The Colors of the Season
How One Transracial Family Reinvented Their Holiday Celebration
The holiday season in America, with all of its festivity and indulgence, is a complicated time for some families. It is when we are asked to choose “our” holiday. Do you celebrate Christmas? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa? Tet? The either-or nature of that question is similar to the dynamic that biracial people face. (Which are you? Black or white? Chinese or Caucasian?)
By their very being, interracial families are a mix of ethnicities. When individuals from different races become a family, whether by marriage or adoption, it is important to honor the ethnic heritage of each member. In our case, we are both a Jewish family and a family of color (we are Caucasian; our son is African-American and Latino). Our dual commitment to race and religion is often played out by taking turns. Within the last month, our son went to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings; we’ve gone as a family to an exhibit on slavery; we have tickets for a Latin music festival; and our shopping list has included Hanukkah candles and a kinara (candleholder). Clearly, our attempts to integrate our differences end up segregated from one another.
One year, when the Kwanzaa and Hanukkah dates overlapped, we used the fortuitous timing to create Kwanzukkah, a dual celebration to reflect the melding of race and religion within our family.
We sent handmade invitations in equal numbers to African-American and Jewish friends and acquaintances. Most of them were familiar with either Kwanzaa or Hanukkah; all were intrigued by and enthusiastic about Kwanzukkah.
When our guests arrived, they were greeted by two large signs: one, “Habari Gani!” (What’s the news!) in Swahili, and the other, “Happy Hanukkah!” The color scheme (which might offend the aesthetically sensitive) suited our purposes perfectly. Green, red, and black—representing the African flag—and blue and white, representing the Israeli flag, could be found on banners, balloons, and streamers throughout the house.
The menu for the afternoon party featured trays of finger foods associated with the cultures we wanted to highlight. The assortment was unusual but delicious. There were miniature sweet potato pies, potato latkes, rice balls, West African bene cookies, jelly donuts, cornbread muffins, challah, fresh fruit, and pineapple punch. The centerpiece was made from ears of corn: a Kwanzaa symbol for the children in a home. “Kwanzaa” means “first fruits” in Swahili, so we put out bowls of fresh fruit to symbolize the harvest. Sweet potato, cornbread, and rice were on the menu since they are used in traditional African-American dishes. Potato latkes and donuts came from the Hanukkah tradition of eating foods cooked in oil. The mounds of chocolate coins were wrapped in gold foil, following the ancient custom of giving Hanukkah gelt (gold coins) to children.
Music is important to celebrations in Africa, so we invited a group of local drummers to our Kwanzukkah event. The entertainers brought along extra drums for our guests to play. Two dancers enticed the crowd to join them in free-form dance and drumming. While the children were quick to jump in, the adults took a bit longer. The beats proved irresistible, though, and soon everyone was dancing. At one point, I looked over to see our rabbi hopping up and down with a Nigerian drum as his partner; it’s an image I’ll always cherish.
Crafts and Games
We set up tables where children and adults could play the African stone game of Mancala and the popular Hanukkah game of spin-the-dreidel. A crafts table in another room was crowded with children who could choose among several craft projects, such as stringing African trade bead necklaces, coloring paper masks of Judah Maccabee, weaving Mkeka mats, and decorating cardboard dreidels.
At one point, we stopped the music and brought everyone together in front of the menorah and kinara. An African-American friend explained the history of Kwanzaa, the meaning of its seven principles and its seven special symbols. Similarly, a Jewish friend told the story of the eight-day Festival of Lights, known as Hanukkah. We had handouts and several illustrated books for friends to browse through.
Our son lit the black candle in the kinara that he had made himself and proudly explained the symbolism of the colors. We practiced saying “Habari Gani,” to one another, and learned that you answer the greeting with the name of the Kwanzaa principle being celebrated that day. We made a blessing over the challah (braided egg bread) and passed it around for everyone to share.
When you are walking in new territory, reaching beyond traditional boundaries, and creating new models that support your own family, you risk offending others. We did not create a new holiday so much as a new paradigm: Kwanzukkah lets us celebrate in a unified way some of the many parts in our family’s cultural kaleidoscope.
One of the best benefits of our undertaking was the opportunity to work together as a family on a project that reflected our different facets in an integrated way. Preparing for the Kwanzukkah party was a lot of work, but it generated good discussions. While cutting a paper mask, or painting a unity cup, or simply cleaning the house, we talked to our son about being African-American and Latino and Jewish...all at the same time. And he talked to us about how confusing it was sometimes to inhabit more than one culture.
We wanted to respect each of the holidays we were celebrating. We took liberties with Kwanzaa and Hanukkah because each of these holidays is based on a cultural, rather than a religious, tradition. Our Kwanzukkah cannot do justice to the nuances and meaning of either Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, and we know that the “party versions” of holidays have limitations, as well as values.
By all accounts, Kwanzukkah was a great party. As they said goodbye, many of our guests asked to be included in next year’s celebration. We hope it was more than the food and music they enjoyed. A model of multiculturalism that involves new possibilities for understanding is the best gift you can give or receive at any time of the year.
Jana Wolff (www.janawolff.com) lives in Hawaii with her family. She is the author of Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother, available via the Adoptive Families Bookstore: www.adoptivefamilies.com/books.php
Creating Holiday Rituals: www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=460
Holidays Can Generate Strong Emotions: www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=26
Celebrating the Holidays While You Wait: www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=223
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