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Monday, July 4, 2022

UC Davis community members share their favorite holiday traditions

From religious to cultural to secular festivities, the winter months are a time of celebration for many

By KATIE DEBENEDETTI — features@theaggie.org

As fall quarter and 2021 come to an end, many students and professors are ringing in the holiday season and preparing for the new year. Here’s how some of them celebrate this special time and the traditions they look forward to continuing this year.

Ryan Cometa, a third-year human biology major, said that as a Catholic, he loves the Christmas season in part because of the duality of the holiday as both a secular and religious one for many people. 

“I like the idea that the secular holiday has brought, where it’s just kind of a time for families to come together,” Cometa said. “It’s the holiday season, everybody’s done in school and people are finishing up their work for the year, so it’s a time for everybody to come together. Then, there’s the Catholic tradition where we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and […] we’re celebrating the birth of the newborn child who becomes the Savior according to our religion, so that is also [a celebration of] family coming together.”

Cometa said that a big part of the celebration of Christmas — which marks the birth of the son of God in the Catholic church — is the Advent season, a four week preparation period during which the community gets ready for Jesus’ birth.

“The Advent season, I think, is really underrated, especially nowadays,” Cometa said. “It’s giving us this four weeks just to prepare for His coming and the Christmas season. And then even past that, once the Christmas season does come, we celebrate — at least liturgically for us Catholics — not just on the 25th, but we celebrate it all the way until [Jesus’] baptism, which is in mid-January.”

Cometa said that by celebrating the Advent and Christmas seasons with the community at UC Davis’ Newman Center, an on-campus Catholic community, he has gotten to experience the ways that different cultures celebrate the Catholic holiday. He said that members of Newman have held Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations, a Mexican tradition that takes place on Dec. 12, before the Christmas season begins, during which Catholics travel to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City to celebrate Jesus’ mother, Mary. The day celebrates Catholics’ belief that Mary appeared to Juan Diego in the 1500s, and has become a day of religious and cultural celebration in Mexico. 

Cometa said that Newman has also celebrated Simbang Gabi, a Filipino Christmas tradition that is special to him, as much of his family lives in the Philippines. Cometa explained that while in the Philippines Simbang Gabi is traditionally celebrated by nine masses in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, at Newman, it and other cultural traditions like Our Lady of Guadalupe have been adapted by students in the community who celebrate them at home. 

Shachar-Lee Yaakobovitz, a fourth-year psychology and theatre and dance double major, also said that celebrating religious holidays like Hanukkah with her Jewish campus community is one of her favorite parts of the winter season. 

“I’m not always with my family [for Hanukkah], so I generally like to celebrate with my friends but also celebrate on campus,” Yaakobovitz said. “Something that I really like to do when we’ve had the opportunity to be in person is go to candle lightings happening on campus. That was really enjoyable because it brought together the Jewish community at Davis kind of all in one place to have one big celebration and allow everyone to enjoy the light, literally, together.”

Yaakobovitz said that Hanukkah is not one of the major Jewish holidays, so it is mostly celebrated by visiting family, eating traditional foods and lighting the menorah, which is a candelabra with eight candles, each representing one of the eight nights of the holiday. She said that growing up in Israel, her family’s celebration of the holiday was quite different than it is in the U.S.

“In Israel, it’s just kind of just another holiday,” Yaakobovitz said.  “It’s just another party for everyone to have, [and for] families to get together, friends to get together. It’s more about spending time with your loved ones, […] whereas here in the United States, there’s a bigger emphasis on giving gifts and receiving gifts.”

Yaakobovitz said that even after her family moved to the U.S., they kept their same Hanukkah traditions, so they have never exchanged presents during their celebrations. Instead, she said that the tradition she and her family keep is cooking together during the eight days of Hanukkah.

“One thing I really like to do is make latkes with my mom, that’s something that we try to do,” Yaakobovitz said. “Or we try to make sufganiyot, which are jelly-filled doughnuts, but they can be filled with other things like chocolate. We try to cook together as a family during the holidays and that’s probably my favorite tradition.”

Food is a common thread in holiday traditions, and Professor Milmon Harrison, an associate professor of African American and African Studies at Davis, shared that it is central to his family’s Kwanzaa celebration as well. 

“There’s the feast part of [Kwanzaa] that’s supposed to come at the end, but we just kind of continue feasting from Christmas all the way through New Years,” Harrison said. “Our family is from the South and so cooking southern food is a big part of our tradition, especially in that week after Christmas. Foods like black eyed peas and cabbage and greens — that’s not specifically a Kwanzaa thing, but that’s kind of a southern thing.”

Harrison said that in addition to cooking, he and his family take time during Kwanzaa, which is a celebration of African American culture that takes place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 each year, to reflect on the year that’s coming to an end and plan for the year about to begin.

“I start getting very introspective and start journaling a lot and start planning,” Harrison said. “And I start talking to my wife, my children [about] what we want to focus on for the next year and write those things down. Not just what sort of goals do we want to achieve, but […] how do we want to be better people in the year to come?” 

Harrison said that Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday but a cultural one that celebrates African heritage and tradition, guided by seven core principles, each represented by a candle on the kinara.

“It’s a time for reflection on [the principles of] unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith,” Harrison said. “Because Kwanzaa […] is the last week of the year, we get really reflective on those sorts of things and ask ourselves the question: where are we relative to those principles, and how can we get back to living out those principles in the year to come?”

No matter what religious, cultural or secular holiday you celebrate during the winter season, many of the themes are universal. The season is a time to reflect, prepare and celebrate with loved ones. Harrison explained the important themes of Kwanzaa — and that they boil down to many of the same ones celebrated during Christmas, Hanukkah and the end of the year in general. 

“I think the emphasis on family and community is such an important part of this particular season,” Harrison said. “During Kwanzaa, the emphasis is on getting together with your family and with your loved ones, and with your community. [It’s about] taking some time to think about where we have come from, not only in this year, but where we’ve come from in our history, and where we want to go and what we want to do better next year, and that we want to be thinking about how we can uphold and build upon our ancestors legacy in the history and in the years to come.”

Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org

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