Posts tagged ‘Kwanzaa’

A Guest at the Kwanzaa Table

A couple years ago I intended to write a series of posts on a different set of seven principles- not the UU ones, but the Nguzo Saba, the principles of Kwanzaa. Here’s a link to my earlier post. My struggles with Krampus…err depression have gotten in the way enjoying almost anything this year, holidays most of all! I went thru most of November and December in a haze, almost refusing to participate in Christmas Eve festivities with my partner & his family. Just Not In the Mood! Sometimes you just have to work thru your moods and force yourself to be there, because it’s not about you, it’s about family. Depression makes you self-centered by its very nature, and sucks the joy out of life.

I was reminded of Kwanzaa again by various things such as the prominence of Black Lives Matter campaign in current events, including discussions in the Pagan, polytheist and U.U. communities. In the communitarian values of Kwanzaa, I find pieces of what feels missing from the Nine Norse Virtues, which seems like more of a reflection of American libertarian individualism than the tribal values of pre-Christian Europe.

Upon further reading, I discovered that the Nguzo Saba are part of a broader philosophy known as Kawaida (meaning reason or tradition in Swahili) created by Dr. Maulana Karenga. All this is of course, centered on the experiences and cultures of African peoples and the African diaspora, but I feel that those of us outside of that can also learn a lot. We too are cut off from our roots, sometimes violently, even more so when we go back to the destruction of pre-Christian European spiritual traditions. Is it in part, due to that disconnect, that profound alienation, that many of the peoples of Europe sought to conquer the rest of the world, and later after at least partly realizing the errors of our ways, collect tidbits of music, clothing and spirituality to feed the spiritual hunger within us?

And as an neurodivergent and autistic woman, who has often felt excluded from definitions of “humanity”, I have found many resources in the liberation movements of other oppressed peoples. There are such things as Disability Studies, disabled liberation theology and disability culture(s), but they are not very well developed yet or well-known or accessible to many people, particularly outside of certain countries. To that end, I have often looked to political and cultural theories about race, gender and sexual orientation to put together my own disability theory. There is an emerging sense of “peoplehood” among many disabled individuals, across many types of disabilities, bodies and minds, genders and cultures.  And so I come to the Kwanzaa table as a humble guest, to learn, to show solidarity and to listen, grow and celebrate.

Articles on Kwanzaa:

Official Kwanzaa website

The Blank Candle, a documentary about the holiday narrated by the late Maya Angelou

Wikipedia article

Kwanzaa Guide

We Can Learn About the Real Meaning of the Season from a Holiday Most of Us Don’t Celebrate

Christianity & Kwanzaa– Great article for better understanding Kwanzaa within its Kawaida context!

Let’s Stop Making Fun of Kwanzaa

December 30, 2014 at 12:54 am Leave a comment

Umoja- Unity

The first of the Nguzo Saba (7 Principles) of Kwanzaa is Umoja, Unity. The central black candle on the kinara is lit, representing all Black people around the world.  Umoja is about finding commonality and empathy among the diverse cultures and peoples of Africa and the African/Black Diaspora.

The Umoja, unity cup is used to pour libations as offerings to the ancestors. Now that is certainly a tradition I recognize- it is common not only in traditional African cultures, but in European and Asian spiritual traditions as well. I would recommend find a cup or chalice that is of good quality, that is either neutral looking or has African decorative motifs. Using a family heirloom that can serve as a vessel would also be suitable. For the libations, use water or fruit juice. If your ancestry is only African simply by virtue of being human, honor historic or more recently deceased people of African descent, and another suggestion is you can honor Mitochondrial Eve, a woman who lived in or near Ethiopia about 200,000 years ago that biologists say all current humans are descended from.

Here in the Twin Cities, we have many immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia, Ghana and other lands, people from Jamaica, Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean as well as folks whose families came to this continent longer ago than some of my ancestors did. Since their connection to Africa is rather distant, and it’s hard to tell which nations they are descended from (though modern DNA tests make that somewhat easier) many prefer to call themselves Black or Black American rather than African-American.

My father, a former NAACP activist, fastidiously uses the label African-American, but after attending a mostly African-American high school, it seems like an out-of-place white liberal affectation than an authentic identity. Immigrants from various lands identify with the country they are from- often even more so the nation (tribe) since the borders drawn up by colonial European powers completely disregarded cultural territories. So with this cultural gap in experience between the long-time American-dwelling descendants of slaves and more recent refugees and seekers of economic opportunity- do they have anything more in common than any other group of native-born and non-native-born Americans? I can’t really say, since I belong to neither group.

But part of my interest in Kwanzaa is due to also being a member of a diasporan people- the Irish and the Scottish, or the Celtic peoples more broadly. Though I have not yet traveled back to the Isles, I suspect my experience will be in some respects similar to the lady in the article above writing of her travels to Kenya- a feeling of home-coming, yet feeling like that sense of belonging should be there more than it actually is. I know Europeans and people of many other lands often roll their eyes at visiting Americans and Canadians who proudly recite a list of fractions of ethnic ancestry that they claim- a quarter Greek, an eighth Norwegian, another quarter Scottish. They don’t care- we’re just Americans! Upon hearing that we crumple, wondering what we can claim as our own. Whether kidnapped and sold as slaves, dumped as the unwanted poor and colonized bastards of Europe, indentured servant, sharecropper or factory worker alike, now we awkwardly apologize for our presence come each Columbus Day or stubbornly insist on a  fable of melting pots and rugged individualism.

I think when a diasporan and a native son or daughter can both find humility in themselves and admit that their experiences and perceptions of their culture are not the only valid ones, and that they are open to other ways of seeing, hearing, tasting, worshiping, singing and dancing, then we will find Umoja.

December 30, 2014 at 12:07 am Leave a comment

Chalica & Charity

I found a different approach to Chalica that I liked. It’s the newly invented UU holiday, consisting of lighting a chalice (or 7 chalices) for 7 nights in the first week of December in honor of each of the 7 Principles of UUism– in case you just “tuned in” to my blog. This Mom shares many different holiday traditions with her kids, and often will acknowledge the first day of a multi-day observance (Chalica, Hannukah, Las Posadas) and discuss it with them over a special meal. I’ve seen various suggestions of simple things to do that tie in with the 7 principles, but if you are trying to do actual volunteer work that would be tricky to schedule all in one week! So instead she suggests spreading Chalica out– doing four different acts of charity that relate to the First Principle- “We light our chalice for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” in December, and then continuing to do that for the other principles in the following months from January thru June.

Since I have a lot more free time than money, I was already thinking of trying to do some volunteer work during December as gifts to my communities. Many charities and non-profits also get frustrated that the Thanksgiving & Yuletide generosity burst peters out, meaning very lean times in summer for many families. After you go thru the 7 principles in whatever manner you choose, you can do more stuff and relate to other values you find meaningful- the Kwanzaa principles, the Beatitudes, the Quaker Testimonies, polytheist virtues and so forth. It’s important to clarify that while the 7 principles are guide us, but they are not a creed or an entire system of ethics. Maybe this isn’t really Chalica so much as a plan for how live out your Unitarian Universalist values!

While poking around old Pagan/polytheist posts about Yule vs. Consumermas- I found this very insightful comment from PSVL (Lupus for short) “One of the things that is really starting to rankle on me in terms of the overculture’s overconsumption at this time of year is the entire phenomenon of “Toys for Tots.” While the people doing it have good intentions, if someone’s family is so poor that they can’t afford toys for their children at Christmas, then there’s something wrong that is much worse than that their children have no toys, and that therefore because they have no toys they will have “no joy” at this time of year. The thousands of dollars spent on toys in these efforts–toys that will often be broken, forgotten, or lost in a year–could be better spent on money for basic food for the needy throughout December. Occasionally, in the “wish list” things that needy families put out, with children and teenagers asking for something, one finds “I’d like a bed” or “I’d like some sheets and blankets.” That is something that I think should be encouraged, not “I want an MP3 player or a Nintendo Wii.”

I do think children need toys- but frankly throughout history, most of the time non-aristocratic children just made their own toys. Toymaking as a craft or industry is pretty recent. Heck, so is the concept of childhood! What is important though, is that children have safe items to play with that stimulate their imagination, creativity and help them learn about and explore our world in a developmentally appropriate way (based on individual child, not the age of the child). Often-times low-tech *and durable* is better. Building toys. Dolls & action figures (for all genders) that don’t need batteries, the kid gets to imagine what they can do *without* batteries.  One of the funnest “toys” when I was a kid was a big refrigerator box! This makes me sound like a mean grown-up, but buying kids what they say they want isn’t necessarily the greatest idea. Is it really what they will spend a lot of time enjoying and get a lot out of? Or is it just the most advertised toy that all their peers seemingly have, so they have to have it!

Unity Unitarian Church has a “Mitten Tree” each year, that people can add articles of warm clothing to (including our Uknitarian club!) We also collect- not just in winter but throughout the year, personal care items (small shampoo bottles) clothing, money for bus passes and other things to help people who are coming out of prison and returning to society to help them out as part of the Amicus Reconnect program. Many other places of worship, schools, non-profits (both religious & secular) have similar programs.

November 22, 2014 at 12:21 am Leave a comment

Considering Chalica

Yes, I spelled that right- Chalica (chal-ick-a)

It’s a new(ish) winter holiday (2005) honoring the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism and our symbol, the Flaming Chalice. It was started by a group of young adult UUs who wanted our own winter holiday. Groups or individuals light a chalice (or candles from a central chalice) each day for a week (starting the first Monday of December) for each principle, discuss the principle and take an action related to it. The last part isn’t always included, but I saw the idea in one of the articles and thought it was a good one. Another unique winter holiday is IllUUmination, celebrated by the UU church of Little Rock, Arkansas since 1994.

OK, I admit the first time I heard of it I thought it sounded really silly and contrived. There are some criticisms that it’s a rip-off of Hannukah, especially with the rough similarity of the name, but if you’re going to go that route, accuse Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa first. Kwanzaa bears more of a resemblance to Chalica, with its focus on a different set of seven principles, the Nguzo Saba. Some UU congregations do observe Kwanzaa, particularly if they have more African-American members. However given how white our congregations tend to be, and the simple fact that few African-Americans grow up celebrating Kwanzaa, I don’t think it’s that common among UUs. Many Jewish UUs celebrate Hannukah, and Pagans and atheists/humanists celebrate the Winter or Summer Solstice with mythic or scientific slants as they prefer. I’ve also heard of Humanlight, a specifically Humanist* holiday, celebrated on December 23rd. Seriously, that name is worse than Chalica! Most atheist & humanist groups that I’m aware of stick with the solstice.

And yes, a lot of us still celebrate Christmas! It’s just as much are holiday as it is for all the “proper” Christians. Heck, it was a Unitarian, Charles Dickens who single-handedly re-invented the holiday for the English-speaking world with his book, A Christmas Carol. Before that, it was like 12 days of Mardi Gras, and the Puritans banned it both in Britain and the American colonies when they ran things! Dickens re-oriented it towards family and charity for the poor. My church, Unity Unitarian is waaay into Christmas, we even have an extra hymnal for carols that the UUA took out of the official hymnal ‘cuz they were too old-school! We even have a traditional pageant, with Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels. I haven’t been to it yet.

Come to think of it, I wonder if it would be better for Chalica to be celebrated at a different time of year with less holidays. Christmas, Winter/Summer Solstice, Hannukah and Kwanzaa are all valid holidays for UUs to celebrate. Our calendar is already so lop-sided, and we only have two other uniquely UU celebrations of Flower & Water Communion. I think we could in general use some more liturgical “oomph” for both of these.

*Trust me, there’s a difference between capital H ones and lowercase ones.

References & Resources:

UU World– Chalica

The Examiner- Chalica

Chalica Info

The Chalica song (if it has a song, then it’s a real holiday!)

A better Chalica song (amazing how he fits in those long-winded principles!)

Why Do We (UUs) Have So Many Winter Holidays? Sermon by Rev. Amy Zucker Morganstern

The ghosts of Unitarian Christmas

How to celebrate Humanlight

November 13, 2014 at 10:32 am Leave a comment

Kwanzaa- New Traditions, Old Roots

Kwanzaa is a Pan-African cultural holiday– that is including  people of African descent around the world. It was created in the 1970’s by Maulana Karenga- a professor of African Studies and leader in the Black Power movement.  It’s a 7 day holiday that begins on Dec. 26 and goes thru Jan. 1st.

I’ve always thought it was a neat holiday and I’ve lately been joking that I celebrate Kwanzaa to take advantage of after-Christmas sales. But setting aside my irreverent sense of humor, there is a parallel between the creation and observance of Kwanzaa and aspects of Neo-Paganism. Both are new traditions which draw on roots from the past & the “mother country”. Kwanzaa is actually a harvest holiday, despite the fact that many folks in the African Diaspora live in climates where the harvest is much earlier than late December. If Mr. Karenga wanted an African alternative or cultural supplement to Christmas, I’m not sure why he didn’t choose a midwinter holiday (or midsummer for those in the Southern Hemisphere). I know very little of African religions, but I’m sure some of them celebrate either, or both solstices in some way. Anyhow this is also parallel to Neo-Pagans who live in climates that differ from the cultural origins of their religions.

Each day of Kwanzaa is focused on one of the Nguzo Saba- Seven Principles, and a candle is lit on the kinara- a candle holder much like the menorah used in Jewish tradition. I feel there is much we can learn from these values, and I’ve decided to reflect on each one (even if I am a day behind!) , as well as try to connect it with my own beliefs. I’d be interested in seeing other Neo-Pagan views on this, particularly Neo-Pagans who celebrate Kwanzaa.

December 27, 2012 at 12:21 am 1 comment


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