Saturday, December 25, 2010


In the next few days many of us will be celebrating Christmas and Kwanzaa. While the celebration of Christmas has evolved over many centuries, the celebration of Kwanzaa is relatively new, 44 years old. The celebration of Christmas has been adapted and shaped by different communities and cultures. The Christmas tree (originally German) which is now an established part of Christmas celebrations was introduced and became popular in the former British Empire (which included Canada and the Caribbean islands) during the reign of Victoria. In 1846 an illustration of the British royal family Victoria, her German husband Albert and their children appeared in the Illustrated London News, standing around a decorated Christmas tree. The fashion caught on not only in Britain and the British Empire but also in the United States of America. In many homes today, a decorated tree is an essential part of the Christmas celebration.

Santa Claus in America, Canada and elsewhere, Father Christmas in Britain and many former British colonies is also an established figure in the celebration of Christmas. However, the jolly, white haired, bearded figure with the hearty laugh is mostly an American invention. Although legends abound from Turkey and various European countries of Saint Nicholas/St Nick, Kris Kringle and Sinterklaas, the modern version was popularised by Coca-Cola in the 1930s to boost sales of their product. Coca-Cola claim in their advertising: “2006 marked the 75th anniversary of the famous Coca-Cola Santa Claus. Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola featured St. Nick as a kind, jolly man in a red suit. Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on our advertising.”

Since the days of the popularised Coca-Cola image of Santa Claus the celebration of Christmas has become less a religious observance/holiday and more a secular and highly commercial celebration/holiday. Christmas as a secular and commercial celebration is celebrated worldwide even in countries where the main religion is not Christianity.

In the Caribbean islands that were colonized by the British and in Guyana, the Christmas celebrations were at one time patterned after the colonizer but over time we made the celebration uniquely Caribbean with decorations, food and music. Steel pan music as accompaniment to the traditional carols, calypso, reggae and soca versions of those carols and even Caribbean composed songs to celebrate Christmas including the spirited and popular “Drink a rum” by Lord Kitchener and “listen mama I want you to tell Santa Claus” by Nat Hepburn. A Guyanese Christmas is not complete without a pepperpot (made with casareep) breakfast.

Christmas, many centuries old has moved from its supposed roots (many pagan rituals were included) of the celebration of the birth of Christ while Kwanzaa at 44 years old is still true to its roots as a Pan-African seven day celebration which begins on December 26th and goes until January 1st. The creation of Kwanzaa served as a way to reconnect African Americans to African culture and to celebrate family, community and culture. Kwanzaa is a celebration for all Africans regardless of their religion or country of birth. It is a time to celebrate our culture, learn about our history, honour African ancestors and traditions, spend time with family and friends and look to our future as a people.

The Kwanzaa celebration inspired racial pride in African Americans who, like other Africans in the Diaspora had been brainwashed into thinking that European culture was superior. The values articulated in the seven Kwanzaa principles “Nguzo saba” resonate with Africans and the celebration which began with a few people in the USA in 1966 is now an international celebration. In 1998 it was estimated that Kwanzaa was celebrated by 18 million Africans worldwide.

Kiswahili, the most widely spoken African language is used during the celebration of Kwanzaa which comes from "matunda ya kwanza" meaning "first fruits of the harvest.” Decorating the Kwanzaa table is an opportunity to learn some Kiswahili words. There are seven symbols that make up the table setting for a Kwanzaa celebration. The mkeka (mat) is the foundation upon which the other symbols are placed. The kinara (candle holder) holds the mishumaa saba (seven candles). The kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), mazao (fruits and vegetables), muhindi/vibunzi (corn) and zawadi (gifts) are placed on the mkeka. To the greeting/question, “Habari gani?” the answer is the principle of the day.

The Nguzo Saba (seven principles) are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self- Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). Each principle is represented by a candle (mshumaa). The colours used during Kwanzaa (red, black and green) are the Pan-African colours chosen by the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The red, black and green bendera (flag) is sometimes a part of the Kwanzaa decoration. Black represents the African people; red represents the blood shed in our struggle for freedom and green is the symbol of our future and the richness of the African continent.

The Mishumaa saba (seven candles) used during Kwanzaa are red black and green. The black candle is placed in the centre of the kinara, the three red candles to the left of the black candle and the three green candles to the right. On the first day of Kwanzaa, December 26th, the black candle, representing umoja (unity) is lit. On the second day of Kwanzaa, the first red candle next to the black candle, representing kujichagulia (self-determination) is lit. On the third day of Kwanzaa, the first green candle, next to the black candle, representing ujima (collective work and responsibility) is lit. The candles are lit in this alternating pattern until the last green candle, representing Imani (faith) is lit on the last day of the Kwanzaa celebration January 1st.

Celebrating Kwanzaa encourages making or buying educational African centred zawadi (gifts) for children to practice Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) so that money circulates in the community at least seven times. There are excellent books written for African children about the heroes and sheroes who can serve as inspiration and role models. Mathieu DaCosta by Itah Sadu, The Kids Book of Black Canadian History by Rosemary Sadlier, To Be a Drum by Evelyn Coleman, The Sound that Jazz Makes by Carole Boston Weatherford, In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall by Javaka Steptoe, Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book by Muriel Feelings, The Friendship, Song of the Trees, Mississippi Bridge and The Well by Mildred D. Taylor are all excellent Kwanzaa zawadi for children. The decorations for the Kwanzaa table, including a beautifully carved wooden kinara, mkeka, kikombe cha Umoja and kente cloth can all be found at African Canadian owned stores. The seven principles can be a guide throughout the year and do not have to be relegated to the Kwanzaa celebration from December 26th to January 1st.

An important part of the Kwanzaa celebration is the recognition of those who went before us. We remember those who paved the way for us, those on whose shoulders we stand and we are thankful that they never stopped striving for their freedom. Some of those freedom fighting ancestors are Kofi (Guyana’s National Hero who led the Berbice Revolution of 1763) Nanny (Jamaica’s lone female National Hero) Nana Yaa Asantewa (who led the last Ashante battle against the British in Ghana) Queen Nzingha (who battled the Portuguese in Angola) Mbuya Nehanda (who led the Shona resistance against the British in Zimbabwe) Viola Desmond who defied Canadian segregation practices and was arrested on November 8, 1946 for sitting in the white section of a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia cinema and Carrie Best who publicized and supported Viola Desmond’s fight.

The community is invited to a free Kwanzaa karamu on December 31 to celebrate Kuumba (creativity) at 100 Devonshire Place. If you have not celebrated Kwanzaa, now is a good time to start. Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri! May your Kwanzaa be happy!! Merry Christmas!!

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