My family celebrates Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa over the winter holidays.
We’ve taken to calling this mix match of holidays Christmachanukwanzakah, and I haven’t yet encountered another family who celebrates all three. In fact, many of my friends don’t know what Kwanzaa is. It is an African-American holiday not affiliated with any religion, and I’ve met people who think it’s a Muslim holiday from northern Africa.
Recently, I was able to go up to Yosemite for three days to take part in a teen winter retreat at a Jewish camp I go to. The two nights I was there were the fifth and sixth nights of Chanukah, and also coincided with Ujima and Ujamaa, two nights of Kwanzaa. I had been planning to bring some candles or electric tea lights to light, but in the rush that occurred the morning I left, I forgot. I remembered once we were already in Yosemite, and asked a few staff members if they had tea lights or black, red, and green candles. They didn’t.
So, when bedtime came around, I slipped out of the cabin to celebrate Ujima, the principle of “collective work and responsibility.” I ran into the counselor in charge of our cabin, who asked if everything was alright. I awkwardly told her I was celebrating Kwanzaa, which felt a bit odd after we had just lit the Chanukah candles. She nodded, and went back into the cabin.
My family always celebrates Kwanzaa by singing a song called “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem.” I imagined a black candle for Umoja, the
first night, a red one for Kujichagulia, the second night, and a green candle for Ujima. Then I sang the first verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” quietly and a bit nervous that someone inside would hear. When I went back inside, the counselor asked if I could tell her about Kwanzaa the next day. I agreed.
The next night, before we went off to bed, all forty-one of us (plus some of the staff members) participated in a guided meditation that was about spirituality. I mostly thought about my Jewish identity, and realized almost for the first time that I am very proud of being a Jew. Later, just as I was getting in bed, I remembered that I had forgotten Kwanzaa, and got back out of bed. That night, Ujamaa, represents cooperative economics. As I was leaving the cabin, my friends asked where I was going. I told them I was going to celebrate Kwanzaa, and they looked a bit surprised. So when I came back in after imagining the candles from the previous nights and another red candle for Ujamaa, then singing the first and last verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” my friends asked me questions about Kwanzaa. I explained what I knew of the answers, and was again proud of my identity.
Celebrating an African-American holiday at a Jewish camp was interesting, to say the least. When I was considering spirituality, I left out Kwanzaa, and focused mainly on Judaism. Kwanzaa is, however, a big part of my spirituality, and my identity as an African-American is just as important as my identity as a Jew. Although I’ve been celebrating both Kwanzaa and Chanukah for as long as I can remember, and we’ve even combined the names to speak of our winter holidays, I’ve always thought of them as separate. After celebrating them both on the same night, but one with a large group of people and one alone, I have a new perspective on the two holidays.
Lena Hartsough, class of 2019