Holidays that students of AHS celebrate during the winter season

Mengting Chang 

Staff Writer

     Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ōmisoka, Diwali, and Chinese New Year are among some of the lesser known holidays celebrated around the world during the holiday season. Here at AHS, a cultural melting pot, we visit a few of these celebrations: Hanukkah, Diwali, and Chinese New Year.

     Hanukkah is a Jewish Festival observed for eight days and eight nights. According to legend, when a handful of Jews entered the Temple in Jerusalem, they found a single jar of oil, which seemed sufficient for only one day. They sent a messenger to obtain additional oil but their trip unfortunately took eight days. Despite this, the single jar of oil miraculously continued to burn until his return. Thus, the celebration of Hanukkah was born. Nessya Shapiro (9), a student who proudly celebrates Hanukkah, describes their normal family’s preparations for this holiday.

Nessya Shapiro (center), on the third night of Hanukkah in 2018, sitting behind the family menorah, while eating homemade bread. “[The thing I enjoy most about Hanukkah is] getting together with family,” Shapiro says. 

     “[T]he menorah is a candle stand where you have eight candles representing the eight days and you have a middle candle called the shamash.” Shapiro explains, “We light the menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah and then usually during Winter break, we’ll go down and see my dad’s family. So we’ll have a Hanukkah party [with] latkes, and sufganiyot. Latkes are like potato pancakes, [and] sufganiyot are kind of like donuts. ”

     Other popular Hanukkah treats include Loukoumades (Greek honey puffs), and Hamantaschen cookies (lemon poppy seed cookies). Food is usually a component of holiday celebrations, and for Diwali, it’s no different. From savory samosas and crispy puris, to sweeter treats like gulab jamun, and ladoos, this Indian celebration has its fair share of cultural food. Diwali is celebrated in the middle of November and like Hanukkah, it’s also known as the Festival of Lights, and Rakshan Patnaik (10) explains why.

A flower design (Rangoli) Rakshan Patnaik’s mother designed and placed in front of their house for this year’s Diwali.

     “In Hindu culture, Diwali celebrates the return of a Hindu hero named Ram to his home town of Ayodhya. The city of Ayodhya puts on a lot of lights and festivals— that’s where the name, “Festival of Lights” comes from,” recalls Patnaik.

     When asked about the celebration of Diwali, he offers his own experiences in preparing for the holiday.

     “We tidy up the house… we buy new clothes, we find flowers, we put up lights on the house, We put lamps on the outside of our house. We do rangoli which is kind of like a chalk design where you can design flowers, or any other circular design on the front door, or front step of your house,” says Patnaik.

       After several prayers called ‘pujas,’ comes Patnaik’s favorite part of the celebration: the fireworks. 

     “We would go to Newark or any other city that does allow fireworks… It’s very fun because I get to spend time with friends and that is always a fun thing to do. This year we didn’t really do that because of the coronavirus… so it was a lot more lowkey than usual,” explains Patnaik.

     Unfortunately, COVID-19 has stunted the celebrations of many holidays as a side effect of the prohibitions on large gatherings to ensure health and safety. Shapiro’s Hanukkah activities are under similar inhibitions.

     “Sometimes as a family, we’ll do a skit for the history of Hanukkah, and why we celebrate it. Sometimes the family will do a skit for one of my younger siblings, my elementary school classes, probably won’t do that this year either, although we could do it over Zoom, but we haven’t talked about doing that,” she says.

A candle (diya) that is placed around and in front of the house during the celebration of Diwali.

     Rei Tey (10)’s celebration of Chinese New Year, which comes in February, is also likely to be included in this list of affected holidays. 

Rei Tey’s red envelopes received throughout the years during Chinese New Year celebrations. Words to bring good fortune, prosperity, and peace are written on the envelopes.

    Tey explains, “Usually we go over to someone’s house to meet all our other friends… we’ll just chill and hang out and I think at midnight, we’ll have this dish. We kind of mix ingredients that symbolize different things. Like, fish in Chinese also means money… but because of the coronavirus, it’s gonna be different.”

     In Chinese, the word fish translates to “魚”, which is a homophone to yú, “裕” meaning abundance. Other Chinese New Year foods with this symbolism include “year cake”, 年糕niángāo, which sounds identical to“year high”, 年高, and dumplings which have a traditional silver and gold ingot shape to them so they would bring wealth. 

     Fortunately, even with COVID-19 obstructing celebration plans, these holidays remain just as important to the ones who celebrate them.

     Rei Tey explains the cultural significance of Chinese New Year, “Celebrating it here helped me connect to my relatives because we don’t really celebrate it here, not as big as it was in Singapore, so I feel connected to them in a way.”

     Pantaik reinforces this, “Diwali is something that brings me together and closer with my mom and dad, but also with my Indian community, so I generally consider it to be pretty important to me.”

     A new year is coming, and with that a new chance to gather together, honoring traditions, and enjoying the gift of celebration. For many, their holiday celebrations have been inevitably abridged by COVID-19, but this has also become a chance for families to gather and celebrate in a more personal space. The gift of celebration has not been lost— it’s kept and molded into something unique and memorable.

Rakshan Patnaik (center), his father (left), and his mother (right). They are in front of their statues of Hindu Gods where they do prayers (pujas). Patnaik and his father wear a kurta while his mother wears a sari and holds the diyas. “Diwali is usually a bigger affair where we invite families, [and] our friends to do the Puja with us and take [the] sweets.” Patnaik says.

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