November 29 — December 7

Hanukkah (Judaism) 25 Kislev to 3 Tevet
Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is rooted in a particular historical experience. It commemorates the miracle of successful Jewish resistance to Hellenic oppression in the second century B.C., when a small Jewish army set about to reclaim the Jerusalem temple and purge it of all Greek defilement. They found that only one small flask of consecrated oil—enough for one day—remained in the temple after the Greeks' pillaging. But miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. Hanukkah is a time for Jews to celebrate that miracle by lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of the holiday. A special eight-branched candelabra is placed in the front window for all passers-by to see. Although Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday in Judaism, it began to get major play in the United States in the mid- to late 20th century as Jews sought to counterbalance American culture's pervasive and extravagant Christmas celebrations. Hanukkah is a joyous holiday filled with games, parties, gifts for children and special foods (often fried in oil).

Recommended Reading:
The second edition of Ron Wolfson's Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration offers traditions, recipes, songs, craft ideas and gift suggestions. It also has a special chapter on "December Dilemmas," to help parents teach their children about Hanukkah's importance in a culture that is saturated with Santa Claus songs and crèche scenes (Jewish Lights, Aug.). Also, Berel Wein's Living Jewish: Values, Practice and Traditions has a short but beautiful section on Hanukkah (Mesorah, Nov.).

December 1 & 5

The Night of Power (Islam)
Eid ul-Fitr (Islam)

At the close of the month of Ramadan, two important holidays are observed by Muslims worldwide. The first, occurring this year on December 1, is Laylat ul-Qudr, or "Night of Power." It recalls the occasion when Muhammad received the first words of the Qur'an from the angel Jibra'il (Gabriel) on an odd-numbered day in the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. (The exact day is uncertain.) The Qur'an says that Laylat ul-Qudr is "better than a thousand months." The other significant occasion at the close of Ramadan is Eid ul-Fitr, the great celebration that marks the end of the month of fasting. Eid is a time to feast, enjoy special foods such as sugared almonds and stuffed lamb, wear one's best clothes, give gifts, and exchange cards and greetings. Muslims wish each other an "Eid Mubarak," or "A Blessed Eid."

Recommended Reading:
Festivals of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Celebrations, Customs, Events & Holidays, by Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien and Martin Palmer, explains the major holidays of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Sikhism and Hinduism. It offers very helpful information about these two Muslim observances as well as others throughout the year (Checkmark, Oct.). Robin Laurance's Portrait of Islam: A Journey Through the Muslim World is a fine photography book about the tremendous diversity of Muslim life (Thames & Hudson, Sept. 30).

December 25

Christmas (Western Christianity)
Christmas, one of the two major feast days of Christianity (the other is Easter), celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe to be the Son of God. The celebration follows a three-and-a-half-week penitential period called Advent, which occupies most of the month of December. Whereas Advent is a season of repentance, somber reflection, and preparation for Christ's coming, Christmas is a joyous observance that is marked by feasting, gift-giving, music and diversions. In the West, Christians celebrate Christmas on the fixed date of December 25, but Orthodox Christians who use the Julian calendar commemorate it 13 days later. Worldwide, Christmas traditions and customs vary tremendously, including what is eaten (goose in a traditional English meal, carp in a traditional French one).

Recommended Reading:
More books are published in North America about Christmas than about any other holiday. One of the better inspirational titles this season is Christmas Presence: Twelve Gifts That Were More Than They Seemed, edited by Gregory Augustine Pierce. It includes personal essays by Michael Leach, Vinita Hampton Wright, John Shea and others (ACTA, Oct. 15). Also, Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old is the most literary collection of the year, with offerings from Madeleine L'Engle, Henry van Dyke and Pearl S. Buck (Plough, Sept.).

December 26 — January 1

Kwanzaa is a relatively new addition to the round of American winter holidays. It was created in 1966 by a black studies professor to help African-Americans cultivate pride in their heritage. The holiday focuses on the seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Each night of the seven-night holiday is devoted to one of these seven principles, and one candle is lit for each day. At the close of the week—coinciding with the secular celebrations of New Year's Eve—the Karamu festival features a rousing banquet of African and African-American foods.

Recommended Reading:
Terrie Williams's A Plentiful Harvest: Creating Balance and Harmony Through the Seven Living Virtues uses the seven spiritual values of Kwanzaa to help women achieve balance in their lives (Warner, Nov.). For young children, there's Kwanzaa Kids, a lift-the-flap book that depicts children making presents for family members, playing African games, and enjoying a feast (Puffin, Sept. 30).