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Popular Holidays and
Days of Observance

Chanukah | Christmas |
Epiphany | Kwanzaa | Chinese New Year | Bodhi Day
Winter Solstice | Eid Milad-un-Nabi | Diwali | New Year’s

Throughout the hospitals' hallways, every year, MGH honors the holiday traditions of various cultures around the globe, Many of these are observed by MGH patients, families, staff and visitors. Here, we provide an overview of some of the widely celebrated winter holidays and events. For all of their differences, there are also many common themes.

MenoraHanukkah or Chanukah  (Jewish)
In the western calendar Hanukkah is celebrated in November or December.

The word Hanukkah means rededication and celebrates one of the greatest miracles in Jewish history. It is also called the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Dating back to two centuries before the beginning of Christianity, Hanukkah honors the Maccabees' victory over King Antiochus, who forbid Jews to practice their religion. The festival reminds Jews of a time more than 2,500 years ago when Antiochus, a Syrian king, tried to make the Jewish people worship Greek gods. A statue of Antiochus was erected in the Jewish temple and the Jews were ordered to bow down before him. The Ten Commandments forbid Jews to worship statues or idols and so they refused.
A small group of Jews called 
Maccabees rebelled, and after a three-year war they recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrians.

The temple had been all but destroyed. The Jews had to clean and repair the Temple, and when they were finished they rededicated it to God. They did this by lighting the lamp (Menorah) - which was a symbol of God's presence.  A menorah has nine candles, a candle for every night, plus a helper candle. Only one small jar of oil was found, enough for one day, but miraculously the lamp stayed alight for eight days.

Hanukkah is celebrated with prayer, the lighting of the menorah, and food. Children play games, sing songs, and exchange gifts, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins. On Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes known as latkes in Yiddish. They are served with applesauce and sour cream. Jelly doughnuts, known as sufganiyot, are also popular

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Christmas (Christian)
Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. December 25–Christmas Day–has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.

1800s Christmas TreeIn the early years of Christianity, Easter served as the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention the date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (shepherds do not typically herd in the middle of winter), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.

First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were rowdy and raucous—a lot like today's Mardi Gras parties.By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This is the day it is believed that the three wise men finally came upon Jesus in the manger.

Also, on Christmas Eve, Santa comes from the North Pole in a sleigh to deliver gifts; in Hawaii, it is said he arrives by boat; in Australia, the jolly man arrives on water skis; and In Ghana, he comes out of the jungle.

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Magi mosaic

Photo by Nina Aldin Thune

Epiphany or Three Kings Day
At the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes a day called the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. This holiday is celebrated as the day the three wise men first saw baby Jesus and brought him gifts. On this day in Spain, many children get their Christmas presents. In Puerto Rico, before children go to sleep on January 5, they leave a box with hay under their beds so the kings will leave good presents. In France, a delicious King cake is baked. Bakers will hide a coin, jewel or little toy inside it.

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An Outlaw Christmas
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists who came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident. After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas.

It wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Christmas was declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city's first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated.

In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving. Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.

  • The first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in Captain John Smith's 1607 Jamestown  settlement.
  • Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828.
  • Construction workers started the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition in 1931.
  • Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was the product of Robert L. May's imagination in 1939. The copywriter wrote a poem about the reindeer to help lure customers into the Montgomery Ward department store.

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Kwanzaa  (African America or Black Culture)
Habari Gani? Those Swahili words, mean What's the News? Habari Gani? is the ritual greeting of Kwanzaa and Kwanzaa is the world's fastest-growing holiday. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a scholar of African studies and an activist. His goal was to invigorate an interest in and preservation of black culture following the racial tensions of the 1960s.

Kwanzaa candles Kwanzaa, which means "First Fruits," is based on ancient African harvest festivals and celebrates ideals such as family life and unity. Kwanzaa commemorates African Heritage. During this cultural holiday, celebrated from December 26 to January 1, millions of African Americans dress in afrocentric clothing, decorate their homes with fruits and vegetables, and light a candleholder called a kinara.

The kinara holds a series of black, red and green candles which symbolize the seven basic values of African American family life:

  • unity
  • self-determination
  • collective work and responsibility
  • cooperative economics
  • purpose
  • creativity, and
  • faith.

The most important symbols of Kwanzaa are the mishumaa - seven candles (3 red, 3 green, 1 black) - standing for Kwanzaa's seven principles:

  • the kinara ... a candleholder, representing the stalk of corn from which the family grows
  • the mkeka ... a straw placemat, recalling tradition and history
  • the mazao ... a variety of fruit, symbolizing the harvest
  • the vibunzi ... an ear of corn for each child, celebrating the child's potential
  • the kikombe cha umoja ... a cup of unity, commemorating one's ancestors
  • the zawadi ... modest gifts, encouraging creativity, achievement, and success

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Chinese New YearChinese New Year Boston
Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It falls on different dates each year, between January 21 and February 20. Visits to friends and family take place during this celebration. The color gold is said to bring wealth, and the color red is considered especially lucky. The New Year's Eve dinner is very large and includes fish, noodles, and dumplings.

Many Chinese children dress in new clothes to celebrate Chinese New Year. People carry lanterns and join in a huge parade led by a silk dragon, the Chinese symbol of strength. According to legend, the dragon hibernates most of the year, so people throw firecrackers to keep the dragon awake.

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Bodhi Day
Saturday, December 8 commemorates the day that Buddha sat under a tree to meditate and found enlightenment.

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Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice occurs around December 21st. It is the shortest day of the year. People all over the world participate in festivals and celebrations. Long ago, people celebrated by lighting bonfires and candles to coax back the sun.

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Eid Milad-un-Nabi
This is a Muslim holiday celebrating the birth of the prophet Mohammed.
Muslim parents will tell stories of the Prophet's life to their children. Those Muslims who celebrate this festival do so joyfully.

It may seem strange to non-Muslims, but many Muslims do not believe in celebrating birthdays or death anniversaries because there is no historical evidence that the Prophet Muhammad ever did this. Despite this, large numbers of Muslims do commemorate the birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet, which falls on 12 Rabi-ul-Awwal of the Islamic lunar calendar. This date is important to Muslims because the birth of the Prophet Muhammad is regarded as a great blessing for the whole of humanity. The Prophet Muhammad is deemed to be the chief of all the Prophets sent on earth and it is to him that the Holy Qur’an  was revealed.

There are only restricted festivities on Eid Milad-Un-Nabi because the same day also marks the anniversary of the death of the Prophet. The event is marked by public gatherings of Muslims. At these meetings religious leaders make speeches about the life of the Prophet. Stories are told about different aspects of the life of the Prophet, his birth, childhood, youth and adult life. The most important part of Eid Milad-Un-Nabi is focusing upon the character of the Prophet; on his teachings, sufferings, and how he forgave even his most bitter enemies. Muslims think about the leadership of the Prophet, his bravery, wisdom, preaching and his final triumph over the Meccan Muslims.

As well as recounting the Prophet's life, salutations and songs in his praise are recited. In some countries, streets and mosques are decorated and illuminated at night.
Some Muslims donate to charity. Families gather together, feasts are arranged and food is served to guests and the poor.

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Diwali Festival of Lights (Hindu)Diwali lights
Diwali  is perhaps the most important and ancient of the Indian festivals. This ancient Hindu festival symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness and the renewal of life. It is celebrated by people in India and Indians living abroad. Families light lamps, candles and fireworks to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness, and good over evil. It is also known as “The Festival of Lights”, and families light small oil lamps (diyas) and candles around the home and set off firecrackers and fireworks.

Traditionally, Diwali is celebrated for five days, and takes place at the new moon on 15th day of the Hindu month of Kartik or Karthika (October/November). This is at the beginning of the winter season and is called the “darkest night of the year”, so lamps are lit to brighten this moonless night. Originally a Hindu festival, Diwali is also celebrated by Sikhs and Jains. It's an official holiday in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji. Diwali signifies different things in different areas of India. For example, in Gujarat, the festival honors Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. In north India, it celebrates the god Rama’s homecoming to the kingdom of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile.

In Britain, as in India, the festival is a time for:

  • spring-cleaning the home,
  • wearing new clothes
  • exchanging gifts (often sweets and dried fruits) and preparing festive meals
  • decorating buildings with fancy lights.
  • huge firework displays often celebrate Divali.

In India Hindus will leave the windows and doors of their houses open so that Lakshmi can come in. Rangoli are drawn on the floors - rangoli are patterns and the most popular subject is the lotus flower.

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New Year's fireworks
New Year’s Traditions
In many countries, New Year’s celebrations begin on the evening of December 31-New Year’s Eve-and continue into the early hours of January 1.

Revelers often enjoy meals and snacks thought to bestow good luck for the coming year:

  • In Spain and several other Spanish speaking countries, people bolt down a dozen grapes-symbolizing their hopes for the months ahead-right before midnight.
  • In many parts of the world, traditional New Year’s dishes feature legumes, which are thought to resemble coins and herald future financial success; examples include lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern United States.
  • Because pigs represent progress and prosperity in some cultures, pork appears on the New Year’s Eve Table in Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal and other countries.
  • Ring-shaped cakes and pastries, a sign that the year has come full circle, round out the feast in the Netherlands, Mexico, Greece and elsewhere.
  • In Sweden and Norway, meanwhile, rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is served on New Year’s Eve; it is said that whoever finds the nut can expect 12 months of good fortune.

Other customs that are common worldwide include watching fireworks and singing songs to welcome the new year, including the ever popular “Auld Lang Syne” in many English speaking countries. The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have first caught on among the ancient Babylonians, who made promises in order to earn the favor of the gods and start the year off on the right foot. They would reportedly vow to pay off the debts and return borrowed farm equipment.

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MGH Contacts

Deborah Washington, RN, PhD
Director, PCS Diversity Program

PCS Diversity Steering Committee
Meets the 1st and 3rd Tuesday monthly, from 12-1pm, Founders 311,
Conference Room

Excellence Every Day represents an MGH commitment to providing the highest quality, safest care that meets or exceeds all standards set by the hospital and external organizations.

If you have questions or suggestions related to the EED portal, please contact Georgia Peirce at (617) 724-9865 or via email at

updated 12/3/12


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