Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah... and Yalda!
Dec. 31, 1999/22 Teves, 5760 by Tony Snow
BLACKS IN AMERICA have suffered an endless series of insults and degradations, the latest of which goes by the name of Kwanzaa.
Ron Karenga (aka Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga) invented the seven-day feast (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) in 1966, branding it a black alternative to Christmas. The idea was to celebrate the end of what he considered the Christmas-season exploitation of African Americans.
According to the official Kwanzaa Web site -- as opposed, say, to the Hallmark Cards Kwanzaa site -- the celebration was designed to foster "conditions that would enhance the revolutionary social change for the masses of Black Americans" and provide a "reassessment, reclaiming, recommitment, remembrance, retrieval, resumption, resurrection and rejuvenation of those principles (Way of Life) utilized by Black Americans' ancestors."
Karenga postulated seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith, each of which gets its day during Kwanzaa week. He and his votaries also crafted a flag of black nationalism and a pledge: "We pledge allegiance to the red, black, and green, our flag, the symbol of our eternal struggle, and to the land we must obtain; one nation of black people, with one GOD of us all, totally united in the struggle, for black love, black freedom, and black self-determination."
For more information about African tribal violence and a real look at Black Africa visit: Welcome to Africa
Now, the point: There is no part of Kwanzaa that is not fraudulent. Begin with the name. The celebration comes from the Swahili term "matunda yakwanza," or "first fruit," and the festival's trappings have Swahili names -- such as "ujima" for "collective work and responsibility" or "muhindi," which are ears of corn celebrants set aside for each child in a family.
Unfortunately, Swahili has little relevance for American blacks. Most slaves were ripped from the shores of West Africa. Swahili is an East African tongue.
To put that in perspective, the cultural gap between Senegal and Kenya is as dramatic as the chasm that separates, say, London and Tehran. Imagine singing "GOD Save the Queen" in Farsi, and you grasp the enormity of the gaffe.
Worse, Kwanzaa ceremonies have no discernible African roots. No culture on earth celebrates a harvesting ritual in December, for instance, and the implicit pledges about human dignity don't necessarily jibe with such still-common practices as female circumcision and polygamy. The inventors of Kwanzaa weren't promoting a return to roots; they were shilling for Marxism. They even appropriated the term "ujima," which Julius Nyrere cited when he uprooted tens of thousands of Tanzanians and shipped them forcibly to collective farms, where they proved more adept at cultivating misery than banishing hunger.
Even the rituals using corn don't fit. Corn isn't indigenous to Africa. Mexican Indians developed it, and the crop was carried worldwide by white colonialists.
The fact is, there is no Ur-African culture. The continent remains stubbornly tribal. Hutus and Tutsis still slaughter one another for sport.
Go to Kenya, where I taught briefly as a young man, and you'll see endless hostility between Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Masai. Even South African politics these days have more to do with tribal animosities than ideological differences.
Moreover, chaos too often prevails over order. Warlords hold sway in Somalia, Eritrea, Liberia and Zaire. Genocidal maniacs have wiped out millions in Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia. The once-shining hopes for Kenya have vanished.
Detroit native Keith Richburg writes in his extraordinary book, "Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa," that "this strange place defies even the staunchest of optimists; it drains you of hope ..."
Richburg, who served for three years as the African bureau chief for The Washington Post, offers a challenge for the likes of Karenga: "Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers and I'll throw it back in your face, and then I'll rub your nose in the images of rotting flesh."
His book concludes: "I have been here, and I have seen -- and frankly, I want no part of it. .... By an accident of birth, I am a black man born in America, and everything I am today -- my culture and my attitudes, my sensibilities, loves and desires -- derives from that one simple and irrefutable fact."
Nobody ever ennobled a people with a lie or restored stolen dignity through fraud. Kwanzaa is the ultimate chump holiday -- Jim Crow with a false and festive wardrobe. It praises practices -- "cooperative economics, and collective work and responsibility" -- that have succeeded nowhere on earth and would mire American blacks in endless backwardness.
Our treatment of Kwanzaa provides a revealing sign of how far we have yet to travel on the road to reconciliation. The white establishment has thrown in with it, not just to cash in on the business, but to patronize black activists and shut them up.
This year, President Clinton signed his fourth Kwanzaa proclamation. He crooned: "The symbols and ceremony of Kwanzaa, evoking the rich history and heritage of African Americans, remind us that our nation draws much of its strength from our diversity."
But our strength, as Richburg points out, comes from real principles: tolerance, brotherhood, hard work, personal responsibility, equality before the law. If Americans really cared about racial healing, they would focus on those ideas -- and not on a made-up rite that mistakes segregationism for spirituality and fiction for history.
Tony Snow is a columnist for the Detroit News
Food writer Adell Schneer explains the meaning of Hanukkah
Hanukkah often gets depicted as the Jewish version of Christmas. Though the two holidays fall at the same time of year, they are actually very different. Hanukkah, a festival of lights, is rich in history and meaning. Adell Schneer, a food writer for Canadian Living, shares what Hanukkah means to her.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees around 165 BCE. After a three-year-long uprising against the ruling Assyrian-Greek regime, the Maccabees recaptured the temple and restored it to its traditional Jewish service.
The word Hanukkah, Hebrew for 'dedication,' refers to the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled. According to tradition, only enough oil was found to light the temple menorah for one night. Miraculously, the small amount of oil burned for eight days. We celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the hannukiah, a menorah holding nine candles, while reciting blessings.
In our family, just before dinner our kids take turns each night lighting the candles. On the first night, we light the shamash (servant) candle and the first candle. On the second night, the shamash and two candles and so on until the eighth and final night, when we light all the candles. While lighting the candles, we recite blessings and sing traditional Hanukkah songs.
Yalda (also called Chelleh) is the night of the birth of the unconquerable Sun, or Mehr. This occasion offers a great opportunity to get closer to your loved ones. So send warm messages. Is it a mere coincidence that these two celebration are so close to each other, Christmas is celebrated on Dec. the 25th. and YALDA is celebrated on the night of Dec. the 21th. the night before the first day of winter? Hmm...
Yalda, a Syric word imported into the Persian language by the Syric Christians means birth (tavalud and melaad are from the same origin). It is a relatively recent arrival and it is refereed to the "Shab e Cheleh Festival" a celebration of Winter Solstice on December 21st. Forty days before the next major Persian festival "Jashn e Sadeh" this night has been celebrated in countless cultures for thousands of years. The ancient Roman festivals of Saturnalia (God of Agriculture, Saturn) and Sol Invicta (Sun God) are amongst the best known in the Western world.
In most ancient cultures, including Persia, the start of the solar year has been marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and the renewal of the Sun. For instance, Egyptians, four thousand years ago celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month.
The Persians adopted their annual renewal festival from the Babylonians and incorporated it into the rituals of their own Zoroastrian religion. The last day of the Persian month Azar is the longest night of the year, when the forces of Ahriman are assumed to be at the peak of their strength. While the next day, the first day of the month "Day" known as "khoram rooz" or "khore rooz" (the day of sun) belongs to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. Since the days are getting longer and the nights shorter, this day marks the victory of Sun over the darkness. The occasion was celebrated in the festival of "Daygan" dedicated to Ahura Mazda, on the first day of the month "Day"
(I must say at this point - I like the sound of that! Victory of Light over darkness... the first day belonging to the Lord of Wisdom... all things that truly befit... a luminous blog! If I do say so myself... *LOL*).
Fires would be burnt all night to ensure the defeat of the forces of Ahriman. There would be feasts, acts of charity and a number of deities were honored and prayers performed to ensure the total victory of sun that was essential for the protection of winter crops. There would be prayers to Mithra (Mehr) and feasts in his honor, since Mithra is the Eyzad responsible for protecting "the light of the early morning" known as "Havangah" It was also assumed that Ahura Mazda would grant people's wishes, specially those with no offspring had the hope to be blessed with children if performed all rites on this occasion.
One of the themes of the festival was the temporary subversion of order. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in white would change place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year died, rules of ordinary living were relaxed. This tradition persisted till Sassanian period, and is mentioned by Biruni and others in their recordings of pre-Islamic rituals and festivals. Its' origin goes back to the Babylonian New Year celebration. These people believed the first creation was order that came out of chaos. To appreciate and celebrate the first creation they had a festival and all roles were reversed. Disorder and chaos ruled for a day and eventually order was restored and succeeded at the end of the festival.
The Egyptian and Persian traditions merged in ancient Rome, in a festival to the ancient god of seedtime, Saturn. The Romans exchanged gifts, partied and decorated their homes with greenery. Following the Persian tradition, the usual order of the year was suspended. Grudges and quarrels forgotten, wars would be interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts and schools were closed. Rich and poor became equal, masters served slaves, and children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. A mock king, the Lord of Misrule, was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.
Another related Roman festival celebrated at the same time was dedicated to Sol Invictus ("the invincible sun" Originally a Syrian deity, this cult was imported by Emperor Heliogabalus into Rome and Sol was made god of the state. With the spread of Christianity, Christmas celebration became the most important Christian festival. In the third century various dates, from December to April, were celebrated by Christians as Christmas. January 6 was the most favored day because it was thought to be Jesus' Baptismal day (in the Greek Orthodox Church this continues to be the day to celebrate Christmas). In year 350, December 25 was adopted in Rome and gradually almost the entire Christian Church agreed to that date, which coincided, with Winter Solstice and the festivals, Sol Invicta and Saturnalia. Many of the rituals and traditions of the pagan festivals were incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still observed today.
It is not clear when and how the world "Yalda" entered the Persian language. The massive persecution of the early Christians in Rome brought many Christian refugees into the Sassanin Empire and it is very likely that these Christians introduced and popularized "Yalda" in Iran. Gradually "Shab e Yalda" and "Shab e Cheleh" became synonymous and the two are used interchangeably.
With the conquest of Islam the religious significance of the ancient Persian festivals was lost. Today "Shab e Cheleh" is merely a social occasion, when family and friends get together for fun and merriment. Different kinds of dried fruits, nuts, seeds and fresh winter fruits are consumed. The presence of dried and fresh fruits is reminiscence of the ancient feasts to celebrate and pray to the deities to ensure the protection of the winter crops.
The Iranian Jews, who are amongst the oldest inhabitants of the country, in addition to "Shab e Cheleh" also celebrate the festival of "Illanout" (tree festival) at around the same time. Their celebration of Illanout is very similar to Shab e Cheleh celebration. Candles are lit; all varieties of dried and fresh winter fruits will have to be present. Special meals are prepared and prayers are performed. There are also very similar festivals in many parts of Southern Russia that are identical to "Shab e Cheleh" festival with local variations. Sweet breads are baked in shape of humans and animals. Bon fires are made; dances are performed that resemble crop harvesting. Comparison and detailed studies of all these celebrations no doubt will shed more light on the forgotten aspects of this wonderful and ancient festival, where merriment was the main theme of the festival. Happy Shab e Cheleh.
Courtesy of Massoume Price.