Community Commentary: Candles link Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa

Candles have been used for more than 5,000 years.

Although the ancient Egyptians may have been among the first to use them as torches, the Romans are credited with developing the wicked candle. In the ancient world, candles were the major source of light. During modern December celebrations, candlelight continues to shed light, traditions and comfort.

Every year, for example, Jews gather to brighten their homes with candles and feast for eight straight days in celebration of Hanukkah, which started more than 2,000 years ago.

At that time, there was a great temple in Jerusalem, Judea (now Israel), where a large menorah was continually lit to symbolize God's light and love.

During the Roman rule, King Antiochus tried to force the Jews into worshiping their gods. When they refused, the king sent soldiers to tear down the temple and all the religious artifacts within it. A small army fought the Romans for more than three years and won a miraculous victory. The people cleaned the Temple, rebuilt the altar and constructed a new menorah.

When it finally came time to rededicate the Temple of God ("Hanukkah" means dedication), the people searched for oil to relight the giant menorah but found only one small container of purified oil — just enough to last one day. That oil burned on and on, day after day, for eight days.

Seeing this as a sign from God, Judah Maccabee declared, "Let these events be celebrated for all time to come." Every year, in countries all around the world, Jewish families and friends gather to light candles remembering, cherishing, appreciating and protecting the miracle of long ago.

On that first Christmas night, the shepherds were blinded by a mysterious great light, which they followed to a stable in Jerusalem. The light from the oil-lit lantern left by one of the shepherds made the dark stable light and warm. A tiny lamb had tucked itself under Joseph's long coat to sleep as the Christ child lay in the manger and gazed at the light. Many shepherds stayed behind. They could not bear to part with the baby. After time had passed, Joseph asked the shepherds to leave so Mary and the Christ child could sleep. "You must go home now," Joseph said.

But they sang one more song:

"Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright."

Using candles to celebrate the African American heritage, a Cal State Long Beach professor, Maulana Karenga, introduced Kwanzaa in 1966. He studied many African groups and found that honoring the first fruits of the harvest (Kwanzaa) with family and friends was a common thread among them.

The seven principles are each depicted with a candle. The candle in the center is black (representing African Americans), three candles on the left side are red (reflect their struggles, past and present) and the three candles on the right are green (symbolizing hope). The seven principles of unity, self-determination, responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith help us to remember the importance of family, community and each individual life.

Americans today are struggling with foreclosures, loss of job opportunities and lack of confidence in our leadership (on all levels) during this painfully sluggish recovery. The Census Bureau reports that the United States has more people living in poverty than 50 years ago. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced that there will be another round of budget cuts in January totaling nearly $1 billion; those affected include higher education, school bus services, funding for the disabled, as well as cuts to public libraries.

Around the world, Europe is fighting to restore its financial solvency while countries in the Middle East are finding ways to light their way to freedom.

December customs use candlelight to celebrate the fires of hope, passion, and love amid the ravages of life struggles.

Reflecting on these symbolic illuminations can be enlightening as we contemplate today's personal, economic and worldly events.

MAUREEN ASCHOFF is on the adjunct faculty at the University of LaVerne and a classroom volunteer at Woodland Elementary School. She lives in Newport Beach.

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