‘What are you doing for Christmas?” asks one of a couple dozen different Japanese friends and co-workers every year, this time of year, most of whom I’ve answered quite thoroughly in years past. The question is like a foreigner reflex.

“Nothing special,” I say. “Grab a bucket of KFC and some strawberry shortcake, maybe go peep some illuminations.”

Nihonjin ni nari-tsutsu-aru, ne” (“You’re becoming Japanese”) or some variation of that is the usual response. “No Christmas parties?”

“No,” I say patiently. “I don’t celebrate Christmas. But I’m throwing another Kwanzaa party.”

“Oh, that’s right! You celebrate Kwanzaa!” they’ll say, suddenly recalling my annual soliloquy. “You told me about that before. It’s like Black Christmas, right?”

Chotto chigau …” (“Not exactly …”)

Those who’ve gotten the full story over the years — some even managing to retain it — have heard some variation of the following:

Yes, I’m American, but no, I don’t celebrate Christmas. At least I haven’t since I was 6 years old. That was the year my mother got involved in the Pan-African/black power movement in America and decided that, for me and my siblings, Christmas and all its trappings were a bit of Europeanization and pseudo-Christianization our minds and souls could do without.

So, that very same year, for the first time in my short life, suddenly, ruthlessly, cold turkey, there was no white baby Jesus in a manger to pa-rum-pu-pum-pum to, no jolly white Santa at Macy’s to whisper my wishes to, no carols to sing, no Christmas tree to decorate and, perhaps the only painful loss: no Christmas presents to open.

This wouldn’t be the case for the vast majority of African-Americans, however, but the gentleman who came up with Kwanzaa back in the mid-1960s was obviously a clever chap who knew his people well. He had probably anticipated that even thinking of competing with Christmas would be setting Kwanzaa up for failure from jump street. So, professor Maulana Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, made the holiday the seven days following Christmas. So, come Dec. 26, it was all Kwanzaa, all day, every day for seven days in the McNeil manor.

Nowadays, Kwanzaa is celebrated by millions of people worldwide, but when I was a kid, it seriously felt like we were in some crazy cult. This was long before McDonald’s ran commercials with kids adorned in African garb chowing down on Kwanzaa Happy Meals, and Coca-Cola turned their labels red, black and green (the colors of the Pan-African/black liberation flag) in honor of Kwanzaa. So, our relatively tiny clique of Pan-African pioneers, in our robes and gowns, kente cloth, kufis and dashikis, were looked at with suspicion by many in the community.

A thought every day, for a week

It only took two or three Kris Kringle-free Decembers before Kwanzaa won me over.

What was it that swayed me, you ask? Good question. Well, it wasn’t when I learned that there were gifts involved, because they were not of the Toy R Us variety. The gifts were generally handmade, or of an educational nature. (Nothing to get up before sun-up and sprint to the fireplace over.) And it certainly wasn’t the Kwanzaa songs. Though some of them are catchy, none of them could hold a candle to that feeling you get when you hear Nat King Cole croon, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or Bing Crosby belt out “Well, the weather outside is frightful.” It wasn’t even the abundance and variety of food readily available during Kwanzaa feasts.

To tell you the truth, I really can’t recall what it was exactly that endeared Kwanzaa to me. It’s been a part of my life for so long I just took it for granted after a while that it was simply the black thing to do — much the way my Japanese associates take for granted that Christmas is the gaikokujin (foreigner) thing to do. But, if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the little geek and future writer in me just loved all the colorful terminology and intriguing concepts associated with Kwanzaa.

For instance, take the Nguzo Saba — Swahili for the seven principles — one for each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. They are as follows:

Umoja (unity): To strive for and maintain unity in our family, community, nation and race.

Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined and spoken for by others.

Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems, and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (cooperative economics): To build our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit together from them.

Nia (purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (creativity): To leave our communities more beautiful than we inherited them.

Imani (faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

A view that’s barely changed

Karenga created these seven principles as a direct response to the conditions under which most black people lived in communities across the U.S. Embedded in these principles was the good doctor’s prescription for what ailed us — the premise being, if we were to incorporate these principles into our everyday lives then, no doubt, our communities would see better days.

This was in 1966 that Karenga conceptualized Kwanzaa. Though I wasn’t there, I know enough about black history to envision what he beheld. Besides, unfortunately, the view hasn’t changed all that much, at least not fundamentally.

He would have heard the cries of his people for civil rights or even basic decency, as they were degraded and demeaned and too often ignored, at least until they made themselves impossible to ignore. He would have cried embittered tears himself as revolutionary after revolutionary was imprisoned or assassinated. He would have smelled that awful stench of fear as families fret over the fate of their loved ones in war zones, both abroad and in the very streets outside their windows. He would have glowered at the flames of despair that spontaneously combust from time to time, and the resulting state of open rebellion in the streets, sparked when humanity is pushed beyond tolerance by police atrocities, poor schools, inhumane housing, high unemployment, low expectations and esteem, and the other symptoms of systematic poverty and genocide. He would have looked to the government and seen incompetent, ineffectual and/or indifferent leadership, and that’s on its best days; blatant hegemonic, xenophobic and/or racist practices and policies on its worst.

Like I said, the view hasn’t changed much at all.

And, like many others creative folk of action in black American history, he would have fended off his own despair by forging something of great and enduring beauty, drawing inspiration from those godforsaken conditions. In this instance, Kwanzaa was the result.

Everyone deserves Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was not initially intended to cross racial and cultural lines. In the version of Kwanzaa I first celebrated, its intended beneficiaries are impossible to misconstrue.

But I’ve come to think of Kwanzaa like I think of other formidable creations that have emerged from the hearts and minds of Africans and the African diaspora over the centuries — creations that have not only beautified the world and broadened its recognition of the artistry and sophistication of thought of people of African descent, but have managed to uplift other people as well. I now think of Kwanzaa as a universal concept, like Kawaida (the African philosophy from which Kwanzaa was derived) or jazz, or yoga or Islam, and many other practices that began tethered to a people or region but proved to be much too expansive and inherently inclusive to be constrained.

I see Kwanzaa as a linchpin that could benefit not only black humanity but all humanity, a beacon to light the way for hearts trapped in the darkness of ignorance, freeing minds from the burden of certain harmful predispositions and misperceptions about their fellow human beings.

And, to me, that’s a beautiful thing! Call me optimistic, but I tend to get this way at this time of year.

So, it was in this spirit that I introduced my now-annual Kwanzaa in Yokohama event, where I invite all to come and partake of this festival, share their ideas and perhaps learn a thing or two about this relatively new holiday founded on venerable and ultimately humanitarian concepts. Kwanzaa in Yokohama is here to stay, and will hopefully do for my community here in Japan, and the world beyond it, what it has done for the community that produced me: leave it more beautiful than when we inherited it.

From Black Eye, I’d like to wish you all a safe and joyous holiday season, and a healthy and prosperous new year.

For more information, visit the Kwanzaa site: www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.

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