Before Dr. Maulana Karenga’s invention of Kwanzaa, there was Christmas in the black community. Yes, Christmas, not Xmas, not the Holiday Season, but CHRISTmas. Traditions that date back to being enslaved, colorful cultural infusions from the Caribbean to the plantation and beyond.
Tails of sacrifice, hardship and redemptive suffering offered in the scriptures. Not having enough money for the latest gadget or toy and making due with the throw away parts of a hog.
Hog-head cheese, skins, chitlins (I don’t know what a “chitterling” is) making even the creation of that culinary lardfest enjoyable. The smell of apples, oranges and raisins, nuts picked from the tree by “Madea’s” house shipped north for pecan pie or the aroma of pound cake baking in a big old gas oven.
Going to Sunday school and yes, the Christmas programs complete with re-telling of the story, follow the star (celestial not Usher!) locate newborn child, deliver gifts, burn incense and then leave.
Pain, suffering, redemption is repeated time and time again. Our modern Civil Rights Movement was based on redemptive suffering. From Rosa Parks to voting rights, the world witnessed abject cruelty of state-sanctioned oppression, poor housing, healthcare and denial of opportunity.
African-American traditions once reflected this spiritual belief: “Times may be hard but there’s light in the morning.” “Belief is knowing the hog maws in that pot with some collard greens, the pigs feet and some corn bread is still something to be thankful for.” Light in the morning brings a new, maybe even a better day. And better food.
I recall a poignant Christmas moment when I was younger. It was the late 1960s, armed with Dashikis and afro picks, some friends were ridiculing commercialized Christmas: “Yeah, who would believe a white man would come down your chimney and leave you stuff? How could you ever believe in Santa Claus?” An older black woman overhearing the conversation said “I do.”
“Yeah, right!” someone shouted. “He and Mrs. Claus live right down the street from the Easter Bunny, between the Tooth Fairy and the Gingerbread Man. If you see Snow White, Hansel or Gretel, you’ve gone too far.” The room was filled with breath-gasping laughter.
She took a deep breath. “There are times even as an adult when you have to believe in something you can’t see feel or touch. It’s the spirit of Christmas. Go ahead and mock the traditions if you wanna, but life is really empty if you don’t believe in something.”
To those who celebrate Kwanzaa, before you get your Kente cloths in a knot, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” According to those hostile to the newly minted celebration claim, “Kwanzaa was created with the intention of steering blacks away from what is believed to be the ‘white man’s’ celebration by having our ‘own celebration.'”
In spite of attempts to make this celebration multicultural, Kwanzaa was clearly created with the intention of this being a “black only” cultural event. “…it was chosen to give a black alternative to the existing holiday and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” — Dr. Maulana Karenga
To those who don’t believe in God, chill. I’m not a Bible thumper, in fact I’m an ala carte Christian, but I do miss the days when there was a black Christmas when it didn’t matter what material things you had. Like the hog-remnant-infested dinner on the stove, you did the best you could.
Even in the darkest hour of despair you could hold on to the belief that there’s redemption in suffering and the accompanying anguish won’t last forever. This is the spiritual hallmark of a Southern Christian upbringing.
It’s the spirit that tells you to get up again after failing, to have faith.
I remember my niece informing me that she couldn’t come to a family gathering because as she put it, “I can’t contribute; we’re poor.” I quickly corrected her and said, “You aren’t poor, you’re broke. And that’s temporary.”
This year she moved her family into a new home only two years after her official self- imposed poverty declaration. There’s hope in the morning. I’ve seen it time and time again through the belief in something I’ve never seen. And that includes Dr. Maulana Karenga.