MamaBlogger365 – Mommy, Why Does That Lady’s Sweater Have Lights On It? (Teaching Kids About Different Cultural Holiday Traditions) by Mary Rekosh

I was recently asked to write an article for a local (Charlottesville, VA) news magazine (The C-Ville Weekly) outlining the basics of a few of the different cultural traditions that are observed during the winter season, which is a great time of year to engage our children in discussion about some of the customs and beliefs of the many cultures in our melting pot. Normally I don’t post my locally minded articles to the Mamazina blog, but this one required me to do actual research (Gasp! You mean I can’t always rely on the sources of material that gave me stretch marks?)… and as it turns out, I learned an interesting thing or two. I thought I’d share the gist of the piece with Mamazina readers, in hopes that you find a takeaway to spark conversation with your own kids. Here goes:

While different holiday traditions serve the very important purpose of preserving aspects of the heritage of a group of people while honoring a significant time in their past, they are most important because there are usually yummy traditional desserts that are prepared for each one. Nom nom nom.

Whether you’re devoutly religious or just along for the desserts (don’t judge), hopefully this (very) basic breakdown of a few of the major winter holidays will be a helpful tool for you to use in discussions with your kids about how –and why- different families in our local neighborhoods around the world celebrate this magical time between late November and the New Year.


Who? Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, also known as ‘Festival of Lights’ that is celebrated around the world.

What? In 165 B.C.E., the Jewish Maccabees managed to drive the Syrian army out of Jerusalem and reclaim their temple. The temple then had to be rededicated, since the Greek-influenced Syrians had taken it over as a temple to Zeus. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication”. When the sacred temple menorah (candelabra) was re-lit, there was only enough sacred oil to burn for one day. However, according to tradition, the oil miraculously lasted eight days until more purified oil could be found.

In remembrance, a candle is lit each of the eight days of Hanukkah. Children receive gifts of gelt or money in remembrance of the coins minted by the new independent Maccabee state, and they play games of dreidel (a spinning four-sided top). The tradition of receiving a gift on each of the eight days of Hanukkah is fairly recent, and by the way kids whose families celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah really clean up during the month of December.

When? Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of ‘Kislev’. This usually, but not always, falls in December but is on a different day of the traditional Gregorian calendar each year.

That’s Cool, But What’s For Dessert? Potato latkes (potato pancakes) are traditionally served with sweet applesauce. Think deconstructed apple pie, but a little more on the savory side. Mmmmmm…


Who? Kwanzaa originated as an African American holiday and generally remains that way, but some non-African Americans also celebrate.

What? Kwanzaa (a name derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits of the harvest) is a relatively new holiday, having been created in the mid-1960s by Maulana Karenga as a way for African Americans to reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions and Nguzu Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage”. The seven principles, each of which is celebrated for one day of the seven-day holiday, are: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.

Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloths, and and display and enjoy fresh fruits that represent African idealism. The holiday greeting is “Joyous Kwanzaa”.

A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, shared libations, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and a feast. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors.

When? December 26-January1

That’s Cool, But What’s For Dessert? Traditional Kwanzaa desserts tend to incorporate the fresh, sweet fruits mentioned above. Examples include mango pound cake and Ambrosia, which is known in Greek mythology as “food of the Gods” and can reflect a global menu by using exotic fruits from the Caribbean such as mango, papaya, and star fruit.


Who? Christmas is considered a Christian holiday, but is observed with varying degrees of religious emphasis.

What? Christians believe that Christmas is celebrated as Christ’s birthday though it’s now believed that Jesus was not born in December. It is a time for Christians to celebrate Jesus’ existence and remember all that he did and the hope he brought to the world.

Non-Christians believe that Christmas started with Saint Nicholas (a bishop from the 4th century) who gave out gifts and was known to have a kind nature. Saint Nicholas wore bishop’s clothing that led to the American image of Santa Claus in the late 1800’s. Santa Claus is a figure of generous good cheer, and many children are told that he knows whether they have been naughty or nice throughout the year.

Celebrating Christmas as a holiday began with the Romans, who called it Saturnalia and celebrated differently than is done today but with some similarities including bringing evergreens into their homes and setting up Nativity scenes. Today, many people decorate their homes with evergreen trees on which they hang lights and ornaments, decorative wreaths, and set up Nativity scenes. Many people also decorate their bodies with bizarre sweaters that light up and even play Christmas carols in some extreme cases, but that’s another story.

People often gather with family and friends on Christmas, and exchange gifts and share feasts and music including Christmas Carols. It’s traditional for many families to have at least one member who celebrates the holiday by drinking too much eggnog and starting an argument over politics.

Retailers celebrate by blaring Christmas music relentlessly and airing commercials that have children begging their parents for expensive electronics, beginning sometime around Halloween.

When? December 25th

That’s Cool, But What’s For Dessert? In the U.S., traditional Christmas desserts include peppermint candy canes, Christmas cookies and fruitcakes*.

*Fruitcakes are usually just mailed or given from one person to another over and over again for generations until eventually they disintegrate. Nobody actually eats them.

Bodhi Day

Who? Bodhi Day is observed by Buddhists, and is widely celebrated in Japanese culture.

What? Bodhi Day is celebrated by Buddhists on December 8 in commemoration of the enlightenment of the Buddha. Before the enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautauma (who later became known as Buddha) is said to have spent years forsaking worldly instincts or pleasures of the body, speech or mind. After extended meditation under the Pipal tree, he was able to find the cause of suffering and how to liberate a person from it. This is considered the most important holiday for the Buddhists, and they often honor it with readings.

When? December 8

That’s Cool, But What’s For Dessert? Buddha didn’t get dessert under the Pipal tree, although some Buddhists celebrate with a traditional meal of tea and cakes.

Winter Solstice

Who? Winter Solstice is observed by various cultures, ancient and modern.

What? The winter solstice, or “Longest Night” marks the time when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky, signifying the transition to shorter nights and longer days until summer solstice (in June) at which time the pattern reverses itself. The solstice is observed by many people in C-Ville and around the world.

When? December 21-22.

Say What? Neat suggestion from my great friend Kelly Cox, owner of Bend Yoga Charlottesville: “As winter solstice focuses on reflection, sit with your child and ask them to reflect upon a topic you choose together.  Maybe it’s how they have an impact on their family, their community at school, with neighbors, etc.  Children will surprise you with their insight.  We try to encourage free thinkers and place an emphasis on sharing and listening to each other.”

That’s Cool, But What’s For Dessert? Because Winter Solstice is observed by such a wide variety of cultures, there is no traditional dessert so it’s a free for all! I’m going to go with wine.

Cheers to you and yours this holiday season. May you be joyful, grateful for your blessings, and surrounded by love. And dessert.

Bio: Mary Rekosh is a freelance writer, children’s yoga instructor and mother of three in Charlottesville, VA. She is also a parenting columnist and a blogger who hopes that documenting the found humor in her journey through motherhood will help others gain a fresh perspective as well. She believes that children are meant to be seen, heard and definitely laughed about.

MamaBlogger365 is a blogging project coordinated on behalf of the Museum of Motherhood, now open in New York City! Exhibits, events, a Meet the Expert series, playgroups, arts programs and more – visit for hours and info.

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