by Alexa Peters
There is no area more diverse in its holiday traditions and celebrations than South Seattle — and with a quick look at the most recent demographic data for the area, it’s no wonder.
South King County is one of the most diverse parts of the United States, with the Rainier Valley 98118 ZIP code home to speakers of approximately 60 different languages. Plus, as opposed to other parts of Seattle that come in at 60% or more, the 2020 census shows that Seattle’s District 2, which includes South Seattle, is majority Asian. South Seattle is also 21.4% Black or African American, 9.3% Hispanic or Latino, 0.6% Alaskan Native and American Indian, 0.8% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, 0.2% some other race, and 6.1% multiracial.
Here are the stories behind a few of the rich traditions and diverse celebrations South End residents observe during this time of year.
With some Jewish families having lived in South Seattle for as many as seven generations, the Jewish community is one of Seattle’s oldest immigrant groups. In Rainier Valley alone, there is a diverse array of Jewish communities, including two Sephardic synagogues from the former Ottoman empire that each celebrates Hanukkah.
Emily Alhadeff, a member of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community who lives in Rainier Valley, says there are four different synagogues within a 1-mile radius of her house, each with its own practice of Judaism. In general, though, everyone celebrates Hanukkah together.
“There’s a little variation on how people celebrate, but Hanukkah is pretty universal,” said Alhadeff.
Hanukkah is based on stories in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees and the Talmud about a small group of Jewish rebels, known as the Maccabees, and their defeat of the Greek Syrians, who had invaded and desecrated the Second Temple of Jerusalem. When the Jewish rebels reclaimed the temple, they rededicated it by keeping a menorah lit at all times. There was one hang-up: They only had enough olive oil to burn for one day.
Miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight days. Modern Jews continue to celebrate this miracle with Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, by lighting a menorah, or nine-pronged candelabra, one candle at a time for eight days.
At its core, Alhadeff says, Hanukkah is about lighting up the darkness and celebrating oil. In Alhadeff’s Rhodes tradition, there’s a set of specific fried foods they aim to eat, including a Sephardic-specific food called “bumuelos” — fried dough with honey. Another common oil-fried Hanukkah staple is potato latkes.
For many Jewish Americans, some Christmas-like aspects have also been added to Hanukkah celebrations as Jewish people have further assimilated into American culture. Hence, some families, like the Alhadeffs, give gifts to their kids during Hanukkah. Coincidentally, because the date of Hanukkah depends on the Jewish calendar, which is based on a combination of the solar and lunar calendar and varies year to year, the Festival of Lights sometimes even lands on Christmas.
This year, Hanukkah began on Nov. 28 and ended Dec. 6.
Based on a 2016 City of Seattle report, at least 1.7% of the city’s population is East African immigrants. Many come from the largest country on Africa’s horn, Ethiopia, a predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and Muslim country, with many rich cultural and religious traditions in the wintertime.
Muslims have no celebrations in winter, but Ethiopian Orthodox Christians will celebrate their Christmas, also called Ganna or Leddet. This celebration happens annually on Jan. 7, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s calculation of Jesus’ birth.
Milen Gebreselassie, who co-owns Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar on Rainier Avenue with her husband, celebrates Ethiopian Christmas every year with her family. Though some immigrant families like hers have integrated Western Christmas trees and the tradition of gift-giving into their celebration, she describes Ethiopian Christmas as more about prayer and fasting as a means for mental clarity.
“It’s a religious festival, mostly celebrated by the Christians. So, people fast for about 43 days before the Christmas celebration, which means you eat as a strict vegan,” said Gebreselassie. “[It’s about] depriving your body from the things that you really like so that you become more aware, conscious. … It keeps you awake.”
Those who celebrate are to use this mental state to wish good to those who are struggling. Currently, war rips through Ethiopia’s Amhara and Afar Regions, as TPLF, the rebel group from Tigray, tries to overthrow the government, Gebreselassie says. The ongoing unrest there is the focus of her community’s prayers.
“In our country, you probably heard we are going through some tough times right now, a lot of conflict, and so everybody is praying that better days will come,” she said.
On Jan. 7, the 43 days of prayer and fasting end in a feast on Ethiopian Christmas Day. Traditionally, each family spends the day making an elaborate doro wat stew with chicken or lamb — which must only be made with fresh meat slaughtered that day — to break their fast. Some families also brew their own wine or beer for the occasion and then walk around their neighborhood sharing their spoils with their neighbors.
“Every family cooks. We go to all the neighbors’ houses to eat everywhere, and people are going to come [to your house] as well,” she said.
With that in mind, Gebreselassie plans to make traditional Ethiopian honey bread called dabo for patrons at Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar, in celebration of Ganna this year.
“We’ll probably make traditional coffee and give it away to our regular customers and share some homemade bread,” she said.
For South Seattle College student Lexi Bonaparte and many other African Americans on the South End, Kwanzaa is an essential part of the wintertime festivities.
“My family celebrates Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas,” said Bonaparte. “My mom was really big on values and being grateful when I was growing up. I would still get gifts on Christmas, but Kwanzaa is [about showing gratitude for] those gifts and making gifts or buying them for others who are less fortunate.”
Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration that starts on Dec. 26, is about honoring African heritage and culture. The holiday, which is named for the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits,” is a winter harvest festival and a hybrid of many African agricultural traditions.
Introduced by Dr. Maulana Karenga — a professor and the chairman of Black Studies at California State University — in 1966, it combines aspects of many different African harvest celebrations with the intention of creating a holiday that would connect and unify all African American people.
“It became more popular in the 60s during the Civil Rights Movement to celebrate our African culture and reconnect to our roots prior to slavery,” said Bonaparte, who lives in Renton. “It’s about community and strength.”
Kwanzaa has seven core symbols: Mazao, or crops, which represent the fruits of collective planning and work; Mkeka, or place mats, which symbolize the foundation people stand on to build their lives; Muhindi, or ears of corn, which symbolize fertility and future hopes; Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles, which symbolize the sun; Kinara, or a candleholder, which represents ancestry; Kikombe Cha Umoja, or the Unity Cup, which represents unity and remembrance, and Zawadi or gifts, which symbolize growth and self-determination.
Typically, Kwanzaa celebrations involve reflecting on these seven core Kwanzaa symbols, as well as the seven complementary core principles, through the lighting of one colored candle on the kinara per day.
“You light the black candle first, representing Umoja, which is unity; the second, Kujichagulia, which is self-determination; third, Ujima, collective work; fourth, Ujamaa, cooperative economics; fifth, Nia, representing purpose; sixth, Kuumba, which is creativity; seventh Imani, which represents faith,” said Bonparte.
As each candle is lit, Bonparte says she and her family reflect on the principle at hand, on the year past, and their intentions in the new year. On Dec. 31, Kwanzaa observers also celebrate New Year’s Eve with a huge feast, which varies from family to family.
In Bonaparte’s family, which is from the American South, they make a huge pot of seafood gumbo and eat cornbread and black-eyed peas, the latter of which symbolizes wealth and prosperity in the coming year. Bonaparte’s family also decorates their dining room table with ears of multicolored corn and drinks from the unity cup.
Small gifts are also exchanged, but for Bonaparte, the highlights of the holiday are definitely the food and the time for self-reflection.
“I love spending time reflecting on everything I am grateful for, from the roof over my head to my health,” she said. “And uniting with my family to thank our ancestors for their sacrifices.”
Meanwhile, members of the Latino community on the South End celebrate Las Posadas, a festival that originated in colonial Mexico and is celebrated throughout the diaspora.
Burien’s Highline Heritage Museum will put on its own La Posada event this year. According to Nancy Salguero McKay, executive director of the museum, the traditional festival occurs every night from Dec. 16 until Christmas Eve and is all about asking for shelter in honor of the story of Mary and Joseph seeking refuge for the birth of Jesus.
“La Posada means asking for shelter,” Salguero McKay said. “[It starts with a] procession of singing, basically almost like Christmas carols, and then asking for shelter as part of the procession. You come to someone’s home and are carrying candles and you ask for shelter. It’s a back-and-forth [singing] interaction between the people inside and the people outside.”
Once welcomed inside, the entire costumed procession enters the house for a big party including traditional foods, like savory and sweet tamales, warm refreshments, like cinnamon-spiced Mexican coffee called café de olla, as well as piñatas and candy.
Traditionally, these processions and parties happen in a new home every night from Dec. 16 until Christmas Eve. For that reason, Las Posadas is a highly coordinated celebration where entire blocks get together and assign each family one night to receive the rest of the neighborhood procession.
Highline Heritage Museum’s La Posada celebration took place on the night of Dec. 12 and embodied all the energy and festivity of this tradition by putting inclusion and education at the forefront. Workshops and presentations led in Spanish and English taught about the significance of the festivities and what the celebration looks like in Mexico.
The educational component helps teach young people in the community about their heritage and propels the tradition forward.
“And then we have piñatas, we have the food, we have the chocolate,” said Salguero McKay. “It’s just a way for little ones to be able to grow up with the tradition, but it also serves as an opportunity to share this tradition with everyone and make everyone [feel] welcome.”
This year was the Highline Heritage Museum’s second time holding a La Posada event. The museum, which has a mission of collecting, telling, and preserving the stories of the people living in Burien’s Highline area, had its first La Posada event in 2019, shortly after it first opened.
Simbang Gabi and Filipino Christmas
In King County, Filipino Americans make up 3.1% of the total population, according to census data, and Filipino Americans are one of the largest Asian American ethnicities in the South End, particularly in Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley.
The Philippines has been an American colony for well over 30 years and is overwhelmingly Catholic, so many Filipinos celebrate many of the Christmas traditions typical of a Western Christmas. That said, there are some subtle variations that help to express the uniqueness of Filipino culture.
Maricres Valdez Castro, a Filipino American who grew up in Seattle and Tacoma and is this year’s reigning Miss Washington U.S. International, prepares for Christmas throughout the month of December with Simbang Gabi, a nine-day series of devotional masses.
“In Tacoma, we have St. Leo Parish, which is the only Catholic church in Washington State that offers monthly bilingual Filipino mass consistently throughout the year,” says Valdez Castro. “Simbang Gabi is about preparing our families, preparing our hearts and our community for the birth of Christ.”
Simbang Gabi commences this year on Dec. 12, says Valdez Castro, a passionate advocate in the Asian American community and a community outreach advocate and social media specialist at Asia Pacific Cultural Center.
At this time, Valdez Castro’s community comes together to sing in one of the country’s dominant languages, Tagalog, and to make “parols,” hand-crafted star lanterns displayed during Christmastime as symbols of hope and light.
“[Parols] can also symbolize the North Star that led the three Magi to Christ so they could find him in the desert and be able to witness that miracle,” said Valdez Castro. “And you know, it’s kind of a nice juxtaposition to what we’re going through right now, to focus on cultivating that culture of hope despite the darkness.”
Amidst the nine days of prayer, Filipinos are also preparing for a Christmas celebration on Dec. 25. In fact, Valdez Castro says the preparations for Christmas start as early as September in the Philippines.
“As soon as the ‘ber’ [months ending in the suffix “-ber,” e.g., November] months hit, Christmas lights are out. In the Philippines, it’s [wild] right now. People are celebrating a lot and it’s with this backdrop of being grateful for the family that we have,” she said.
Honoring family, particularly your elders, is a major theme of Filipino Christmas traditions. Many show this respect through frequent visits with their elders and through a specific hand gesture.
“Traditionally, we bow our head and politely grab our elder’s right hand and touch our forehead to [the back of their hand] in this bowing manner,” said Valdez Castro. “We say ‘mano po’ and in that moment, we’re asking for their blessing and we’re thanking them for their presence, and it’s a sign of humility and deep respect and reverence for our elders.”
They also eat a lot with their elders and the rest of the family — things like “puto bumbong, a sticky purple rice pastry. Some also carol and sing some of their traditional Christmas songs, like “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit,” which describes Jesus’ birth and happy intentions for the new year.
There will be one more unique addition to Valdez Castro’s Christmas celebrations this year, due to her community work and her recent pageant win: She’ll dance as the Arabian lead and granny in the Evergreen City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker this December in Renton.
Diverse and Inclusive Celebration
This is only a taste of the variety of festivities going on throughout December, January, and February in the South End, as people from all over the world usher in the new year. Plus, in the true spirit of diversity, many in-person and virtual holiday community celebrations and religious ceremonies in South Seattle will strive to include people from all different religions and ethnicities.
Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar will be sharing the treats and message of Ethiopian Christmas in January at its restaurant. The Northwest African American Museum will hold a virtual Kwanzaa celebration on Dec. 30, and this local Simbang Gabi mass is celebrated in-person and online, “in the spirit of sharing and friendship.”
Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.
📸 Featured Image: Illustration by Vladimir Verano for the South Seattle Emerald.
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