Sunset today marks the start of Hanukkah, the first of this month's multiday religious and heritage festivals. Mainstream American culture is geared primarily toward Christmas, with its own lengthy preparatory season of Advent, but the diversity of this nation also allows shared traditions of sacrifice, faith and the giving of thanks.
Tonight's lighting of the menorah opens the Festival of Lights, a commemoration of a miracle following a Jewish victory over Hellenistic Syrian armies. While rededicating the liberated Temple in Jerusalem, the Maccabees found only enough oil to relight the temple menorah for a single day -- but that oil burned for eight. In remembrance, the relatively minor Jewish holiday of Hanukkah will be celebrated during the next eight days.
Kwanzaa, a 40-year-old African-American and Pan-African first-fruits harvest celebration of culture, community and family, begins Dec. 26 and continues through New Year's Day with its focus on seven key African community values. For Muslims, Dec. 30 this year marks the start of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, three days that commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael in the Quran, Isaac in the Bible), mark the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj, and reaffirm Islamic principles of sharing and charity.
Each tradition deserves respect, within a wider culture that embraces religious freedom and ethnic diversity. With that respect, they become not merely traditions tolerated but, with both religious and secular aspects of the Christmas season, part of the glue that holds this multicultural society together.
Celebration doesn't always have to be by strict observance. It can be done simply through appreciation of beliefs not necessarily shared but respected. From Hanukkah's illumination tonight through Christmas and on to Eid al-Adha's sharing of food two weeks from now, there is a chance to end this year with a reaffirmation of long-held traditions, reflections on the divine, gratitude for blessings, sharing of abundance, respect for other traditions -- and celebration of a common humanity that sorely needs it.