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How Ethnic Groups Celebrate The Holiday Season

December 12, 1987

The holiday season--which focuses on Christmas for some and on Hanukkah for others--encompasses various traditions. Orange County's diversified ethnicity contributes to the special atmosphere of the holidays in Southern California. Here's how some ethnic groups celebrate the holidays:

Hanukkah means "rededication" and is known as the Festival of Lights. It commemorates religious freedom over tolerance, beginning at sundown on Dec. 16. The eight-day festival has also become a modern-day symbol of Israel's determination to survive as a Jewish state.

Hanukkah recognizes the victory of a small band of Israelities against the ruling Syrians. In 165 B. C., Israel was ruled by King Antiochus of Syria, who wanted the Jews to believe in the Greek religion. The king seized control of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and converted it to a place of Greek worship.

According to legend, Judah Maccabee led the band called the Maccabees in the revolt. Three years later, on the 25th day Kislev (third month of the Hebrew year), the Maccabees defeated the Syrians. After the temple was cleaned, the victors only had enough oil to burn the menorah for one day. But a miracle happened and the oil burned for eight days.

A menorah is a candle holder containing eight candles for the observance. The tall middle candle is used to light the others. As family and friends gather around the table, blessings are recited over the Hanukkah Menorah.

Japanese-Americans practice most mainstream customs by celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25, having a family gathering and exchanging gifts. Origami ornaments (Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes) representing balls, stars and animals give Christmas trees the finishing touch. Roast turkey is usually served for the entree. But the holiday meal would not be complete without sushi.

The Christmas tree may be decorated by now, but many Cuban families continue to put gifts under their beds to open Dec. 25. Family members gather on Christmas Eve to celebrate. Barbecued pork or roast pork ( puerco en parrilla ) served with white rice and black beans (arroz con griz ) and a healthy tossed salad topped with oil and vinegar are traditional favorites, along with fried green bananas (tostones ) and yucca cooked in garlic sauce. Sometimes a whole pig will be barbecued over a backyard pit.

To Argentineans, Christmas is the most important family holiday observed. It's celebrated on Dec. 24 by going to church in the evening, having dinner and opening gifts at midnight. Nativity scenes are just as important as beautifully decorated Christmas trees. Although turkey is the traditional Christmas meal, it is considered a luxury, and many families settle for chicken. Fathers and/or grandfathers dress as Santa Claus to deliver presents. Christmas day is actually one of leisure without any rituals.

Vietnamese who are Catholic celebrate the holiday starting at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Fasting for two to three hours before Mass is also practiced. The traditional family dinner and gift exchanging takes place on Christmas Day. Roast pig is a speciality and egg rolls are also served. But the holiday would not be complete without a buche de noel , a log-shaped sponge cake with chocolate inside. Christmas is considered by many Vietnamese as the most important time for family members to be together. As a rule, Buddists do not celebrate Christmas. However, many families living in Orange County have assimilated American customs such as sending cards, exchanging gifts and having Christmas trees.

Mexican families participate in their neighborhood church's annual posadas (the inn), a Latino pageant commemorating Joseph's and Mary's search for lodging. This celebration symbolizes the welcoming of Christ in the home, as well as in one's heart. The procession moves throughout the community, as participants sing spontaneously composed Christmas carols called alguinaldos , while stopping randomly at three houses for shelter. After being turned away, participants return to church. While the children break open a pinata, adults snack on tamales, coffee, peanuts and a traditional Christmas punch.

Cantonese Christians have basically adopted Western customs such as hanging lights and caroling on Christmas Eve. Trees are decorated with greeting cards and a star placed on top. The remaining cards are connected with string and hung across the living room.

Former residents of Hong Kong continue their tradition of pot-luck dinner parties held at churches on Christmas Eve. Rice bowls, embossed with the name of the church and date, are given to participants. And young adults often sing Christmas carols into the early morning hours.

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