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Hanukkah and Kwanzaa Use the Symbol of Candlelight in Celebration. How Else Are the Two Holidays Different and Similar?

Updated on November 11, 2017
beverley byer profile image

Beverley has a degree in science and additional certifications in nutrition and aromatherapy. She's published on and offline.

I’ve always been fascinated by the use of the candelabra in the celebrations of Hanukkah or Chanukah (there are other spelling variations) and Kwanzaa. The two holidays are so different, yet candelabrum candle-burning is at their center. It led me to investigate more. What are the specific differences between Hanukkah and Kwanzaa? And are there additional underlying similarities?

What is Hanukkah or Chanukah?

Hanukkah or Chanukah is a secular and minor Jewish holiday celebrated annually for eight days and nights, somewhere between late November and late December, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. This well-known holiday, also called the Festival of Lights or Miracle of Lights, commemorates the Jews second century BCE victory over their Greek-Syrian conquerors. The celebration involved a rededication of the Holy Temple and the miraculous eight-day extension of one night’s worth of oil. That’s the popular version.

Hanukkah candles
Hanukkah candles | Source

The Popular Story of Hanukkah or Chanukah in Detail

When the Greek-Syrians captured Israel, they desecrated the Holy Temple by dedicating it to their god Zeus and performing animal sacrifices. The Emperor Antiochus IV ordered the Jews to replace their traditions with that of the Greeks, including the worship of Zeus and consumption of pork. Disobedience resulted in death.

A high priest named Mattathias and his sons revolted and fled to the mountains. From there, they and later other resisters launched a victorious battle against the Greek-Syrians, which eventually led to the reclaiming of the land and the Temple. The Maccabees, as they all came to be known, wanted to cleanse and rededicate their house of worship by burning purified olive oil in the candelabrum of God's light (the menorah) for eight nights. Though they found enough oil for one, they decided to light it anyway. To their miraculous surprise, the oil lasted for the entire eight nights.

Minorah | Source

The Not-So-known Story of Hanukkah or Chanukah

The Second Book of the Maccabees, written circa 125 BCE, states that that first Hanukkah was actually a belated celebration of the annual Jewish pilgrimage festival of Sukkot, which typically lasted eight days. It would have been difficult for them to hold Sukkot during the time of the war. By the way, neither of the two Maccabee books, mentioned the miracle of the oil.

The Traditional Celebration of Hanukkah or Chanukah

As time passed, the eight-day Hanukkah or dedication event was celebrated annually with eating fried foods, prayer recitations, gift-giving (mainly to children), and of course, the lighting of menorah candles.

Beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, usually November or December on the Gregorian calendar, candles are placed from right to left in the nine-branched menorah with the Shamash/ Shammus or helper candle placed higher or lower in the middle. The Shamash is lit first and used to light the other candles, starting with the one on the far left.

Once the Shamash is lit, three blessings called Berakhot are recited: a general prayer of blessing the candles, a prayer of thanks to G-d (God) for ancestral miracles, and a prayer of thanks for being allowed to reach another year of celebration. Then the first candle is placed in the menorah and lit. Each subsequent night, a new candle is placed in the menorah and lit by the Shamash starting with the one on the far left. So, on the second night of Hanukkah, a second candle will be placed second on the far left. This time only two blessings will be recited before the lighting. The latter ritual is the boilerplate for the rest of the celebration.

The Hanukkah food must include fried or baked potato latkes/ pancakes and sugar-coated jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot to signify the miracle oil, and cheeses to signify the woman Judith’s part in the Maccabees’ victory. Other foods include Matzo ball soup, brisket, short ribs, gefilte fish, noodle Kugel, Challah bread, Rugelach, and cheesecake.

There are also Hanukkah songs and the gambling game Dreidel. The dreidel is a four-sided top-like object with a Hebrew letter on each side. The game is normally played as follows: Depending on what the players decide, they place real coins, chocolate coins called gelt, or things like matchsticks into a receptacle. A player then spins the dreidel, and depending on which side it lands, that player gets one of the items in the pot, half the pot, or must put something in the pot. The winner is the one who gets the entire pot. The dreidel game harkens back to the war when the Jews used them to fool the Greek-Syrian armies in making believe they were playing the game when they were really studying the Torah.

Hanukkah’s gift-giving stems from the Talmud's decree that everyone must burn at least one candle and those who cannot afford one must go out and seek alms to purchase it. The almsgivers in turn must allow the less fortunate to beg with dignity. Today’s gift-giving has expanded to almost mirror the Christmas version. Perhaps, because Hanukkah often falls around Christmas and it help to deter Jewish children’s sadness at the knowledge of their Christians friends receiving gifts.

Overall, Hanukkah not only serves to remind Jews of the miracle of the light, but it also serves to remind them of their virtuous and peaceful characteristics.

Potato Latkes
Potato Latkes | Source
Sufganiyot (sugar-coated, jelly-filled donuts)
Sufganiyot (sugar-coated, jelly-filled donuts) | Source
Dreidel | Source

Making Latke

Dreidel Game

What Is Kwanzaa?

Unlike Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days and nights by African Americans and others of African descent. It extends from December 26 to January 1 on the Gregorian calendar. Like Hanukkah, it is a non-religious or secular holiday. It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, California.

Kwanzaa Candle being lit
Kwanzaa Candle being lit | Source

The Story of Kwanzaa

Dr. Karenga, who holds two Ph.Ds., one in Political Science with emphasis on theory and practice of nationalism and the other in Social Ethics with emphasis on the classical African ethics of ancient Egypt, created an entity called Organization Us. The organization’s philosophy is termed Kawaida. The Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles in its program is designed to help people of African descent no matter where they are established a time to remember the seven virtues of the African culture, which are based upon contributions to family and community. In the Kwanzaa holiday, each principle of Nguzo Sabo is given one day of reflection, reinforcement, affirmation, and celebration.

Dr. Karenga modeled the idea and holiday after the Southern African tradition of firstfruits. The celebration took seven days of preparation and included the blessing of harvest crops; giving thanks to the Creator for the crops, abundance, good fortune, and all good things provided on earth; honoring the ancestors who help secure the good harvest, abundance, and well-being; and reaffirming the bonds among family and the entire community.

Kinara and Libation Cup
Kinara and Libation Cup | Source

The Kwanzaa Traditional Celebration

The Kwanzaa holiday symbols include decorating with the African colors of green, red, and black; straw mats; fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and nuts, and African baskets to house them; an ear of corn for each child; a communal cup for libation; a seven-candle candelabrum or Kinara; candles in African colors; African cloth patterns, art objects, perhaps including Kwanzaa posters, and gifts, especially for children.

During Kwanzaa, some participants wear traditional clothing such as Kente cloth – bright patterns or print of red, green and yellow; Danshiki – an embroidered or hand-printed shirt worn with black pants by men and traditional skirts by women; Kanga – a shawl worn over a shirt or dress; headwear – Gele for women and Fila for men.

Each day, the elder or leader greets the celebrants with “Habari gani?” In English, “What is happening?” The celebrants then name the day’s principle. For example, day one, December 26, the reply would be “Umoja.” This is followed by a prayer; the Harambee or call to unity; sharing of the libation cup; the lighting of a candle on the Kinara (usually by the youngest person present); a discussion of the day’s principle; the inclusion of stories or songs; and gifts may be exchanged- usually books or some other educational instrument.

Day one, the principle of Umoja or Unity. Celebrants seek a commitment of unity in the family, community, race, and the world. The black center candle is lit first then the candle on the far right, which is usually red. (On subsequent nights, candles are lit alternately, working toward the center of the kinara.)

Day two, the principle of Kujichagulia or self-determination. On this day, celebrants contemplate and speak about who they are, including as a family and as a people. A green candle on the other side of the kinara is lit.

Day three, the principle of Ujima or Collective Responsibility. Celebrants identify ways everyone can unite to create a sustainable community.

Day four, the principle of Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics. On this day, celebrants ascertain how to create and maintain profitable shops and other businesses for the future.

Day five, the principle of Nia or Purpose. Celebrants concentrate on building and restoring the African community to its former glory.

Day six, the principle of Kuumba or Creativity. It’s the day celebrants make the commitment to use their gifts as much and every way possible to improve the beauty and economics of the community. It’s also feast day. A mat is laid and foods are placed on it for everyone to enjoy. The foods are usually the traditional dishes found in African, African American, and Caribbean communities: fried okra, plantains, corn bread, colored greens, black-eyed peas, gumbo, ham, fried chicken, jerk chicken, Cajun catfish, sweet potato pie. There’s also prayer, recitations, singing, and dancing to reflect tradition, culture, and ancestry.

Day seven, the principle of Imani or Faith. On this final day of Kwanzaa celebrants commit fully to their people, ancestors, teachers, leaders, and to overcome struggles. The final candle is lit, they discern individually and collectively, a farewell statement is recited, a commitment to unity is made, then candles are snuffed, signaling the end of the celebration.

Gumbo | Source
Caribbean dinner
Caribbean dinner | Source

Cooking for Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa Feast Day

The Notable Differences Between Hanukkah and Kwanzaa

Notable differences in the candlelight-centered holidays of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are in the specifics. While there is no dress code for Hanukkah celebrants, many Kwanzaa celebrants wear traditional garb. Hanukkah’s daily or nighttime celebrations follow the same agenda, while each night of Kwanzaa has a different agenda., including the distinctive food feast night on December 31. And of course, the Hanukkah holiday is celebrated for eight days, while Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven.

Hanukkah and Kwanzaa Celebration Poll

Do you or do you know someone who celebrates either of these two holidays?

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The Similarity of Candlelight Symbolism in Hanukkah and Kwanzaa

Overall, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are annual secular holidays set aside for people to celebrate, remember, discern, and rededicate themselves to their roots and community. They do so by affirming their history, their culture, their virtues, and their values, and their bond of togetherness as they wade through common historic and current struggles with daily prayer, song, games, great food, and often gifts. But most importantly, with their simple and common symbol of candlelight.


. Hanukkah 101 from

. The Official Kwanzaa Website from

© 2017 Beverley Byer


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