Merry Christmas and Kwanzaa Kizuri - Celebrating the Best of Both Traditions

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

Today is Christmas - and we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ - sent to save us from our own stupidity and iniquities, and to teach us to love one another and don't do to others what we would not want to be done to us, among other principles.  Principles which, if really applied in the spirit in which they were given, would have made a vast difference in today's world.  However, human beings being who and what they are - imperfect, flawed and always evolving (or devolving) - were constantly defiling the rules for the most part (with the possible exception of Sundays).  Christmas is the time where most of us take time out to gather as families and commemorate the blessing and the Gift that keeps on giving - God's love for us.

There are those who feel that the celebration of Christ's birth has become overly commercialized and an excuse for spending exorbitant amounts of money in the guise of celebrating the miracle that occurred more than 2000 years ago.  Some claim it has become paganized by the introduction of a mythological character, "Santa Claus," Christmas Trees, lights, decorations, music, etc.  However, it is to be expected when you filter it through a eurocentric translation - far removed from the original African birth.  However, there was no edict from God that we had to be rigid in our celebration. He gave us freedom of choice, free will, creativity and imagination for a reason. 

I freely admit that the Christmas season is one of my personal favorite times of the year - It's one of the most beautiful times of the year.  People are more open, generous, their creativity and energy are heightened, and they focus more on love, blessings, miracles, joy, faith and reverence. Christmas opens the heart.

 Kwanzaa, which was founded in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, as an alternative to Christmas.  He enunciated the Nguzo Saba ( Seven Principles) which more focused on cultural and character development based on African principles - that are in  many ways more in keeping with many of  the principles Christ stood for.  And the fact that have practical application in today's world make them even more significant.

I celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, and do not find them in conflict with each other.  So for me, it's not either or, it's both and. In New York, Imhotep Gary Byrd fosters the practice of the Nguzo Saba 365 days of the year, and starts most of his radio broadcasts off quoting which day represents which principle he's focusing on, and some ways in which his listeners can incorporate it into their day.   It's not only good for us as adults, but a great way to inculcate the meaning and practice for our children.  So that by the time Kwanzaa rolls around, our children will have developed an understanding of the principles and begun to incorporate it into their lives.  

When my children were young, they were taught to make their own gifts to exchange among themselves - each gift represented a different principle of Kwanzaa.  But I won't pretend that it was an easy transition for them to go from celebrating Christmas to Kwanzaa. In fact, the first year we tried to ditch Christmas and just celebrate Kwanzaa, my husband and I found out the hard way that you can't take Christmas away from a child cold turkey (LOL).  My daughter, Kira, who at the time was 6, was totally in agreement with the idea of Kwanzaa and getting a different gift each day.  We carefully explained to her that Kwanzaa began on December 26 - the day after Christmas, and ended New Years Day.  She helped us put together the mkeka, kinara and other symbols in preparation for the celebration. 

Since we were preparing for Kwanzaa, we did not purchase a Christmas Tree, even though we did sing some of the sacred Christmas songs and talked about the real meaning of Christmas. On Christmas eve, we put Kira to bed, and proceeded to watch TV, secure in the knowledge that we were fully invested in our Blackness and that we were likewise raising a child in the spirit of Kwanzaa and Black consciousness.  I was headed to the kitchen past her bedroom and heard her crying quietly into her pillow.  When I went in to find out what was wrong, my little daughter burst into tears and started crying hysterically, "It's not the same! It's not the same!"  There was no tree, no lights, no decorations.  Lou saw how upset she was and decided to go out and get a tree.  He must have gone to every Christmas Tree lot in Manhattan and they were completely sold out.  Not wanting to see her cry, he actually took left over limbs from trimmed trees and built her a tree, complete with lights and decorations, which helped to lift her spirits.  From that point on, we decided that we would celebrate both traditions.   And I've been doing it ever since.  While that may or may not work for everyone,  I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.  

For those who are not familiar with Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba, or the philosophy behind it, I've included a message from Maulana Ron Karenga, who will be in Philadelphia, PA on Saturday, December 30 and West Philadelphia High School (3901 Chestnut St., 19139) at 6:00 PM.  

But also the Museum of Natural History in New York, and the African American Museum in Philadelphia will be celebrating Kwanzaa from December 26 through December 30; and Kenny Gamble will be presenting a Kwanzaa celebration at the Audenreid High School on December 30, from 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM featuring Sonia Sanchez and the Universal Dancers and Dummers. For more detail, check out the December23 edition of ECLECTICALLY BLACK NEWS - EVENT ALERT, KWANZAA 

Feel free to share it with friends, family and community.

So Again, Merry Christmas and Kwanzaa Kizuri!! 


Symbols and Insights of Kwanzaa:
Deep Meanings and Expansive Message

Dr. Maulana Karenga
Each year the coming of Kwanzaa causes us to come together in celebration, remembrance and recommitment. And it also urges us to constantly study and learn the deep meanings and expansive message of Kwanzaa, not only in its grounding philosophy, Kawaida, and its core Seven Principles, but also in its symbols. This article invites us to do this.

Kwanzaa was conceived as a special time and space for celebrating, discussing and meditating on the rich and varied ways of being and becoming African in the world. It invites us all to study continuously its origins, principles and practices and it teaches us, in all modesty, never to claim we know all that is to be known about it or that our explanations are only for those who do not know much about its message and meaning. For each year each of us should read and reread the literature, reflect on the views and values of Kwanzaa and share conversations about how it reaffirms our rootedness in African culture and brings us together all over the world in a unique and special way to celebrate ourselves as African people. One focus for such culturally-grounded conversation is on the deep meanings and message embedded in the symbols of Kwanzaa which are rooted in Kawaida philosophy out of which Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba were created. Indeed, each symbol is a source and point of departure for a serious conversation on African views and values and the practices that are rooted in and reflect them. 

The first symbol is the mazao (crops) which are symbolic of the African first-fruit harvest celebrations from which Kwanzaa takes its model and essential meaning. The mazao represent the harvest of good and the reward of collective and productive work. Indeed, the concept of the harvest embodies and expresses the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles. For the purpose (Nia) of the harvest is to bring and do good in the community and the world. It is a purpose conceived and pursued in unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), and collective work and responsibility (Ujima). Moreover, it is developed with a resourceful creativity (Kuumba) and grounded in a resilient faith (Imani) that believes in, works for and looks forward to its coming into fruition. And cooperative economics (Ujamaa) rightfully represents the harvest as the product and practice of shared work and shared wealth, i.e., the cooperative creation and sharing of good.

The second symbol of Kwanzaa is the mkeka (the mat) symbolic of our tradition and history and thus the foundation on which we build our lives, in a word, our culture. It stresses the need of foundation, of cultural anchor to ground and center ourselves. In Kawaida philosophy, we say we base everything we do on tradition and reason, meaning we constantly dialog with our culture, asking it questions and seeking from it answers to the fundamental concerns of daily life and enduring issues of humankind. And then using the best of our moral reasoning, we select the appropriate solutions, the most ethical and effective way forward. Again, to stress the centrality and indispensable role of tradition, the other main symbols are placed on the mkeka.

The kinara, the seven-candle candle-holder is the next symbol of Kwanzaa. It is symbolic of our roots, our parent people, our continental African ancestors. Although in both principle and practice this, in a larger sense, includes all our ancestors, continental and diasporan, stress was placed at the beginning on continental roots, to return us to the original source of our history, culture and coming-into-being as a people. For as Molefi Asante says, there is no stepping outside our history without great difficulty and damage to our sense of self. This is why we emphasize with Malcolm X and Mary McLeod Bethune, a long historical conception of ourselves and of the legacy of excellence left to us.

The kinara holds the next symbol of Kwanzaa which is the mishumaa saba (the seven candles). The mishumaa saba are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the hub and hinge on which the holiday Kwanzaa turns, the African value system that is an essential foundation and framework for our living a good and meaningful life and the strivings and struggles central to this. To place the candles in the kinara is to remind ourselves of the ancient culture in which our principles are rooted and to reaffirm the enduring value of returning to the source.

And to light the mishumaa is to engage in the ancient ritual of "lifting up the light that lasts." For the principles are the light that lasts in the midst of constant and often disruptive and diversionary changes and challenges that occur in life. Indeed, the Husia teaches that "We are given that which endures in the midst of that which is overthrown." And that which endures in the midst of that which is overthrown is our moral and spiritual values. Surely, the ethical values represented in the Nguzo Saba, both explicitly and implicitly, are among those lights that last and should and must be constantly lifted up as a beacon and basis for the good life we seek to ground and build.

The muhindi (corn), more specifically ears of corn, are another symbol of Kwanzaa. They are symbolic of our children and thus our future which they embody. In the agricultural and naturalistic understanding of African communal societies, the life-cycle of corn represented the life-cycle of both humans and nature in which they are embedded. For example in Zulu cultural narratives of origins, the cornstalk represents the ancestors or parents and the corn represents the offspring in an eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth. Children thus become a form of life after death, our future unfolding in front of us.

Here there is a strong stress on quality parenting and collective parenthood. For parenting is not only the responsibility of a specific mother and father, but also an extended family of other relatives and the community as a whole. This is the meaning of the often offered wisdom that it takes a whole village or community to raise a child. And it speaks to both the importance and inclusiveness of the task of raising children in the most ethically and culturally-grounded ways.

The kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup) is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of umoja (unity) which makes all else possible. The kikombe is used to drink from after a statement of unity in a ritual of reinforcement of the principle and practice. And it is also used in pouring tambiko (libation) in a ritual of remembrance, honor and appreciation of our ancestors and their legacy of excellence we are obligated to preserve, expand and pass on.

The zawadi (gifts) are symbolic of the labor and love of parents, rewarding their children for commitments made and kept. These gifts are never to be overly expensive or a substitute for ourselves. And they must always contain a heritage symbol and a book to reflect and reinforce our commitment to our culture and to knowledge and a life of learning, respectively.

The two supplementary symbols are the bendera and a poster or other representation of the Nguzo Saba. The bendera (flag, banner) colors of black, red and green symbolize Black for our people, red for our struggle and green for the hope and future that is fostered and forged in struggle. And the representations of the Nguzo Saba reaffirm their central role in our life and struggle for the good world we all want and deserve to live in and leave as a legacy for future generations.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies, California State University-Long Beach; Executive Director, African American Cultural Center (Us); Creator of Kwanzaa; and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and Essays on Struggle: Position and Analysis,


Stay Blessed & 

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