Holiday Vocabulary: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa

Holiday Vocabulary: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa


With the holiday season once again upon us, we’re going to revisit the meanings of some important end-of-year cultural and religious holidays observed in the United States.


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Let’s start with the word itself. A holiday is a special day of celebration or a day when most people do not have to work. Holiday is often used before a noun (holiday party, the holiday weekend, etc.). In American English, the holiday season or the holidays refer to the time from November until the beginning of January during which many holidays are celebrated. In British English, holiday has the same meaning as the American English word “vacation.” Wishing someone a “happy holidays” is a polite and inclusive way of expressing seasonal greetings.



Thanksgiving is a secular (non-religious) public holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. The “First Thanksgiving” was an autumn harvest feast shared by the Plymouth Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians in 1621. While days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states for more than 200 years, it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.



Christmas is the Christian holiday that honors the birth of Jesus Christ and is traditionally celebrated on December 25th. In the United States, Canada, and much of the English-speaking world, Christmas is both a religious and a secular holiday. Except for restaurants and retail stores, most businesses are closed. Many people engage in Christmas traditions, including decorating Christmas trees and exchanging gifts, even if they do not follow the Christian faith themselves.



Hanukkah is an eight day Jewish holiday that is celebrated in either November or December. The exact dates vary from year to year because Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of month of Kislev of the traditional Hebrew calendar. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem following victory over Antiochus of Syria. Hanukkah is characterized chiefly by the lighting of the menorah (a special nine-branched candelabrum) on each day of the festival.



Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural festival held from December 26th to January 1st. The festival honors African heritage in African-American culture and ends with a feast and gift-giving. Because Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration and not a religious holiday, it is often celebrated alongside Christmas by Christians of African descent.