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Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center


'Tis the season: December holidays

VA Chaplains

VA Chaplains Painter and Rector

By John Painter, Chaplain
Monday, December 7, 2015

A glance at the religious observance calendar on the Chaplain Service bulletin board outside the chapel would reveal eighteen different events in December. Three of these observances are Hanukkah, Christmas, and a cultural event, Kwanzaa.


Celebrated for eight days, Dec. 6 - 14, Hanukkah is the Jewish commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C. following the profaning of the Temple by a foreign king. At the rededication, kosher olive oil was needed for the menorah (eight-branched candlestick). Only enough oil for one day was found, yet it burned for eight days. Hanukkah lasts for eight nights; on each night, a candle is lit as a reminder of the miracle. A series of rituals are performed daily throughout the holiday, and include readings and songs celebrating liberty and freedom. Many families exchange gifts nightly, such as books, games, and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins). Additions are made to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.


Celebrated by Christians on the four Sundays before Christmas, Advent represents the beginning of the Christian church year. Advent celebrates Christ's birth and eventual return. Advent wreaths, composed of five candles, are used in churches and homes to mark the season. As the candles are lit, different aspects of the story of Christ's birth are recounted. The center candle, called the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Day. Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus. The actual date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but Dec. 25 was made popular by Pope Liberius of Rome in 354 A.D. Although celebrated by Christians throughout the world, Christmas traditions and practices vary among cultures and communities. The day is often celebrated in prayer and song at church services, and gifts are often given to represent the gifts Jesus received from the three kings.


Kwanzaa lasts for seven days, Dec. 26 – Jan. 1. Created by author and professor Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage. "Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality," Karenga writes. The word Kwanzaa is derived from Swahili for "first fruits of harvest" and is celebrated with feasts, drinks, and lighting of the kinara (Swahili, "candle holder"). Seven candles represent the principles of African heritage: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). One candle is lit each day of the celebration. In his 1997 book, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, Karenga writes, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday, thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa."

You can learn more about these and other religious observances by visiting Chaplain Service. Chaplains provide, in addition to visiting all newly admitted patients and many outpatient clinics, weekly religious services, special observances, and memorial services. A variety of free devotional literature can be found in the chapel, and walk-in counseling is available to patients, their families, and staff of all faith backgrounds.


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