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.

In addition to regular personal gifts, family members receive a good-luck money gift known as lai see . These small red envelopes are decorated with Chinese characters embossed in gold. A typical Christmas dinner for Chinese families consists of roast duck (char siu) or roast sweet barbecue pork, salty chicken, rice and Chinese broccoli.

Some Americans of African descent celebrate Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas. Since its inception in 1966, the celebration that begins on Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1 has grown in popularity.

It evolved from Ron Karenga, a philosopher and author who in the mid-1960s researched several African societies and the language, Kiswahili , which is spoken in East African countries. He determined that all groups were built and guided by seven basic principles known as Nguzo Saba, (en-GOO-zoh-SAH-bah).

According to Karenga, a former visiting professor at California State University, these societies traditionally celebrated their successes and gave thanks on the last day of harvest. Using this premise, he developed the seven-day cultural celebration of Kwanzaa, meaning first fruits or crop. Many of its rituals are similar to Hanukkah.

Koreans do not recognize Christmas as a national holiday. However, many living in the United States practice standard traditions of exchanging gifts and decorating Christmas trees.

In the Philippines, Simbang Gabi, a nine-day novena, begins on Dec. 16 with pre-dawn church services. This custom is still practiced in the United States with Mass held in the evening. Filipinos also participate in an anonymous gift exchange called “Kris Kringle” that involves writing letters and giving small gifts for nine days to a secret pal. On Christmas Eve, Noche Buena (holy night) is celebrated with parties before and after midnight, while Kris Kringle identities are made known.

Family members gather at the home of the clan’s eldest for dinner on Christmas Day. A typical meal would include a litson or well-roasted pig with an apple in the mouth, a noodle dish called pancit, and house specialities such as rellenong manok , a stuffed boneless chicken and a meatloaf-type dish called embotido . Desserts would include custard flan and a sweet rice dish baked in coconut milk and sugar called biblingka .

The Japanese art of origami (paper-folding) creates elegant ornaments for the Christmas tree.

Cuban families put Christmas gifts under their beds to open on Christmas morning.

Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, reciting blessings as the menorah is lit.

Mexican children break open a pinata during Christmas celebration.

Researched by Deborrah Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times