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Asking the Clergy: How can a Kwanzaa celebration be combined with Christmas?

The Rev. Maxine Barnett, the Church of St.

The Rev. Maxine Barnett, the Church of St. Jude, the Rev. William Brisotti, Our Lady of The Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, and the Rev. Natalie M. Fenimore, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. Credit: Colin Barnett; Steve Pfost; Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

Kwanzaa, which is celebrated beginning the day after Christmas through Jan. 1, is a secular observance popular with Long Islanders of diverse creeds, racial and ethnic backgrounds. This week’s clergy discuss how the Christmas spirit can continue during the annual celebration of African-American history and culture modeled after African harvest festivals.  

The Rev. William Brisotti

Pastor, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church, Wyandanch

Kwanzaa and Christmas, sharing the same time of the year, are powerful and different but complementary genres of celebrations. Kwanzaa, created to foster mutual understanding and solidarity among African-Americans, in the face of struggles against racial injustice during the 1960s, highlights common secular roots, family and cultural history, personal integrity and dignity of all people of African ancestry.

Meanwhile, the accompanying religious commemorations of Christmas enable discovery of spiritual dimensions of all secular cultures: the transcendent, universal and eternal, and how to appreciate and tap into it to benefit the common good. Religious proselytizing throughout history didn’t always respect culture and ethnic traditions, but rather tended to diminish indigenous peoples’ cultures, imposing religious symbols identifying faith with alien cultural symbols.

So, both celebrations are truly beneficial: the Christmas mystery and miracle of the birth of the very source of all creation, into human, cultural form; and Kwanzaa’s deep immersion into the wonders of specifically African-American culture. Faith and culture are both necessary and complementary. Spirituality teaches the interconnectedness of humanity’s many cultures, with roots in time and eternity, fostering solidarity and mutual understanding beyond race and ethnic ancestry. We all are children of the one God and source of all life, and all needing to appreciate our roots in family and culture, with faith that helps us see we are all equal and one.

The Rev. Natalie M. Fenimore

Minister of Lifespan Religious Education, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset

African-American spirituality is expressed in a great variety of ways: There are African-Americans in all faith traditions and all denominations in America. As a people who have known slavery and oppression, African-Americans have drawn great personal and communal strength from their faith. And faith has anchored a belief in justice and freedom as an inherent, God-given right.

Christianity is the faith of many black people. Black people, while enslaved, heard the stories of the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom and the story of Jesus rising from the dead after being murdered by Roman overlords. In these stories they saw their own suffering and a promise from God to stand with the slave and the poor and oppressed. Christianity became, for the slave, a faith of hope.

As decades and centuries passed, however, there was a desire by black people to know more about their own stories, their own culture. To enliven their faith with this greater understanding, Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 by scholar, author and activist Maulana Karenga as a celebration of African culture, unity and heritage. This California-born celebration is filled with rituals to connect African-Americans to a positive African identity, to strengthen black self-love and support a desire for human dignity, which is necessary for justice and the end of oppression.

While not a religious celebration, Kwanzaa begins on the day after Christmas so that a believer can celebrate both. These are complementary celebrations that enable African-American Christians and black people of all faiths to better know themselves as children of God, made in God’s image and able to work to make the world of peace, justice and freedom that God desires.

The Rev. Maxine Barnett

Curate, The Church of St. Jude (Episcopal), Wantagh

As fall becomes winter and the daylight hours decrease, there are many special occasions when people gather to celebrate using light to chase away darkness both literally and figuratively.

Diwali, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, Christmas and Kwanzaa are among annual festivals of light that include decorations, music, food, gifts and stories. Many of these holidays go back thousands of years. Kwanzaa, however, was created in 1966 to honor the rich African-American heritage and culture, and to celebrate principles that build up personal and community life. It is modeled after African harvest festivals, and its seven principles include unity, creativity and self-determination.

While some African-Americans choose to use Afrocentric Christmas decorations, or give gifts of cultural significance, and share the Christmas music and stories from Africa and other parts of the diaspora, these do not necessarily signify that they have combined the two holidays. Kwanzaa is intentionally nonreligious to be inclusive of people of diverse faiths, and it is easily celebrated in conjunction with Christmas. It presents many opportunities for families, faith groups, cultural centers, or other social groups to host gatherings, inviting members of the wider community to participate in activities that promote, among other principles, collective work and responsibility.

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