By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
O come all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born, the King of angels:
O come let us adore him
Christ the Lord.
Adeste Fideles laeti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte, Regem Angelorum;
Excerpt from “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”
“Oh Come All Ye Faithful” is one of the older and more popular carols sung by the faithful at Christmas time. The Latin version of the carol “Adeste Fideles” is said to have been written by a music teacher John Francis Wade and first published in 1760. The English translation was done by Frederick Oakley and William Brooke in 1841. The history of this carol has been disputed with various other people named as composer including a Portuguese monarch.
The origin of “Adeste Fideles/Oh come all ye faithful” has evolved over the centuries like the occasion for which it was composed. Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of Jesus the founder of Christianity but the celebration has evolved over the centuries to today where for some people it is a time to spend more than they can really afford. With the commercialization of Christmas and the various pagan symbols the true meaning of Christmas seems to have been lost. Christmas now is more about Santa Claus and the gifts he will bring for “good little boys and girls.”
The celebration of Christmas has been adapted and shaped by various communities and cultures. The Christmas tree (originally German) which is now an established part of Christmas celebrations was introduced and became popular in the former British Empire (which included Canada and the Caribbean islands) during the reign of Victoria when Britannia ruled the waves. In 1846 an illustration of the British royal family, Victoria, her German husband Albert and their children, appeared in the “Illustrated London News” standing around a decorated Christmas tree. The fashion caught on not only in Britain and the British Empire but also in the United States of America. In many homes today, a decorated tree is an essential part of the Christmas celebration.
Santa Claus in America, Canada and elsewhere, Father Christmas in Britain and many former British colonies, is also an established figure in the celebration of Christmas. However, the jolly, white haired, bearded figure with the hearty laugh is mostly an American invention. Although legends abound from Turkey and various European countries of Saint Nicholas/St Nick, Kris Kringle and Sinterklaas, the modern version was popularized by Coca-Cola in the 1930s to boost sales of their product. Since the days of the Coca-Cola image of Santa Claus the celebration of Christmas has become less a religious observance/holiday and more a secular and highly commercial celebration/holiday.
Christmas as a secular and commercial event is celebrated worldwide even in countries where the main religion is not Christianity. Christmas, many centuries old, has moved from its supposed roots (many pagan rituals are included) of the celebration of the birth of Christ.
In the Caribbean islands that were colonized by the British and in Guyana, the Christmas celebrations were at one time patterned after the colonizer but over time the celebration has become uniquely Caribbean with decorations, food and music. Steel pan music has been used as accompaniment to the traditional carols, calypso, reggae and soca versions of those carols and Caribbean composed songs to celebrate Christmas including the spirited and popular “Drink a Rum” by Lord Kitchener and “Listen Mama, I want you to tell Santa Claus” by Nat Hepburn. A Guyanese Christmas is not complete without a pepperpot (made with casareep from the cassava root) breakfast.
Recently there has been some controversy about the Dutch celebration of Christmas which includes White men in “blackface” cavorting with “Sinterklaas.” While the British and American “Father Christmas/Santa Claus” is accompanied by little elves as helpers “Sinterklaas” is accompanied by “Zwarte Pieten or Black Petes”. These characters dress in Dutch colonial costumes and are “made up” with black faces and big red lips which they top off with afro wigs and gold earrings. Apparently this is a treasured part of the Dutch celebration of Christmas where, leading up to Christmas, White people in the Netherlands paint their faces black and dress up to enact “Zwarte Piet” to “entertain the children.”
Ignoring the white supremacist image of White people dressed to caricaturize the people their ancestors held in slavery for centuries this spectacle is used for the entertainment of the Dutch. These “Zwarte Pieten/Black Petes” which are now touted as “entertainment” were historically used as figures to scare “disobedient” White children in the days leading up to Christmas. Reportedly, for the past 10 years at least (since 2003), there have been active attempts by African, Surinamese and Antillean communities who have joined forces to demand that their governments take action against this White supremacist characterization of Africans.
With the commercialization of Christmas and the mostly lost reason for the celebration some people choose not to celebrate Christmas with all the pagan trappings. They attend church and spend quiet times with their relatives and friends. Others choose to celebrate Kwanzaa which at 47 years old is still true to its roots as a Pan-African seven-day celebration from December 26 to January 1.
Kwanzaa serves as a means of reconnecting Africans to their roots and celebrates family, community and culture. Kwanzaa is a celebration for all Africans regardless of their religion or country of birth. It is a time to celebrate our culture, learn about our history, honour African ancestors and traditions, spend time with family and friends and look to our future as a people. Africans of all beliefs, faiths, religions or lack of, celebrate this cultural reconnecting event.
The Kwanzaa celebration inspires racial pride in Africans whose ancestors had been brainwashed into thinking that European culture was superior. The values articulated in the seven Kwanzaa principles “Nguzo saba” resonate with Africans and the celebration which began with a few people in the USA in 1966 is now an international celebration. In 1998 it was estimated that Kwanzaa was celebrated by 18 million Africans worldwide.
The Nguzo Saba (seven principles) are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self- Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). Each principle is represented by a candle (mshumaa). The colours used during Kwanzaa (red, black and green) are the Pan-African colours chosen by the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Black represents the African people; red represents the bloodshed in our struggle for freedom and green is the symbol of our future and the richness of the African continent.
Celebrating Kwanzaa encourages making or buying educational African centred zawadi (gifts) for children to practice Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) ensuring that money circulates in the community at least seven times.
There are excellent books written for African children about heroes and sheroes who can serve as inspiration and role models. Mathieu DaCosta by Itah Sadu; The Kids Book of Black Canadian History by Rosemary Sadlier; To Be a Drum by Evelyn Coleman; The Sound that Jazz Makes by Carole Boston Weatherford; In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall by Javaka Steptoe; Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book by Muriel Feelings; The Friendship, Song of the Trees, Mississippi Bridge and The Well by Mildred D. Taylor are all excellent Kwanzaa zawadi for children.
The decorations for the Kwanzaa table, including a beautifully carved wooden kinara (candle holder), kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) and kente cloth can all be found at African Canadian-owned stores. The seven principles can serve as a guide throughout the year and do not have to be relegated to the Kwanzaa celebration from December 26 to January 1.
An important part of the Kwanzaa celebration is the recognition of those who went before us, remembering those who paved the way for us, those on whose shoulders we stand because they never stopped striving for their freedom. Those freedom-fighting ancestors include Kofi (Guyana’s National Hero who led the Berbice Revolution of 1763); Nanny (Jamaica’s lone female National Hero); Nana Yaa Asantewa (who led the last Ashante battle against the British in Ghana); Queen Nzingha (who battled the Portuguese in Angola); Mbuya Nehanda (who led the Shona resistance against the British in Zimbabwe); Viola Desmond who defied Canadian segregation practices and was arrested on November 8, 1946 for sitting in the White section of a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia cinema and Carrie Best who publicized and supported Viola Desmond’s fight.
Regardless of your choice of celebration for this time of year, enjoy!!
Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri! May your Kwanzaa be happy!! Merry Christmas!!