. These holiday decorations can be any shape and made from all kinds of materials. The seven candles are placed in the Kinara. The holiday decoration of the Kinara symbolizes the celebrants' ancestors, who during Kwanzaa, are remembered and honored.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of the Kikombe Cha Umoja

The "Kikombe Cha Umoja" is a special holiday decoration that could be called the "Unity Cup." During the feast, on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the Unity Cup is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then, the eldest person at the feast pours the "tambiko", usually water, juice or wine, in the direction of the four winds to honor ancestors.

The Kwanzaa Holiday Decoration of Zawadi

On the last day of Kwanzaa comes holiday decorations that are common to all holiday observances-the exchange of gifts. The "Zawadi" or gifts are meant to be meaningful to the symbols of Kwanzaa. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the distraction of commercialism during the holiday season. Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift, and it binds the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift is meant to solidify and enhance relationships.

Christmas Holiday Decorations

The Christmas Holiday Decoration of Stockings.

In medieval times, St. Nicholas's Day was celebrated on December 6th. Tradition says that on St. Nicholas Eve, St. Nicholas would drop down the chimney to fill up children's stockings and shoes with treats-and thus the stocking became a familiar holiday decoration. Today's Christmas traditions are similar. Each child hangs a stocking over the fireplace where Santa will enter Christmas Eve and fill them with candy and presents.

Electric Lights are a recent Christmas Holiday Decoration.

Did you know that Thomas Edison invented the first electric Christmas lights? Who would have thought that he would have invented one of our most beloved holiday decorations? It is said that Edward Johnson, the vice president of Edison's company, decided to adorn his Christmas tree with eighty red, white, and blue bulbs. And presto! The holiday decoration of Christmas lights was born!

Christmas Trees are the Ultimate Christmas Holiday Decoration.

St. Boniface, born in 680 A.D., is often credited with the fir tree's being associated with the Christmas celebration. Tradition says that he happened upon a human sacrifice that was taking place at the foot of an oak tree. In anger, he felled the tree with an axe. In the ruins of the great oak was a single fir tree. He pointed to the fir and told the idolaters that they should cease their wicked ways and only worship Christ, the bringer of life "ever green." The Germans probably originated and popularized the Christmas tree. The earliest written record of an evergreen tree being decorated for Christmas is 1521. Today, the Christmas tree, or "Tannenbaum" is still a symbol of peace and eternal life-the central Christmas holiday decoration.

Christmas Cards are a Cheery Holiday Decoration.

Did you know that the first Christmas card was probably made in 1843 at the request of Sir Henry Cole? But it was a holiday decoration that had a controversial beginning. It turns out that Cole's Christmas card was a disaster. It contained a middle panel of a family--with a child!-- sipping wine together while enjoying each another's company. A child drinking wine! No way would the public condone such a thing. According to Christmas tradition, Cole's Christmas card was so controversial that it drew public attention and became an instant hit. Without the negative publicity, Christmas cards might have become a favorite holiday decoration. Aren't we glad they did?

The Wreath is an Old Christmas Holiday Decoration.

The symbolism of the wreath has popular for centuries. In this holiday decoration, the circle or ring shape is said to be symbolic of eternity or eternal life, because the shape has no beginning or end. In ancient Rome, this symbol became so powerful that people used decorative wreaths as a sign of victory. Some believe that this is where the holiday decoration of wreaths on doors came from. The Christmas holiday decoration of the Advent Wreath is unique. From Germany, the ancient use of the Advent Wreath spread to other parts of the world. The Advent Wreath is a holiday decoration made of four violet or rose candles in a circle of evergreens with a fifth candle in the middle. Each day at home, the candles are lighted before the evening meal, one candle for the first week, and then another each succeeding week until December 25th. The last candle is the middle candle of the wreath. The lighting of this candle takes place on Christmas Eve and represents the birth of Jesus Christ, the light that illuminates a dark world. A beautiful and highly symbolic Christmas holiday decoration!

The Christmas Holiday Decoration of Ornaments.

Did you know that Christmas ornaments had their origin in props for religious theatrical plays about Adam and Eve? These ancestors to our modern-day Christmas holiday decorations were initially apples hung on the Paradise Tree to represent our first parents' expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Later, prop designers hung wafers on the Paradise Tree to represent Christ's redeeming sacrifice. But the Germans were the ones who really made ornaments a favorite holiday decoration. Germans made ornaments of cookies, bread, nuts and other delicious foods. In fact, the German Christmas tree was decorated with so many sweets it was nicknamed the "sugar tree." Over time, other holiday decorations such as small gifts filled the tree. When German immigrants arrived in America, they brought with them their holiday decoration traditions with them, and the idea of ornaments on trees caught on fast. Later, these holiday decorations got a big boost when F.W. Woolworth reluctantly began selling ornaments one Christmas and sold out in two days. That remarkable success convinced him of the holiday decorations' profitability, and he began traveling to Germany to stock his stores with ornaments each season.

The Nativity Scene is an Enduring Christmas Decoration.

No Christmas decoration better visualizes the scriptural account of Christ's birth than the nativity scene. These Christmas decorations can be traced back to the 4th century A.D. Eight hundred years later St. Francis of Assisi popularized the nativity scene. He is said to have constructed a life-sized manger scene with live animals. In those early years, the Christmas decoration of nativity scenes was simple, focusing on the baby Jesus Christ and His mother Mary. Joseph was added later, as were the three wise men. Over time, this Christmas decoration became more elaborate; some nativity scenes contained hundreds of figurines. Since those early days, nativity scenes have grown in popularity. Formerly, you could only admire these Christmas decorations in a church setting, a town square or a palace. Now, you can find nativity scenes everywhere-you may even have one of your own.

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