Celebration of the Lights: Hanukkah & Kwanzaa


By Pinn Duong

On December 3rd, Global Education club at GCC held a cultural event called “Hanukkah and Kwanzaa” to share with the students the different ways Jewish-Americans and African-Americans celebrate the end of a year, with free food and free books! It was the event I needed to destress during the final week of classes, especially when the dishes of delicious cookies tamed my sugar cravings.

GCC hard-working staffs feeding the students with sweet treats during finals week!
Free books!

But I swear I was not just there for the colorful sucrose, I also picked up some awareness on year-ending cultural celebrations of the Jews and Africans, and I’m not talking about Christmas.

HANUKKAH (or Chanukkah)

Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration inspired by a Miracle that occurred after the Maccabees successfully revolted and chased the Greek-Syrian oppressors out of Jerusalem during the second century BC. While rebuilding the (holy) Second Temple, the only remaining candle, which was supposed to last a single day, continued to flicker for eight nights and provided light long enough for the Maccabees to gather supplies. This ‘miracle’ illustrates the divine intervention of light amid spiritual darkness.

Hanukkah observers light each of the eight candles each night while the central ninth candle (called the “shamash,” means helper) is used to light the other candles. The candle holder is uniquely called ‘menorah.’ During Hanukkah, Jewish observers eat fried foods cooked in oil to represent the oil that burned the remaining candle miraculously for eight evenings (1).

Hanukkah with 9 candles on a “menorah” (a nine-branched candelabrum)


Kwanzaa holiday was introduced by professor Maulana Karenga in 1966 to unify African-Americans in faith and endurance amid social and cultural unrest of poverty and police brutality.

In Swahili language (an Eastern African language spoken in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe …) Kwanzaa means ‘first fruits’ or first harvest. Celebrants decorate their household with symbolic objects that reflect values of unity and gratitude for the good things in their lives and community. Kwanzaa’s seven-day commemoration surrounds the Seven Principles (“Nguzo Saba”):

  1. Umoja – unity
  2. Kujichagulia – self-determination
  3. Ujima – collective work and responsibility
  4. Ujamaa – cooperative Economics
  5. Nia – purpose
  6. Kuumba – creativity
  7. Imani – faith

During Kwanzaa, a candle, representing one principle, is lit each day on a kinara. Observers would light the central black candle on the first day, then alternates between the red and green candles starting from the outer candles moving inwards on following days.

Unlike Hanukkah which is rooted in the Jewish religion, Kwanzaa is a cultural, not religious, holiday that was traditionally celebrated by African-Americans. Thus, Kwanzaa can be observed by non-Africans due to their universal values of unity and purpose, which were evident in their civil rights movements during the 60s.

Kwanzaa starts annually on December 26th until January 1st, while Hanukkah dates are based on Hebrew calendar month of Kislev, which varies between November and December of our usual Gregorian calendar (2).

Hanukkah with 7 principles, 7 candles on a “kinara” (Swahili word for candle holder).

Were you surprised to find many similarities between the two seemingly irrelevant traditions? 


  1. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah
  2. https://www.thesouthend.wayne.edu/features/article_de2cabe6-a67a-11e5-8f26-cb25d4e32df3.html

Featured photo (from Alma): Kwanzaa candles

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