By Bianca Alexander, Esq.
When I was little, I believed in Santa Claus. It was part of my family’s annual Christmas ritual. Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, dad climbed into the attic and pulled down dozens of trash bags filled with recycled Christmas decorations. There was wrapping paper and tinsel, strings of colored lights, a jolly white Santa head and stockings, and old faithful: a forest-green artificial tree that took forever to put together. But the pièce-de-résistance was a plug-in nativity scene featuring Mary, Joseph and three wise men huddled over a wooden cradle with an eight inch, blond-haired, white baby Jesus. He looked like a younger version of the blue-eyed “Jesus” we all prayed to on Christmas day—and every other Sunday--at our all-black A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) church.
Though I always celebrated a traditional Christmas, including near idol-worship of good old Saint Nick, for many African-Americans, the season falls short of reflecting their rich cultural heritage. As a result, many celebrate Kwanzaa during the holidays instead. Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase “Matunda ya kwanzaa,” or first fruits, and is a five-day celebration spanning December 26 - January 1st. Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 after the notorious L.A. Watts riots in 1965. At the time, Dr. Karenga was a professor and chairman of the Black Studies department at Cal State Long Beach. He established Kwanzaa to heal emotional trauma from the riots and the societal “isms” that prompted them, provide a community for African-Americans living in the U.S., and create a positive, life-affirming tradition from which people of color could draw strength to carry on.
Every family celebrates Kwanzaa differently, but its basic tenets are the same, including use of a Kinara, or candle-holder, with seven candles: three red, three green and a black one in the center. Similar to Hanukkah, each night a different candle is lit with an affirmation of seven core values that build community, spirit and abundance in African-American culture: 1. Umoja: unity 2. Kujichagulia: self-determination 3. Ujima: collective work and responsibility 4. Ujamaa: cooperative economics 5. Nia: purpose 6. Kuumba: creativity 7. Imani: faith. In addition to lighting candles and prayer, the celebration includes song, dance, drumming, storytelling and on the last night, December 31st, a large Karamu, or African feast, feast. Meaningful gifts are given on this day to encourage growth, success and improvement. According to tradition, accepting the gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill promises made during Kwanzaa week.
Despite the beauty of the tradition, I am one of many Black Americans who never celebrated Kwanzaa. Growing up, I was taught to believe that being Christian meant exclusively worshipping Jesus. Though I always had a natural curiosity about other cultures and religions, sadly, I feared opening to other faiths and spiritual points of view was blasphemous and might result in “going to hell”. As such, I steered clear of anything seeming too “different” from traditional Christianity—including Kwanzaa.
It wasn’t until I moved to Hollywood to work at Paramount Studios that I mustered the courage to be creative, test my beliefs and explore the highest truth in all other religions. I began with yoga, then studied everything from evangelical Christianity to Science of Mind, Buddhism, to Jewish Kabbalah and even Scientology. Though each religion employed a different unique approach to finding God, each taught me different aspects of the same a singular truth: we are spiritual beings--children of God having a physical experience on Earth; we are all one; and what goes around, comes around. that we are all one, that what goes around, comes around, and that we are all here to realize and fulfill our highest God-given potential. In sum, the very essence of Christ’s teachings.
Later, after meeting my husband Michael, we joined the Self-Realization Fellowship. SRF was , a meditation-based practice founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian saint who came to the West in 1920 to teach scientific healing techniques for using Kriya Yoga and meditation to attain direct personal experience of God. Through meditation, I’ve learned that the unity of all religions—and all peoples—is possible. I the science of yoga, meditation and inner-revelation based on a direct experiential contact with god that ultimately unifies and underlies all people, races and religions. Transcending body consciousness, in the Spirit of unity—Umoja—this holiday season I’m thinking about celebrating Kwanzaa for the first time this year along with the best parts of all religions celebrating this holiday season. Perhaps I’ll call it Kwanz--anukkhah-mas. But I’m not giving up Santa.
To learn how to meditate, watch the Spirit page of Conscious Living TV.com.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of Mindful Metropolis
Magazine in Chicago.