Connecting communities: Holiday traditions unite various cultures across the state – Jersey’s Best

Posted By on December 18, 2019

The arrival of the holiday season brings a certain magic to the world. Special songs, foods and beloved traditions remind us why many consider the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years Day to be the most wonderful time of the year a season to gather with family, friends and neighbors to enjoy old traditions and create new ones. For many, this season of light, joy, peace and togetherness presents an opportunity to look beyond ourselves and think of others.

Here in the Garden State, a melting pot of people with many backgrounds and beliefs creates a multitude of ways to celebrate across our diverse state. From Christmas to Chanukah to Kwanzaa, New Jerseyans observe these special times with practices steeped in faith, tradition and cultural significance.

Regardless of how one may choose to spend the holidays, this season gives us the chance to celebrate our unique identities and reflect on what brings us all together.

Heres a look at some of the ways people across New Jersey will celebrate the holiday season:


Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins in the evening of Sun., Dec. 22 and ends in the evening of Mon., Dec. 30 this year.

Chanukah means dedication. The holiday recalls a miracle that occurred when a small army of Jewish Maccabees fought an oppressive regime, won against incredible odds and gathered in victory to rededicate the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. They only had one vessel of sanctified oil needed to light the Menorah. The oil would last just one day and it would take eight days to make more. After debating what to do, they lit the Menorah and the oil miraculously burned for eight days.

Symbolically, Chanukah is a holiday of light and increasing light in the world, said Keith Krivitzky, managing director of the Jewish Federation of Ocean County. People give gifts to family and friends, and the Menorah is displayed. Traditional foods include potato latkes like mini potato pancakes and sufganiyot, similar to jelly donuts.

The most significant Jewish holidays are recognized in the Torah, or Old Testament. Though Chanukah was established later by rabbis, it has taken on more significance today due to its proximity to Christmas.

The good news is that it makes for a more diverse holiday season that, along with other holidays like Kwanzaa, speaks to people of many faiths and traditions, Krivitzky said. When the holidays overlap as they do this year I like seeing the world through the prism of all the different lights kindled by each tradition, and I love the smells of all the different holiday meals being prepared and shared.

Rabbi Levi Walton of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers said family celebrations give people of faith a chance to go deeper into the meaning of the holiday. He recommends Jewish people commit to lighting the Menorah and saying the blessing each of the eight nights, keeping in mind how the problem the Maccabees faced all those years ago is relevant to the problems we face today. Chanukah is about an internal debate: What do you do if you only have a little bit to give? How can my small candle make a difference? Whats the point? The message is this even if you have just a little bit of light to give, give it to the world.


The seven-day festival of Kwanzaa begins on Thurs., Dec. 26, 2019 and ends on Wed., Jan. 1, 2020.

Created by Professor Maulana Karenga more than 50 years ago, Kwanzaa celebrates African American culture and history. It is a pan-African holiday, which means it is a part of a worldwide movement that promotes solidarity among all people of African descent. One doesnt have to be black to partake in the celebration.

The seven-branch kinara holds candles in symbolic colors of the holiday red, green and black. One candle is lit each day to reflect the Nguzo Saba, the seven core principles of African tradition unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Kwanzaa offers an opportunity for families to reflect, share, celebrate, reminisce, educate and embrace their culture, said Helen Jones-Walker, chair of public relations for the African American Cultural Collaborative of Mercer County. During the Kwanzaa celebration, the use of drums and other instruments creates an atmosphere that demands respect and resonates an aura of remembrance, reverence and tranquility.

Kwanzaa was created by a man with the intent to strengthen the black family. Understanding the Nguzo Saba can help create a better man, woman and child which in turn creates a better family in a society that is heavily affected and influenced by social, economic, psychological and political barriers, Jones-Walker said. The celebration of Kwanzaa highlights the importance of having a heritage, customs and traditions. To understand that you are a part of a heritage is empowering; it unites families and promotes community.


Christmas, a holiday honoring the birth (nativity) of Jesus Christ, is on Dec. 25.

Christians and non-Christians alike partake in familiar Christmastime traditions giving gifts, gathering with loved ones, eating special meals, singing Christmas carols as well as displaying lights, decorations and Christmas trees inside and outside their homes.

Traditionally, faithful Christians celebrate by going to Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. During the Christmas liturgy, readings of Old and New Testament scriptures foretell of the coming of the Messiah, the promised savior of the world. Churches are often decorated with poinsettias, Christmas trees and manger scenes some even have outdoor nativities with live animals. Many parishes host a giving tree where parishioners purchase gifts for those in need.

There also are many feast days surrounding the celebration of Christmas. St. Nicholas was a 4th-century bishop who was notorious for his generosity. The patron saint of children and other groups, he is the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus. On St. Nicholas Day (for most, this falls on Dec. 6) many children will receive small treats and gifts. On Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, many groups venerate the Virgin Mary. Another Christian feast day the Epiphany or Little Christmas is observed 12 days after Christmas and commemorates the three kings, or wise men, who visited Jesus in Bethlehem.

Many Christian traditions mark the observance of Advent, a period of spiritual preparation which spans four weeks before the holiday. A candle on the Advent wreath is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas; the center Christ Candle is lit at Christmas Mass. Many churches will have a candlelight Christmas Eve service. Each attendee holds a candle as a flame from the Christ Candle is passed throughout the congregation, symbolic of the light of Christ coming into the world while special hymns add to the spiritual atmosphere.

Advent is a time of waiting for Christ to be born into the world as a child, as well as his coming into our lives in a deeper way, and to prepare for his coming again at the end of time, said Rev. Timothy Graff of the Archdiocese of Newark. In a way, everyone prepares for Christmas even non-religious people. Theres a special feeling in the air. Just as you prepare physically for your family celebrations by cooking and buying gifts, we are all preparing for God.

People often think of God as being separate, Graff said, but the holidays reminds us that God is closer than we think. We can feel close to God and one another when we remember that he came into the world as a human a child, poor and seeking refuge.

No matter what your religious traditions may be, our holidays remind us that we are not alone in the world. They help us remember to reach out to others because we are called to be neighbors and to care for one another, said Graff.

Celebrating Many Faith Traditions

Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that New Jersey is one of the most religiously diverse states in the country 67 percent of the states population are Christians of various denominations; 14% belong to Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faith traditions; 19% are unaffiliated. Around 55% of New Jerseyans consider themselves highly religious.

Amid this diverse landscape, New Jerseyans encounter in their daily lives belief systems different from their own and these differences are often emphasized around the holidays. For many, special holidays fall at times of the year outside of the traditional holiday season. When this happens, individuals must decide how they want to participate in holidays that may be tied to religious beliefs they may not share. They may choose to celebrate in a non-religious way, or not at all.

For example, New Jerseys population is 3% Muslim the highest percentage of any state. The main holidays of Islam Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice); the holy month of Ramadan during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset; and Eid al-Fitr (Festival of Breaking the Fast) rotate throughout the year based on the lunar calendar but typically dont coincide with the observance of common winter holidays.

Imam W. Deen Shareef of Masjid Waarith-Ud Deen mosque in Irvington said most Muslims partake in Thanksgiving and the universal observance of thanks and gratitude, but they dont typically celebrate Christmas in a religious sense.

However, Muslims of African American descent like Imam Shareef may have relatives who are Christian. In these times, you will find that we are there with our family observing the good spirit that they have in the observation of their holiday. We are there to reflect upon how we as people of faith can reflect our obedience to God the Almighty so that he can give us guidance on how to live our lives.

Imam Shareef said that religious holidays exist to bring recurring happiness to our lives, and that they provide a bright spot of unification in a divided world.

There is a thread of universal truth that runs through the heavenly religions the belief that we are all connected, that we come from one human essence, one human soul of which we are all a part.

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Connecting communities: Holiday traditions unite various cultures across the state - Jersey's Best

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