Black families holding on to holiday customs in face of regions changing demographics
By Chris Levister –
The Christmas wreath hanging on the door of Ahmed and Assett Algotsson’s Riverside home is every bit traditional.
As if by magic, step inside to experience a decor set out to evoke strength and unity in Black families and communities. The fiery red, green and black Kwanzaa candles set the entrance aglow. Bright red shrouds from Madagascar used to celebrate the birth of Christ line the walls creating a dazzling backdrop for a 7-foot Christmas tree adorned with handmade African inspired ornaments.
In sharp contrast to the traditional images of a white snowy Christmas, replete with a Caucasian Christ child, majority inspired Christmas carols and White Santas, the Algotsson’s are reimaging Christmas and dreaming of a Black or at least Black-oriented holiday experience.
The vibrant colors, patterns and textures of different accessories unite an unexpected cultural mix of masks, raw silk curtains and an antique wrought iron bed frame. “We tell a thousand stories about ourselves and our experiences through the things that surround us,” said Asssett. “Color and texture move us spiritually and emotionally.” Fresh cranberry red Poinsettia plants in decorative clay pots from Ghana sit on curvaceous and sculptural furniture from the 1940s and 1950s. Brightly colored kentecloth table settings capture the timeless craftsmanship and imagination of African textile artisans.
Along with the familiar holly boughs and mistletoes the halls and rooms are decked with framed photographs of President Barack and Michelle Obama, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and family members wearing head wraps during past Kwanzaa gatherings.
A handcrafted Black Santa from South Carolina and a Haitian-inspired Nativity scene featuring three Black Wise Men and Madonna grace a stone and granite fireplace mantel. A handmade Christmas quilt made by Assett’s great grandmother preserves the family’s past.
Like the Algotsson’s, some families are substituting Kwanzaa, African and West Indian rituals for the traditional celebrations.
Others have created family traditions of their own to observe during the holiday season.
“Black families continue to celebrate Christmas in terms of its religious meaning,” notes Ahmed, a marriage and family counselor and expert on Black family. “But in a general sense, they’re recognizing their own images, symbols and cultural artifacts as something significant in the society at large.”
This recognition has manifested itself in many tangible forms.
“Increasingly, African American people have begun to think about the Kwanzaa principles of unity, self-determination and cooperative economics,” says Ahmed.
Kwanzaa celebrated over seven days between Christmas and News Year’s Day was created by Maulana Karenga, chairman of the Black Studies department at California State University in Long Beach.
Karenga saw the need to keep a sense of history and celebrate the values and principles of those people who struggled for justice and equality.
Concerned with the region’s rapidly changing demographics (Latinos expected to constitute a majority by 2015) Algotsson and his wife a school psychologist began to incorporate African and African-American decorations and customs into their Christmas in earnest after the birth of their children now ages 6 and 11.
As an educator Ahmed has taught the principles of Kwanzaa to young children and decided to teach his children.
“Increasingly they’re being bombarded with Latin influences,” recalling his daughter’s desire to serve tamales and menudo at last year’s Kwanzaa ceremony. “They learn about other people’s cultures, shopping, gift giving and materialism associated with Christmas. I wanted them to understand, celebrate and embrace our values, history and heritage as well.”
Algotsson says he talks with his kids about ujima (collective workand responsibility) and how they can apply it to everyday life.
“The gifts we give them are icons for the principles taught in Kwanzaa. The message is self sufficiency through teamwork. If every family practices these principles it will move us all ahead.”
As in the past, Black churches are mixing Kwanzaa with their traditional Christmas festivities to put more emphasis on community sharing and family togetherness.
On the culinary front , many Black families are adding hamhocks greens, cornbread, chitlins, sweet potato pies and other soul food favorites to the traditional ham, turkey and dressing Christmas fare. On New Years Day, the last day of Kwanzaa, the Algotsson’s plan to serve blackeyed peas, rice, greens, and gumbo for good luck.
The challenge facing our people, says Ahmed Algotsson is “not the defense of any culture or system, be it White, Latino, segregated or integrated; rather we have to preserve our own traditions of faith, work, responsibility and purpose, that we will be able to take our place wherever we are in the affairs of men.”