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Originally published December 29, 2009 at 4:00 PM | Page modified December 29, 2009 at 6:01 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

My Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is quintessentially an American holiday, albeit one carved from African harvest celebrations and whose name means "first fruits" in Swahili.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

This week, millions of African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, a quintessentially American holiday — one steeped in African traditions and whose name means "first fruits" in Swahili.

I love these seven days between Christmas and New Year's. Each day carries a Kwanzaa theme or principle. In descending order they are: Umoja, meaning unity; Kujichagulia, or self-determination; Ujima, collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa, cooperative economics; Nia, purpose; Kuumba, creativity, and Imani, faith.

There is an intentional rhythm to the days: a discussion of the particular theme, a single candle lit from a candelabra holding seven, libations poured on dirt as symbolic toasts to departed relatives and ancestors. The most emotional part is a reflection on the centuries-old story of black people in America. As good history books, teachers and extended family have recounted, the story is complex, tragic and triumphant.

Admittedly, I love the pomp and circumstance of spiritual traditions. I admire Easter and a tradition-steeped Seder equally. To these things I add the much younger practice of Kwanzaa, created in 1966 by Ron Karenga. These traditions lend a spiritual and cultural sustenance I desperately need during the commerce-driven holidays.

My family and I marked the third day of Kwanzaa at the Bellevue home of friends. A short video summed up centuries of experience from slavery to Jim Crow to the White House, where a black man marks another seminal moment in American history.

Looking around the room at the younger children, I could tell they were overwhelmed by history's heavy footprint. I wanted to tell them tragedy is universal. Think Trail of Tears or the Holocaust. Yet progress and wonder also happen, from the creation of jazz to the Harlem Renaissance.

We all brainstormed ways to help the needy and at the end of the evening stood in a circle and repeated Harambe, the Swahili word meaning "we all pull together" as many times as there were people in the room. We were that family from Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," "raising (our) collective voice against the vast skepticism and apathy of life." Even the kids, pulled from their Wii games and text messaging, sobered to the profoundness of the moment.

Some critics see in Kwanzaa a forced kinship with Africa, a continent neither I nor my parents or their parents ever visited. I plead guilty and offer in my defense a sage explanation by Walt Whitman. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Still others dislike Kwanzaa for what essayist and cultural critic Debra J. Dickerson called in The New York Times its "rejectionist" nature.

"Some celebrate Kwanzaa affirmatively, as a way of honoring the African ancestors who were taken from us and of mourning the lives we were prevented from living," Dickerson wrote in 2003. "Too often, though, Kwanzaa feels as if it is more about thumbing black noses at white America than at embracing the lost cause of resuming our Africanness."

Not even close.

I sat with my friends in a well-appointed family room swathed in colors and textures that heralded England as much as Africa. (I can safely call my friends Anglophiles from their time spent living in London.) There was joy in the room and a repeated affirmation of how blessed we all were by our birth in a country of unparalleled luxuries and by the fruits borne from our parents' struggle.

Kwanzaa observed correctly is not a rejection of anything but a robust embrace of the cultural and ethnic identities within us. I believe we are all capable of loving who we are and where our ancestors came from in one breath. No need for any willful forgetfulness. Indeed, the principles of Kwanzaa tell us remembering our collective histories is our obligation.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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