bright burn burnt candle
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The flame from Chanukah’s first candle flickers, the star atop a Christmas tree sheds its light elegantly, and the candles of Kwanzaa’s kinara speak of hardship and hope.


It seems to unite these three celebrations, the first of which begins on Sunday, December 18 with the lighting by Jews worldwide of the first (of eight) Hannukah candles. Christmas follows on Sunday, December 25, and Kwanzaa begins on Monday, December 26.

It is for many, flames that kindle a sense of hope at what is a time of despair; of expectation, when each day brings more news of disease and death, of political uncertainty. 

Freedom, spirituality, unity, hope, and responsibility are the universal themes of these three distinct celebrations.

The messages and symbols of these three holidays far transcend the people who celebrate them.

Beyond the religious explanations, Christmas is for many a time of reflection; Chanukah, a celebration of freedom; and Kwanzaa embracing seven important disciplines from unity to responsibility and community.

The youngest of these celebrations is Kwanzaa, just slightly more than 50 years since it was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga as “a celebration of family, community, and culture with each providing a context and commitment of common ground, cooperative practice, and shared good.”

Kwanzaa, as articulated by Dr. Karenga, is one that can be universally shared. It is the only one of the three that is not a religious holiday, but rather a cultural holiday.

Kwanzaa brings a message of hope to African people worldwide.

It revolves around seven principles, Nguza Saba: unity, Umoja; self-determination (Kujichagulia); collective work and responsibility (Ujima); cooperative economics (Ujamaa); purpose (Nia); creativity (Kuumba); and faith (Imani).

These seven principles can easily be shared by anyone, no matter what race or ethnicity.

Perhaps the overriding message of this time of year doesn’t come from any religious observance or cultural celebration, but from the great essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who reminds us so eloquently that our responsibility is “to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.”