Before we begin I’d like to take a moment to wish all of our Jewish readers a Happy Hanukkah. Their festival of eight crazy nights started last night. In all honesty if you asked the average non-Jew what they know about Hanukkah you’d probably get an answer like “it’s that thing that Adam Sandler sings about.” If you got any response at all, that is. To be honest it is only in recent years that Hanukkah has taken on any significance whatsoever. Until recently Hanukkah held the same import for Jews as National Doorknob Day does for W.A.S.P.s and The Festival of Three Yaks does in Lower Mongolia.
“Hey, wait a minute blogger dufus, the subject line says this is supposed to be about Christmas. What does this crap have to do with that?”
Quite a bit actually, please follow along.
You see, while Jesus was a Jew, he never celebrated Hanukkah. He may have noted it, it was a popular children’s story back in the day, but that was about it. A guy, a lamp, a minor miracle, God is good, let’s move on. But the American, and later global, proliferation of Christmas as the be all, end all, holiday scared many Jews into believing their culture and heritage was going to be run over by the Yuletide Juggernaut. They had this minor holiday, it had a couple of similar traditions with Christmas, so they propped it up and let it become the, unfortunately named – all things considered, Jewish Christmas.
The real ramping up of Hanukkah didn’t happen until after World War II. After the war many Americans, joined by others from the rest of the world, were more sympathetic to Jewish beliefs and causes, for obvious reasons, and Hanukkah finally joined the Western Pantheon of wildly misunderstood holidays.
By the 60’s African-Americans realized that they too were about to be buried under an avalanche of White Christmas. And I do mean “white.” Jesus was white, at least in popular media if not in history, the apostles were white, the Virgin Mary was white, Santa was white, the elves were white …. hell, even the weather was white with all that snow. We are talking about one seriously bleached holiday, when you think about it.
And one man did think about it. In 1966 Maulana Karenga, a college professor and member of the growing “Black Power” movement, invented a holiday called Kwanzaa. Originally meant to be the African-American Anti-Christmas it never really worked out that way. The main problem was that so many African-Americans are Christians. Asking them to renounce their faith just to have a holiday that represented their skin color never caught on. However, by the late 70’s Mr. Karenga mellowed a bit and admitted that anyone who wished to celebrate African heritage could celebrate Kwanzaa. Although Mr. Karenga would probably be loathe to admit it, he essentially took the structure of Hanukkah and the core beliefs of Christianity and created a holiday that celebrates the best of both.
Here are the meanings behind each of the seven days of Kwanzaa.
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves, stand up.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Nothing very radical there. Basically “Love thy neighbor” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” split across seven days. You can live with that.
Up until the late 1970’s everything was fine. Christmas was Christmas, Hanukkah was Hanukkah and Kwanzaa was Kwanzaa. However, with the rise in inter-faith & inter-racial marriages, general assimilation and so on the holidays began to get blended. For some this was proof that all that was good and holy had been destroyed and that America had become a godless country. For others it was a celebration of the joys of diversity.
That latter belief was gloriously lampooned in a Virgin Mobile ad for Chrismahanukwanzakah.
As with many issues these days, there’s not a lot of perceived middle ground there. Which is sad, because in reality there’s plenty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating the holiday you believe in while acknowledging other people’s right to do the same.
Go ahead and say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Peaceful Kwanzaa – as your case may be – to everyone you meet. Just be willing to have them say what they want to say back at you.
If you can handle that then you’ve managed to grab the basic understanding of the season.
Like I wrote in the previous two blogs this week, Christmas has not always been the symbol for universal love and joy. It has evolved from a violent, drunken, holiday into what we know today. It seems to me that if the holiday can bend with the times so can we.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, this Friday morning around 9:10 for his version of a holiday special!