The holidays" used to sound like a euphemism to me. It was code for Christmas, but you wanted to sound broadminded, so you said "the holidays" as a somewhat condescending nod to Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and a myriad other international celebrations that more or less correspond to the winter solstice.
The darkest part of the year is a good time to celebrate light, and that's what all of these celebrations have in common?#34;along with good food, of course ... or, at any rate, a lot of food.
But this December, "the holidays" felt like, well, the holidays. Friends smothered me with fresh latkes and homemade applesauce one night during Hanukah (I use the streamlined spelling?#34;I've seen at least two others). I gorged on turkey and the trimmings on Christmas, thanks to the hospitality of my brother and his wife in Plainfield. And the following day, the first day of Kwanzaa, I feasted on curried chicken with saffron and coconut-milk rice and salad at the home of LaDonna and Tracey Redmond in West Garfield Park, near Cicero Avenue and Lake Street.
Umoja?#34;that's the first day of Kwanzaa. It means "Unity." Monday, as I write this, is Kujichagulia, which means "Self-determination," a good concept for any writer to ponder since writing is partly a process of self-determination (not to mention self-definition). Today (that is, Wednesday) is Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics?#34;as opposed to Capitalism's Rabidly Competitive and Cut-Throat Economics). Yesterday was Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility, which certainly describes our Tuesday deadlines). Tomorrow is Purpose (Nia, as in the Nia-driven life), followed by Kuumba (Creativity) and Faith (Imani).
The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, one for each day, are known as the Nguzo Saba?#34;important qualities, the founder of Kwanzaa felt, if black Americans were ever going to build a positive sense of self and community. But I don't see these principles applying any more to blacks than to whites. In the great moral values debate, Kwanzaa's seven principles, I think, rank right near the top?#34;especially if the goal is stronger families, stronger communities and a stronger nation.
Unity, for instance, is a pretty elusive notion these days, and I'm all for celebrating the possibility of it. There was a strong sense of unity Sunday among those gathered at the Redmond house, a pretty balanced mix of African and European Americans. The Redmonds made everyone feel welcome and the candle-lighting "ceremony," which hit just the right balance?#34;formality without solemnity?#34;cemented that unified feeling.
I wish all 365 days had a positive principle to contemplate and celebrate. In fact, that seems to be the key to making holidays, or any day, work?#34;the right balance of contemplation and celebration. Surrounding yourself with good people, good food, and just a touch of inspiration seems to be a pretty good prescription for celebrating life in general.
We need more holidays, so there's plenty of room in December for Hanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. The more the merrier. It's probably important and healthy for African Americans to continue embracing Kwanzaa, but it would be healthy for everyone else, too. Oak Park has a Community Kwanzaa celebration each year (held this past Sunday at Pilgrim Congregational Church, sponsored by Project Unity, or on this day, Project Umoja), which is well attended, though I enjoyed going to someone's home for a more private, informal celebration.
It was good for me to travel into the West Side, to stretch my comfort zone, and continue the long personal process of breaking down residual stereotypes and reserve. It's the only viable path to unity?#34;or Umoja, whose motto, according to LaDonna Redmond, is "I am because we are."