A Spark, A Flame

A Spark, A Flicker

Christmas – 2

 

December 24th was the beginning of Hanukah for those of the Jewish faith.  December 25th was the celebration and beginning of Christmas for those of the Christian faith.  While many might claim these are two distinctly different holidays, they do bear much in common – light and family.  Therefore, it is fitting that today, December 26th, is the beginning of Kwanza, a cultural holiday that celebrates family and relationships.

 

One of the hallmarks of all three holidays is their connection to candles.  Christians begin to anticipate Christmas with an Advent wreath, four candles lit one each week during the twenty-eight days before Christmas at a family meal and then one lit on Christmas Day.  Jewish families remember the miracle of Hanukah, the burning of one day’s worth of oil lasting instead for eight days, with the lighting of eight candles with the same taper at sundown as the family gathers together.  Kwanza, an American addition to celebrate African heritage, speaks to the core of every tribe’s culture – the family and during Kwanza, a candle is lit each night for six days as the family gathers.

 

Even if you are not Jewish, Christian, or of African descent, these celebrations and the lighting of their candles is something we all not only can appreciate but live in our daily lives.  It is at this time that some of the world’s best traditions and most misunderstood traditions take place.  These twelve days also symbolize our relationships with people and offer us a chance to not only celebrate but also improve our own living, giving ourselves the best possible gift of all – a brighter tomorrow.

 

Getting your family, whether of blood or of the heart, together is always a good thing.  There will be the inevitable hassles and maybe arguments but really, it is the coming together of each individual that makes us whole and helps us move forward in our lives.  As we pause to light the candles, we are called to remember who we are, why we are, and invited to see the light in each of us.  Aswe depart, we take a little something that helps our own light burn brighter and we have given that to the others present.

 

The lighting of the menorah to celebrate Hanukah is done preferably at a window to announce to all one’s faith.  We do this in every interaction we have with another.  Our words either light a flame with whom we are speaking or extinguish theirs.  Are we supportive in selecting our words or do we seek to harm and quench their hopes and dreams?  Do we leave people smiling or frowning?

 

During these twelve days we will share stories and recall celebrations past as well as our hopes for the future, both days of festivities but also those ordinary, everyday moments we hope to experience.  We each have opportunities to be that spark that lights a fire within another.   On Christmas Eve, the first day of Hanukah, I was out doing some last minute errands.  I stopped by to pick up lunch and as I sat waiting for my order, thought about how unhappy I was to be in the midst of the last minute chaos that the retail world experiences on Christmas Eve. 

 

My number was called and as I turned to leave, a young child reached out her hand to me and smiled.  I smiled back and then stopped as she spoke.  “Hi!” she said as she reached further to take my hand.  She told me her name and then her age.  I looked at her parents who seemed okay with my talking to her and took her hand.  I told her my name and she smiled even brighter.  Then she squeezed my hand.  “I hope you have a good day,” she said.  “Here is a hand hug” and then she gently squeezed my hand.

 

A four-year-old hand gently squeezing my own hand might just be one of the best presents I have ever received.  It definitely was a spark that lit the candle within my soul.  As I left the establishment, the day suddenly was less chaotic and more pleasant.  The world seemed less frenzied and most beautiful.  Someone had seen the spark of something within, someone who was only four years old.  The secrets to better living are not only for the rich and famous, the highly intelligent, the movers and shakers of the world. 

 

We can each celebrate living by simply being kind, by lighting a spark within another.  That is definitely worth celebrating and, really, the primary reason we celebrate at all.  Whose light will you help shine brighter today?  Sometimes it is as easy as a smile and joy extended to another, even a complete stranger.  Any child can show you how it is done.  Today be the spark that helps another’s flame burn brightly, please.  The world needs more light amid the darkness of reality.

 

 

Time to Learn

A Time to Learn
Christmas Nine

There are twelve days between the celebrations of feasts of Christmas and Epiphany or Theopany. Everyone agrees on that. However, exactly when one is to start counting those twelve days is not a subject of agreement. Technically, today, New Year’s Day, January first is the eighth day of Christmastide, the period between Christmas and Epiphany. However, does being the eighth day of the season make it Day Eight? Yes….. and no.

Some traditions start the counting of the days after the first main celebration of Christmas, ending with the twelfth day being Epiphany. Other religious traditions end on January 5th and then January 6th is the Feast of Epiphany. For many people Christmas is simply a winter excuse for partying and gift-giving. For the religious who believe in the Christian tradition, however, those twelve days are full of meaning and celebration. It should be noted that for many Roman Catholic dioceses, Christmastide goes until the first Sunday after Epiphany which celebrates the baptism of the prophet known as Jesus the Christ messiah.

Interestingly enough, Epiphany was celebrated long before Christmas was. Not until the fourth century in Africa were celebrations held on December 25th to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus. In the ensuing years, many symbols have been attached to Christmas, so many in fact that some churches are now advocating their members not celebrate Christmas but rather concentrate of the meaning of it instead.

A great deal is made of how people greet each other at this time of you. Those believing in Christmas feel the correct greeting to be “Merry Christmas”. Others with a larger view of humanity feel the “Seasons’ Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” is more politically correct. What really matters, though, is that we are greeting each other.

A family stood in line to view a movie during the weekend after Thanksgiving. The grandmother leaned down to the three-year-old and asked if Santa Claus was going to come visit her and bring her presents. The little girl shrugged her shoulders and firmly said “No.” The grandmother looked over at the mother and again asked the child if Santa Claus was going to come bring her presents. Once again, the child looks up at her grandmother and this time patiently repeats “No.” The grandmother turns to the child’s mother and starts asking what type of modern parenting and religion she was teaching her granddaughter when she felt a tug on her sleeve.

The child patted her grandmother’s hand and asked; “Didn’t you ever learn about Christmas?” The mother hurriedly interceded and asked the child to tell them all about Christmas. “Well,” said the child, “Christmas is about celebrating the birth of a baby named Jesus who loved everyone and wanted us to be kind and giving to all. But he’s dead. Dead.’ She stopped and looked up as they moved forward in the line. “We can’t give him birthday presents because he’s dead. He was born a long, long time ago. We can give each other presents to remember him. And we do!’

The grandmother, however, was not yet willing to give up on the commercial culture of Christmas. She asked her granddaughter a third time “What about Santa Claus?” The toddler reached up and gave her grandmother a hug. “Oh, nobody did ever teach you about Christmas, did they? Christmas is about love. That’s the Jesus part. It is also about fun. That’s the Santa Claus part. Santa Claus walks around and visits people to make them smile. Christmas is about love and smiles; love and joy. Jesus is the love. Santa Claus is the joy.”

Whether or not you agree with the toddler, it is a pretty good rendition of what Christmastide is all about. So, if you are now finished with Kwanza, go ahead and take part in the twelve days of Christmas. The song, which we will discuss another day, is all about love – i.e., gifts – and joy – imagining all those gifts.

Winter is a time of cold for many. People suffering from seasonal affective disorder have a difficult time during the winter months with reduced sunlight and more foggy, gray and cloudy days. When we greet each other pleasantly, regardless of what is said or whether or not it specifies the particular holiday one celebrates, the very act of greeting brings a ray of warmth into the landscape.

You might have celebrated something earlier in December and perhaps you don’t really celebrate anything at all. Perhaps you think twelve days is silly but really….How does sharing a smile and friendly greeting hurt anyone? How could it possibly offend? Regardless of your spirituality, it never hurts to take a few days to remember the love and joy that comprise our living. Even if you don’t recognize a man named Jesus as being anything other than a simple carpenter, even if you never have attended a church, or maybe believe that which can only be proven by science to be true, take a second and enjoy the laughter from this video. After all, even science has yet to figure out the perfect formula for a smile… or love… or happiness. Maybe that is the real magic of Christmastide: It exists.

Time to Go Forward

Time to Go Forward
New Year’s Eve
Christmas Seven

New Hampshire author and conflict resolution trainer Dr Tammy Lenski is an expert at helping families diffuse holiday stress. But what about the holiday stress that we take into the New Year? At a time when a great many people are celebrating the birth of a prophet who preached universal love, we see people being bullies and harsh in both their judgments and their behavior towards others. Right after another religion has celebrated a miracle of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days, we hear nothing but despair and negative expectations for the upcoming New Year.

One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight, to watch what one eats. However, this can often led to conflict. “The self-control needed to deal with anger and aggression takes energy and our brains get that energy partly from glucose,” Lenski explains. “If we haven’t eaten properly, low blood sugar makes it harder to deal with confrontations and can cause us to lash out.”

Ina world that seems to require us to do more and move faster, the term “multi-tasking” has become synonymous with living. The fact is that we can do a great deal but we can only do some well. No one is everything nor can one person do everything in a short time span. We often set ourselves up for failure. A tip borrowed from the dog-training world, “trigger stacking” is the gradual build-up of anxiety from a series of events. It’s why otherwise mild-mannered dogs unexpectedly bite, Lenski explains.“Research has shown that trying to regulate our thoughts and feelings all day saps our willpower, and eventually we run out of it,” Lenski says. “When that happens, we can snap, too, just like a dog.”

We need to be aware of our environment and how we react to it. Similarly, we need to expect criticism. After all, no one human being is perfect. We all have those things that stress us and knowing what they are can help us prevent them and better react to them when they are unpreventable. “We see ourselves as competent, likable, dependable, having good character, and capable of standing on our own two feet,” Dr. Lenski explains. But when someone suggests we aren’t, we can get ‘hooked’ by conflict. If we have a difficult history with someone, we’re more likely to interpret their comment as a deliberate insult, when the same comment from someone else might not even register on our internal Richter scales,” she says.

Another buzz word of the twenty-first century is “venting”. While it is good to acknowledge one’s feelings, let’s get real. Venting is just another word for complaining but calling it “venting” seems to make it okay. The notion that venting reduces anger is a myth,” says Lenski. “The venting myth persists because we associate feeling less angry and aggressive with actually being less so,” she says. “Research has shown when you just sit quietly for two minutes after an angering event, without thinking about anything in particular thing to think about, anger and aggression levels decline.”

What we need to do is take the beauty and meaning of this season of holidays into the New year without adding any stress to them. Fortunately, none of us exist alone. Whether you have a deep-rooted spirituality or faith or consider yourself simply a member of the family of man, you are a part of a family. None of us walks alone along the path of life. Find a local charity to volunteer. Every city has either a Red Cross chapter, Salvation Army, or locally-sponsored soup kitchen that could use your help. If construction is your forte, offer to help winterize the homes of senior citizens or low income families. If teaching was your career, volunteer at a local college to help adults receive their GED or be a reading tutor at a local elementary school. Humane societies welcome “petters”, those people who simply come and pet the dogs and cats awaiting adoption.

The reason for the season, regardless of what you call your season, is living. Move forward into the New Year with as little stress and as much hope as possible. The family of man needs you and has a place for you!

Time to Be a Village

Time to Be a Village
Christmas Six

It is an old African folk tale set to music. The father is out in the field and the mother is at the well. The grandmother is at the market hoping not only to purchase but also to sell. A neighbor is watching the children who are playing out in the yard. An old man comes by and stops to tell them a story because he likes to make them laugh. His story has a moral, though, and that is when they are down by the river, they need to look out for the crocodiles. The moral of the song is the unity with which everyone comes together for the children. In Africa, there is an old saying: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

This past summer the town of Ocean City, Maryland celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its Play-It-Safe Ocean City program. Designed for graduating high school seniors, the three week-long program involves area merchants, local volunteers, state and county agencies and volunteers to assist with the free events for the young people. Seniors can come for one week and are given a booklet with free coupons for food and a schedule of events, all designed to help seniors celebrate their high school graduation in a drug-free environment. Free bus passes are included to help those participating navigate the city. Free events available to the seniors include free roller coaster rides, tye-dye t-shirt events, pizza eating contest, dance party, tennis tourney, laser tag mini golf, regular mini golf, dodge ball, Splash Mountain, 3-on-3 basketball tourney, beach volleyball, wind surfing, kayak relays, moonlight bowling, and karaoke.

In a world where many feel afraid of their neighbors, Ocean City, Maryland had adopted the African slogan and made it a celebration. This past summer of 2014, as they celeb rated their twenty-fifth year, they had seniors from sixteen states and the District of Columbia attend. Sixty thousand brochures advertising the program were sent out and twenty thousand Passport to Fun Booklets distributed. There were over forty-eight planned drug-free and alcohol-free events for the eighty-three hundred-plus attendees at no charge. This was made possible by the over three hundred businesses, organizations, and individuals who contributed services, money, and prizes. Over three hundred and fifty volunteers, private citizens, assisted as well as the employees of state., county, and municipal agencies. Over two thousand hours, half by volunteers, make this village-sponsored event a reality.

During Kwanza, seven candles are lit, the first being the black candle. The remaining candles, three red and three green flank the black candle. The red candles represent the principles of self-determination, cooperative economics and creativity and are placed to the left of the center black candle. To the right are the green candles which represent collective work and responsibility, purpose, and faith. This is to show that people come first, and then the struggle and finally, the hope that comes from the struggle.

The program in Ocean City, Maryland, is not simple. I can assure you that there are struggles. Weather delays are just one of the many surprises that life sometimes offers. However, year after year, the people and the agencies of the area continue to do this for students from outside their neighborhood. All this from a town of less than eight thousand year-round residents serving more than that to provide high school seniors a safe yet fun way to celebrate their high school graduation.

The world with all the modern technology has gotten smaller and now it is as easy to travel half way around the world as it was for our parents to travel one hundred miles to a cousin’s house. The celebration of Kwanza is not just for those of African descent but for us all. We all need to remember that we had help getting to where we are and that we need to help others. Television has many so-called reality shows about people who want to live “off the grid” and yet, they are so popular because these people end up needing someone.

Life is a team sport and perhaps, as we take part in the festivities of the season we need to remember that we also take part in the family of man. It really does take a village, not only to raise a child but to help an adult in their living as well.

Time for Family

A Time for Family
Christmas Five

If you are following our winter holiday day count, then you know that today, December 29th, is the fourth day of Kwanzaa. What day it is in Christmastide is a different matter. For some it is Day Five, “five gold rings”, or Day Four “four calling birds”. Why the discrepancy? Because how the days in Christmastide are counted depends on who you are and who your family is. It is, fittingly enough, a matter of Ujamaa, the fourth principle of Kwanzaa that discusses social economics. That economics, however, is based upon the family.

In the late 1960’s an African nation gained its independence from Great Britain. Its president sought to develop a consciousness that would encourage his country and his countrymen to feel united, work together, and recognize that they were all family. Africa, like the Middle East, was a country of tribes and tribal loyalty still remained strong. Conquerors in other lands such as the Romans in Europe had helped to create a more unified sense of culture among the peoples they conquered. While the Romans often incorporated customs and habits from those they conquered, they also had learned the value of allowing people to maintain their identity in certain ways.

The president of the newly liberated Tanzania, Louis Nyerere, sought to unify the various tribes within his country. He saw it as the only way independence could be effective and successful. IN many ways his program which he called Ujamaa proved successful. More than just a political statement, it was a social and economic blueprint. Under his policies, the literacy rate for adults rose significantly and infant mortality rates decreased. However, was with neighboring Uganda and the world economic crisis with rising oil prices led to the end of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s voluntary resignation.

Kwanza celebrates the definition of Ujamaa – “local people cooperating with each other to provide for the essentials of living”. Think about that. People cooperate with each other to provide for the essentials of living. No more famine; no more diseases caused by lack of clean water or living conditions; no more groups of people living huddled together in fear because their religion is feared.

Many saw Nyerere has a man who did not help his country but a man interested in only his own power. History will have to be the judge for his tenure. What we need to focus on is the concept of how we are all part of the family of man and how our dependence and livelihood depends on each other. American writer of African descent Alex Haley often spoke of how the family is both our connection to the past and our hope for the future.

Henry David Thoreau is a well-known American writer who lived for two years in a cabin at Walden’s Pond in a semi-isolation state. He explained: ““I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He documented his time in his book “Walden” and his last words are similar to the concept of Ujamaa. His final words of the book are one final homily of sorts about the potential of man and mankind and it concludes with encouraging the reader to “meet” one’s life and life it to the fullest.

Some of us know our family while others may not. As the world has gotten smaller, the distances between some families have grown greater. Family is not just those with whom you are blood-related, though. Family is the group with whom you catch the ferry or ride the subway or shop at the same markets. Family can be your neighbors, your coworkers, or your countrymen. As John Donne penned, “No man is an island.” We all live on this planet together and our actions affect each other. If one of us is to fly, another one of us must be the wind to enable it.

Time to Celebrate

Kwanzaa: A Time to Celebrate
Christmas Two

Imagine waking up and not recognizing anything. No one speaks the same language you speak. Their words are useless babble and when you do not understand them, they push and shove you to get you where they want you. You are separated from your family and within a few years, your heritage is lost as your culture is forgotten. It is better to do what these new people want and live as they do. They seem afraid of your differences and what few customs you remember. IT is impossible to pretend you are one of them. Your hair and skin color is far too different. You try, though, because that seems to the only way to survive. Within a few generations, your family, their customs, beliefs, and rituals are all lost, victim to the tide of fear people experience due to their own lack of self-confidence and their own lack of faith.

In 1966, Maulana Karenga sought to reaffirm his heritage. He developed what he called a holiday based upon “matunda ya kwanza, a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits”. Karenga wanted a time to celebrate family, the family of those who were brought to this country and then made to forget their heritage. “It is a cultural rather than a religious holiday, and can be celebrated regardless of a person’s faith tradition”, explains Karenga. Kwanza celebrates the first fruits of the harvest by remembering the roots of the African people in Ancient Egypt and Nubia, people who worked the fields and reaped the fruits of their labor and culture.

The seven principles of Kwanza can be celebrated by all peoples. Collectively these seven principles or values are called Nguzo Saba and they are remembered during the seven days of Kwanza, December 26th through January 1st. AS in Hanukkah and the Advent Wreath, Kwanza also uses candles to gather the family together. Each day a candle is lit, the candles being the colors of Kwanza – black, red, and green. Some also use a unity cup to celebrate the spirits of ancestors long passed.

Right about now you might be thinking “What if I am not of African heritage?” Science tells us we all are descended from one area and that area is in part on the African continent. So if you are a part of mankind, then at some point, you had an ancestor from Africa. One year ago Forbes magazine reported on the oldest fossil recovered to date, a fossil that dated to be three hundred and fifty thousand years old. This was at least two hundred thousand years older than the previous oldest fossil. We may never really know all of our connections but our presence on this planet at the same time is a very strong connection. No one ethnicity has ever existed without owing something to its ancestors and to the other cultures on earth.

The seven principles of Kwanza are an excellent place to remember the African heritage but also our own individual heritage. On the first day of Kwanza, Umoja or unity is celebrated. Kujichagulia or self-determination is reason to celebrate day two and day three emphasizes Ujima or collective work and responsibility. Ujamaa or cooperative economics is day four with Nia or purpose being the word for day five. On day six, creativity or Kuumba is the cause and on the final day of Kwanza, Imani or faith is remembered.

There are many ways to celebrate Kwanza and an Internet can help one explore them. The reason to celebrate is universal and best explained by author Alex Haley. ““In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness. ”

Through the seven day celebrations of Kwanza, descendants of those first African-Americans rediscover their heritage and honor their heritage. The events of the past cannot be undone. None of us has a time machine to go back in time and correct the wrongs committed against not only African slaves but all enslaved peoples. What we can do is go forward and celebrate the living and the possibility of today as we prepare for the promise of tomorrow. All lives matter and all deserve to be celebrated.