Chanukah, Christmas, and Chwanza?


Maybe if Kwanza was spelled with a “C”, it would not be considered an exclusively “Black” holiday. It is one of the kindest and least mythological of all the winter solstice holidays. It says flat out that it was invented by a man. A regular, ordinary man. It doesn’t ask you to go into debt to show that you love someone. It celebrates the earth and all its wonders. Now, I don’t say all that to put down Christmas. I have dreamed of a white Christmas all my life. I never thought of it as an exclusively “white” holiday. Now that I know the virtues of Kwanzaa, I cannot think of it as an exclusively “Black” holiday. All of its principles are Island-worthy.

Although it is true that “Santa” has taken the Christ out of Christmas, there is no denying that the siren pull of snow and fir trees with a jolly white man dressed in Coca-Cola’s colors can be overwhelming. All of that industrialized advertising and millions of corporate gelt has forced me into submission — I feel compelled to celebrate it. In full transparency, I must admit I love it. I cry rivers every year on Christmas Eve when I force my whole family to get together to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” after we have trimmed the tree, which we chopped down ourselves, and sung all the carols, and settled down with hot chocolate and gingerbread cookies. Why Irish people haven’t had the film canceled, I don’t know, but I don’t care. The true spirit of Christmas prevails, and all the little people get together to save the day, just like the little ships in Dunkirk. I love this country! Christmas is about sharing and sacrificing to make people happy. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t true. What counts is that we might share and be kind to one another if called upon. It is certainly true of Vineyarders. We are an Island of neighbors helping neighbors.

Kwanzaa has the least hypocrisy of the celebrations, the most authenticity, and clearly, the kindest, more cerebral take on the “holiday” season.

It is hopeless to try and convince people how deceiving, manipulated, and forced our Christmases have become. Millions of poor people getting into debt to buy junk from WalMart makes no sense at all, yet … we all do it. We do it because we want our children to love us; we do it because we want to show our spouses, mates, etc., how much we love them. With stakes like that, no wonder Christmas is fraught with disappointment. Do we care that the baby Jesus was born in the desert and Santa holds court in the North Pole? Not one smidgen.

 Kwanzaa is manmade, but not commercial. The only bad thing about Kwanzaa is that everybody, all races, ethnic groups, etc., do not celebrate it.

Kwanzaa has only been around for a little over 50 years; who knows, maybe after 100 years or so, everybody will be wearing dashikis and giving gifts made at home with love. I wonder if Dr. Maulana Karenga, one of the creators, will still be remembered? Then again, it could go the other way, with a large corporation co-opting the entire concept and selling homemade, handcrafted gifts made from the disenfranchised hands of workers in China. Who knows?

“Matunda ya Kwanza” means “First Fruits” in Swahili — not a language with which many of us identify. Like Chanukah and Ramadan, it is one of those multiple-day celebrations with candles, cultural events, and intellectual discussions; not a lot of Xbox playing going on here. For seven nights, a child lights a candle on the kinara. I don’t know what you do if you are a nuclear or blended family with no kids around … a problem much like the St. Lucia Festival in Sweden, in which a virgin leads the procession with a halo of lit candles. Finding a virgin is far more difficult than finding a child.

In Kwanza, each night one of the seven principles, “Nguzo Saba,” is discussed after dinner.

It begins the day after Christmas, and ends just before New Year’s Eve. So you can still do the corporate/industrial complex gift-giving thing, along with the spiritual one.

Those seven principles are:

  1. Unity: Umoja (oo-MO-jah), family unity, or as my Aunt Minnie used to say, “Keep the family business inside the family.” Since Vegas made a fortune saying the same thing, it’s gotta be an offer you can’t refuse.
  2. Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah). Self-determination evolves into self-definition, which is a terrific tool in a family polemics. 
  3. Collective work and responsibility: Ujima (oo-GEE-mah). This is a great one. The idea of prayer through action; not just talking about it, doing it. It is cleaning out Crystal Lake, it is the annual M.V. CROP Walk to end hunger worldwide, it is about the free food pantry to end hunger on the Island, it’s about Dot’s Boutique, where everything is free including the laughter.
  4. Cooperative economics: Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah or oo-jah-MAH), keeping the dollar in “the hood,” is the path to self-determination. Having neighbors own the stores where we shop, the restaurants where we eat keeps the dollar revolving around and around. 
  5. Purpose: Nia (nee-YAH). Football players know this … we are only as strong as our weakest link. We are one wicked strong, united community with one purpose: to achieve and do positive things.
  6. Creativity: Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah). “Never give up on making this world a better place,” said Frances E. Burnett. It is our job to leave Noepe “more better” than we found it.
  7. Faith: Imani (ee-MAH-nee). As the late Oak Bluffs resident Adam Clayton Powell said, “Keep the faith, baby!”


For more information on the seven principles, read Jessica B. Harris’ book, “Kwanzaa Keepsake.”

Why not give Kwanzaa a shot? It’s all about harvesting and giving, and it’s cheap — you can’t go wrong. 

Try spelling it with a CH, if it makes you feel more comfortable.


  1. Ms. McGrath why create a myth of Kwanzaa’s creation when you say it is “one of the kindest and least mythological of all winter solstice holidays” and that you appreciate it? It is not mythological at all. But you create a myth when you refer to Dr. Maulana Karenga as “on of the creators.” This denies him his intellectual creation and creative genius. His definitive and authoritative book on Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, and the official Kwanzaa website,, offer evidence of both the intellectual creation, development of the creation, and the identity of the creator of Kwanzaa without myth or misrepresentation. You also contribute to myth and misrepresentation by saying that Kwanzaa “celebrates the earth and all its wonders”. Actually, Kwanzaa, as Dr. Karenga defines it, is “a celebration of family, community and culture” and in that Black culture, there is a celebration of all the good in the world and of the world. This is a much more expansive and authentic understanding of Kwanzaa. Indeed, if you were going to say that it is a celebration of anything, it is a celebration of Black people and their awesome presence and activity in the world.

    The problem then is not whether or not white people can celebrate Kwanzaa, but whether or not they can celebrate Black people and not feel they need to change the description of the core principles and practices of Kwanzaa as you seem to have done without any reference to their original meaning and stressing how white people can and might think of them. I realize it’s difficult to believe and accept this, but this African American, Black, university professor and chair of Africana Studies at CSULB, activist scholar, holder of two Ph.D.’s, author of numerous scholarly articles and books, did indeed create Kwanzaa himself. Please visit his personal and professional website for an expansive view of his life’s work and thought Dr. Maulana Karenga will indeed be continuously remembered and honored for his creation of the world encompassing pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa. For as our sacred text, The Husia, teaches, “to do that which is of value is forever. A person called forth by his work does not perish or pass away, for his name is raised and remembered because of it.”

  2. Love this! What an entertaining and informative read. A bit too controversial? Maybe, but that’s why the MV Times is my favorite news source in the area.

  3. Please do your research and stop trying to “fluff” Kwanzaa. When you do your ACTUAL research, you might find that your article was dismissive and condescending to an entire community of people that celebrate KWanzaa year around. It’s really the principle of the matter. You will never misappropriate Kwanzaa. I can’t even say “nice try!” What I can do is shake my head in sadness for the attempt.

  4. I love McGrath’s take on myriad things. It is always fresh and at least attempts to find the positive place for our community to come together and coalesce. She is doing the same, I believe with exhorting all of us to celebrate Kwanzaa. All the winter holidays celebrate bringing light into our lives and homes so let’s embrace another one. All of us!

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