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Middle East Team Dispatch

A Global Holiday
December 18, 1999

The team will be spending the holidays in Israel. By now, you might already know that Israel is the birthplace of three of the world's biggest religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. But did you ever stop to think that it is also the birthplace of some of the world's most celebrated holidays!

To honor the many special days that fall at this time of year, the team wanted to participate in all of them! But 12 days of Christmas, 7 days of Kwanzaa, 8 days of Hanukkah and 28 days of Ramadan sure adds up to a lot. It would mean partying all the way through to the middle of January! Instead, the trekkers decided to split up to learn about each of these different holidays and then get back together to report on their findings. Afterwards they will spend one day celebrating all of them by incorporating different traditions from each one.

Abeja decided to research Hanukkah. Kevin and Jasmine took on Ramadan. Kavitha wanted to study Christmas and its many customs. While Monica wanted to learn more about Kwanzaa. After searching the Internet, interviewing people and reading up on whatever they could find, here is what the team put together.


Abeja learned that Hanukkah is the Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah means dedication. It is celebrated for 8 days beginning on the eve of the 25th day of the month of Kislev. Kislev is roughly the same as December.

The origins of Hanukkah are so old they are even documented in the Bible! Way back in 165 BC, a three year-long battle took place between a group of Jews, led by a guy named Judah Maccabee, and the Syrian army, led by Antiochus IV. The Jews won and the celebrations they held to re-dedicate the Temple of Jerusalem back to their own religion have more or less turned into modern day Hanukkah. The Talmud, a holy book in the Jewish faith, says that when they cleaned up the Temple and removed all of the Syrian idols, they only found one small container of oil to light their holy lamps. The way the story goes, this container was no ordinary container, though. It kept the lamps lit for 8 days! And that is why Hanukkah last for 8 days.

Lighting candles is still a major part of Hanukkah. Starting on the first night, a candle is lit on a special candelabra called a menorah. Each night another one is added until there are 8 aglow on the last night. It is also traditional for families and friends to exchange gifts. Instead of opening up a lot of presents at once, though, each night small gifts are given. This makes the festivities last a long time.


Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration hearkening back to a variety of African customs, as well as American ones. It starts December 26 and goes until January 1st. It was first established in the United States in the 1960s. It is celebrated at the end of the year to coincide with harvest time. The word, Kwanzaa, is derived from a word in Swahili that means to begin.

Monica observed that there are some similarities between Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The two last for almost the same amount of time. Kwanzaa goes on for 7 days instead of 8, for Hanukkah. And candle-lighting is a main feature of the Kwanzaa celebrations too. Each night you light candles as part of a big ceremony. The Kwanzaa candle holder, called a kinara, even looks a little like a menorah.

But there are many things that are unique to this holiday. Every day of Kwanzaa is meant to represent a different theme: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani(faith). These are considered the 7 principles of life. It is meant to be a time of reflection and celebration.


Jasmine began with a basic overview of the holiday. Ramadan is the 9th month in the Arabic calendar and it is also a month long Muslim holiday. It is the most sacred time of year in the Islamic faith because it marks the period when Islam's founder, the Prophet Mohammed, received the holy words from Allah and put them down into the Koran, back in the 7th Century AD. Unlike the other Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, Ramadan does not always fall at this time of year. Rather, it is determined by the Arab calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle. This year, Ramadan spans from roughly December 6 to January 8.

Vocabulary Box

hearken - to heed or follow
abstain - to refrain from doing something
patron saint - a saint who is the advocate in heaven of a group of people or things
don -to put on
Kevin continued by explaining that Ramadan is a time of fasting and sacrifice. As a way to become closer to Allah, during every day of the month adults abstain from eating food, smoking tobacco and having sex from sunrise to sunset. It is a time of intense worship, giving to charity, and doing good deeds. The actual night on which the Koran was revealed to Mohammed, known as Lailat ul-Qadr (Night of Power), is generally thought to be the 27th night of the month. The Koran states that this night is better than a thousand months. Therefore, many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer.

At night people break their fast with a celebratory meal called Iftar. Families and friends get together and eat big feasts. There is no alcohol, though. Remember, in Islam, drinking alcohol is forbidden. On the last night of Ramadan there is an extra special celebration called Eid Al-Fitr. Sometimes these celebrations last for 3 days!

But don't get the wrong idea. Celebrating and spending time with family are important aspects of the holiday, but the main point isn't to have crazy, all-night parties. Ramadan is a serious and holy time of year.


Instead of reporting on the history of Christmas, Kavitha decided to find the answer to two things she had always wondered about: Why on earth do people decorate trees for Christmas? And where did the idea of Santa Claus come from?

After doing a little research she discovered that the tradition of the Christmas tree began in medieval Germany. Back then there was a popular play about Adam and Eve that was performed every year on Christmas Eve. One of the props in the play was a "Paradise Tree," an evergreen decorated with apples. Everyone loved the trees and by the early 17th century it was popular to decorate an evergreen of your own at home. Trees were trimmed with everything from fruits and nuts, to painted eggshells and paper roses. Christmas trees first turned up in the United States in the early 1800s. The idea was brought over by German settlers in Pennsylvania.

As for Santa Claus, did you know the tradition is based on a real person? It seems there was a bishop in Turkey, named Nicholas who was known for caring for children in need. After he died he was made the patron saint of children. Well, after time, people across Europe began dressing up as St. Nicholas on his feast day (December 6th) and giving gifts to children. According to the stories, they would don a red or white coat and a long and pointy hat, because that is what a bishop wears! In Europe, most people still call him St. Nicholas. But in the US he is commonly known by the Dutch version of his name, Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus.

"So what about our own celebration?" said Monica, "What are we going to do?"

So how do you celebrate Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Christmas or Hanukkah? Do you have any special customs? Email any one of us and let us know. And in the meantime, Happy Holidays!

The Team

Abeja - You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It, too: Monument to a Lost War
Abeja - Where the Heck are we, really?
Christine - Flee to Egypt, and Stay There Until I Tell You
Jasmine - A Life of Love
Jasmine - Promises of the Promised Land
Kavitha - The Miracle of the Oil
Nancy - Two Women, One Man - Feudin', a-Fussin' and a-Fightin'
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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