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Long IslandReligion

Asking the Clergy: What do Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa have in common?

The Rev. JoAnn Barrett of Gathering of Light,

The Rev. JoAnn Barrett of Gathering of Light, the Rev. Maxine Barnett of All Saints' Episcopal Church and Rabbi Elliot Skiddell of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth. Credit: JoAnn Barrett; Colin Barnett; Rabbi Elliot Skiddell

The coming week brings observances significant to Long Islanders of many faiths and backgrounds. Hanukkah’s eight days begin Dec. 22, Christmas is celebrated Dec. 25, and Kwanzaa’s seven days commence the next day, Dec. 26. This week’s clergy discuss similarities among the three holidays that go beyond the calendar.

The Rev. Maxine Barnett

Rector, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Baldwin

Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration that has roots in African harvest celebrations rather than a particular religion. However, the festival shares similarities with the symbols and values of Christmas and Hanukkah. All three are celebratory festivals of light that fall at a time when daylight hours are shorter. Whether the lights are found on a kinara (the candleholder illustrating Kwanzaa’s seven principles), a menorah or strung on a Christmas tree, they help tell of the holiday’s origins and the story of how a particular people overcame the darkness of oppression to live more fully in the light of hope and joy.

All three have a theology or ideology of liberation. Community, culture and heritage are core to the weeklong celebration of Kwanzaa, and we see the same elements, although expressed in different ways, during the eight days of Hanukkah and the 12 days of the Christmas season. Each of these holidays has significant colors, food, decorations, games and music. They also share the practice of gift giving and storytelling. Most important, the home is traditionally a hub for the holidays’ activities. All three celebrations create opportunities for family, friends and the wider community to gather. Children are encouraged to participate fully in the activities. I believe that in this way the stories of the past help inform, inspire and shape the future.

The Rev. JoAnn Barrett

Senior officiant, Gathering of Light, Melville

Our community just finished celebrating our holy days party, at which tables are set up with decorations, food and information on Hanukkah, Christmas, winter solstice and Kwanzaa. At this event, one can easily see how these holidays have unique characteristics but accomplish a similar goal.

First and foremost, they support family, friends and community coming together to rekindle that which is most precious to them, the bonds they share with one another. These holidays remind us of our histories and how we can draw strength from the past and heal today. They remind us that we are miracles and to be aware of all the miracles around us. They call us to focus more on what is good and right because of spiritual principles, such as miracles, salvation and faith, rather than the world’s laws of survival, monotony and competition. The focus of all of these traditions is to trust in the return of light and hope and to create peace. They are celebrations of light. They call us to be a light in the dark and to use that light to illumine our small piece of the world.

Rabbi Elliot Skiddell

Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, Rockville Centre

What a joyous and lovely time of year this is as we are surrounded by beautiful decorations that reflect the diversity of our communities. Christmas may be the dominant holiday, but cultures that are in the minority have an opportunity to express the joy they experience in their own holidays. For those living in homes steeped in Jewish culture, Hanukkah is paramount, and for many of African heritage Kwanzaa is celebrated with pride.

All three holidays are concerned with bringing light into a world that sometimes seems on the verge of plunging into darkness. Traditional foods play an important part in our joyous celebrations of these holidays, of course. For African Americans, dishes recalling their ancestral roots play an important role in Kwanzaa, especially because the name of the festival is derived from a Swahili phrase signifying the harvest of the first fruits, linking Kwanzaa with Hanukkah. While the name Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “dedication,” recalling the rededication by the Maccabees of the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem some 2,500 years ago, the holiday is also known as Sukkot shel Kislev, referring to the delayed harvest festival of Sukkot that could not be celebrated while the temple was in foreign hands. Both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa have their roots in celebrations of nature’s bounty. We find a common thread in all three holidays of a longing for peace, light and human dignity.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com. Find more LI Life stories at newsday.com/LILife.

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