Diverse traditions: Many ways to say Happy Holidays!

December 6, 2016  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,


The holiday season is in full swing and with all the fanfare, it can be easy to overlook the depth of diversity present in our community. Many different events, both spiritual/religious and tradition-based, are celebrated during this time. As such, this is a great opportunity to exercise cultural awareness and demonstrate inclusiveness to our patients and colleagues.

Here are some interesting and fun facts about some of the different celebrations that our patients or colleagues may participate in during the holidays this year:


When: Dec. 25, 2016

What to say: Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays!

The U.S. has many different traditions and ways that people celebrate the holiday because of its multicultural nature. Many customs are similar to ones in the U.K., France, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland and Mexico.

Spiritual: Many Christians go to church to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Churches typically have special services and events where carols are sung and the story of Christmas is told.

Traditions: During the holiday season, people decorate their homes with trees, brightly colored lights and ornaments, stockings, reindeer, snowmen and, of course, Santa Claus. Families also exchange gifts and send out themed cards to loved ones to let them know how much they are valued. Towns and cities often decorate the streets with lights and host parades and festive community events.

Feasts: Traditional holiday meals often include turkey or ham and a variety of staples including dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pie and more! Pass the green bean casserole, please!


When: The evening of Dec. 24, 2016 through the evening of Jan. 1, 2017

What to say: Happy Hanukkah or Chanukah (cha-new-kah) Sameach (sah-may-ach)

Hanukkah (pronounced ha-new-kah) is the Jewish Festival of Lights remembering the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah lasts for eight days and nights based on the Jewish lunar calendar. There are several theories about why Hanukkah is celebrated over eight nights. One legend says that when the Maccabees retook the temple, they discovered there was only enough oil to burn for one night, but that it burned for eight. Another says it’s because it took eight days to fully rebuild the temple.

Spiritual: During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a “hanukkiyah.” There is also a special ninth candle called the “shammash,” or servant candle, which is used to light the others. A blessing is said before or after lighting the candles and a special Jewish hymn is often sung. The menorah is put in the front window of houses so passersby can see the lights and remember the story of Hanukkah.

Traditions: Giving and receiving gifts on each of the eight nights is part of the Hanukkah celebration. Lots of games are also played during this time, the most popular being “dreidel,” a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The four letters form an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Poh (a great miracle happened here). Players put a coin, nut or chocolate coin in a pot and top is spun. Depending on which letter comes up, the player wins nothing, half the pot, the whole pot or has to contribute another item.

Feasts: Food fried in oil is traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Favorites include potato pancakes (“latkes”) and “sufganiyot” (deep fried donuts that are filled with jam/jelly and sprinkled with sugar).


When: Dec. 26, 2016 through Jan. 1, 2017

What to say: Habari (ha-bah-ree) Gani (gah-knee)

Kwanzaa (pronounced kwon-zah) derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” It is a seven-day festival that celebrates African and African-American culture and history. The festival was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way to bring African Americans together to celebrate their shared culture. Harvest celebrations provide opportunities for people to come together and give thanks for the good things in their lives and communities.

Spiritual: During Kwanzaa, a special candle holder called a kinara is used. It holds seven candles, three red ones on the left, three green ones on the right and a black candle in the center. The black candle is lit first, followed by alternating red and green candles. This is quite similar to the lighting of the menorah during Hanukkah. The seven days and candles represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The hope is that those principles, reviewed and reinforced during Kwanzaa, will become a way of life throughout the year.

Traditions: On each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, people gather to light the candles and share thoughts about that day’s principle. Each gathering includes discussions and activities. The most joyous and elaborate of the gatherings takes place on Dec. 31, the sixth day of the holiday period. On that night, a great karamu (feast) is held. Families and friends come together to eat, drink, sing, dance and read stories and poems about their cultural heritage. Everyone sips from the unity cup and many people exchange gifts.

Feasts: Celebrants enjoy traditional African dishes as well as those featuring ingredients Africans brought to the U.S., such as sesame seeds, peanuts, sweet potatoes, collard greens and spicy sauces. Other culinary staples include black-eyed peas, rice and delicious fruits.

Make colleagues and patients alike feel appreciated this season by honoring the traditions they cherish. It could be a small gift, a card, or even a simple greeting that honors their spiritual beliefs – small gestures of respect make the season bright for everyone!

Check out the Spiritual Care website for more information on cultural and spiritual backgrounds.