Holiday Celebrations from Around the World

The holiday season ushers in celebrations that include a cross-section of religious and secular celebrations. Families and friends gather to spend quality time and reflect on the year as it nears a close.


In Philadelphia, two local organizations, The African American Museum in Philadelphia and the National Museum of American Jewish History, host Kwanzaa and Being ___ At Christmas, respectively, in an effort to serve populations who don’t observe the traditional Christmas day. 


Kwanzaa, which celebrates African culture and traditions, is observed from December 26, 2019 through January 1, 2020.


Ivan Henderson is the vice president of programming at The African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), a local affiliate of The Smithsonian Institute that celebrates the legacies of African American people.


AAMP’s annual celebration of Kwanzaa is one of the cultural institutions most popular events and a joyous occasion for the people that attend its festivities each year. 


According to Henderson, Kwanzaa is American tradition that began in the 20th century to bring members of the African Diaspora together “in a spirit for fellowship, partnership and renewal.”


“Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga created the holiday in 1966, promoting principles, language and symbols that acknowledge pan-African ancestry as a point of commonality for members of the Diaspora, thereby providing a uniform set of powerful, ancestrally connected and culturally significant ideas, rituals and other activities for us all to engage with simultaneously during a week of communion, reflection and rejuvenation,” Henderson said.


Henderson believes a benefit of Kwanzaa is that the event connects members of the Diaspora in a non-religious way. “It is a celebration of culture which invites all to participate,” Henderson said. “Paired with Juneteenth, this holiday makes me appreciate the agency and ingenuity employed by African Americans in creating and maintaining these traditions for generations, even when outsiders were unaware or unsupportive, or downright hostile towards them.”


With AAMP being one of the area’s most significant places to celebrate African American culture and identity, Henderson considers celebrating Kwanzaa to be a duty of the organization. 


“At AAMP, we are stewards of cultural resources, and supporters of cultural practice, so observing Kwanzaa is both a duty and a delight for us,” Henderson said. “We still encounter people of all backgrounds (including members of the Diaspora) who do not know much about Kwanzaa, or who are curious about it but simply have not taken part yet. We invite the communities we serve to observe Kwanzaa at AAMP, and to take away from this experience both the positive emotional outcomes, and the basic information they would need to start new Kwanzaa traditions of their own at home or in their neighborhoods.”


At the National Museum of American Jewish History, an event called “Being ___ At Christmas” has provided an all-inclusive approach to celebrating the holiday season for over 30 years. Emily August is the Museum’s director of communications and public engagement and has seen the event evolve over time. “This year marks the 10th Christmas Day in our current building,” August said. “Historically, the event was called ‘Being Jewish at Christmas’ and was originally created to serve the Jewish community on a day when everything else was closed.”  


“A year or two after we moved into our new building, we swapped the ‘Jewish’ for a ‘blank space’ to host an inclusive day that matched our inclusive mission,” August added. “There are many individuals and families who don’t celebrate Christmas and who aren’t Jewish, or who have blended traditions, or who are simply looking for something different to do on Christmas Day. Our Museum is a warm and inviting space where, no matter what you observe, you can have a fun, community experience on December 25.”


Although not tied to the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan and the Lunar New Year are both cultural benchmarks all of their own. 2020’s Lunar New Year, which celebrates the year of the Metal Rat, will be honored on Saturday, January 25. Following the Islamic calendar, in 2020, Ramadan will be observed for 30 days, starting on April 24. 


Ramadan celebrates the unveiling of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, by the prophet Muhammad. Both fasting and giving back to the needy are important components of Ramadan. Post-pubescent people, and those who are not ill or pregnant, refrain from eating or drinking from sunup to sundown. The exercise is designed to help people connect with the less fortunate and to also reflect and cleanse their minds, bodies and souls. During this time Muslims are encouraged to practice self-reflection and charity.


Muslim fashion designer Khaleel J. Salaam emphasized that Ramadan is an even bigger celebration overseas in regions where Islam is a more prominent religion. “We still give out gifts and give out food to the needy and it’s a bigger thing overseas,” Salaam said. “In Mecca there are celebrations every day. When it’s time to pray everything gets shut down.”


The end of Ramadan is marked by a huge three day celebration, known as the Feast of Fast Breaking or Id al-Fitr. Muslims congregate to share delicious meals with friends and family, exchange presents and say special prayers. 


Similarly, Lunar New Year celebrations also gather families to honor their ancestors by sharing and connecting over a meal. Traditional lucky money called lay-see is gifted, from married couples and older family members, to unmarried relatives and children; this gift is believed to benefit both the receiver and the giver.


No matter your religious and cultural background, there are a number of ways to enjoy your holidays and connect with other people like you.


Lead photo by Meredith Edlow: Children partake in Kwanzaa actitivies at The African American Museum in Philadelphia.