(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
On this night of all nights, most of us want to spend it with people we love – and who love us. In many cases, those people are our biological family members. Indeed, the traditional image of families during the holidays is one of several children, a dog and cat, a mom, a dad, grandparents, and perhaps some aunts and uncles all gathering to exchange gifts or share a festive meal – one big, happy, and loving family celebrating together.
But that white picket fence image of family is, of course, just that – an image. Like many traditional stereotypes of what comprises family, the one I just described has never been true – even as we like to think it was. There have always been families separated by circumstances beyond control, or families missing a member or two because of death, illness, or estrangement. In some cases today, children have no birth parents caring for them. They’re being parented by grandparents or even people who have no blood link to them. And many older people have no children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews in their lives. They can often spend the holidays alone.
In cultures besides that of the United States, the traditional concept of family has never been accurate either. For many centuries, family in Japan meant the entire village in which one lived. In indigenous tribal communities of Polynesia, Africa, and here in the U.S., children consider ALL elders as parents since child raising is a communal responsibility. The tribe is thus one very large family.
And, of course, in today’s culture, the idea of family has assumed a much wider definition. Parents of children might be two moms, two dads, or a single parent or grandparent. For my daughters, their so-called modern family includes their dad and his same-sex partner – along with their mom and her new husband. I also know many people for whom family is comprised of just friends. For them, family is the people to whom they are close to by choice………..and not by biology.
I appreciate the concept among many today to refer to multiple non-biologically related people as “brother or sister.” We apply such words to people we value and respect – whether or not we share the same parents. I love how two well-known individuals, of seemingly very different backgrounds and views, model that ethic. George W. Bush and Michelle Obama now refer to one another as sister and brother from another mother. They’ve formed a close bond that transcends biology – much less politics and race.
Despite traditional and non-traditional concepts of family, there still remains a desire in our American culture to honor family togetherness. That is especially true for the Christmas and Kwanzaa holidays we celebrate this evening, tomorrow, and the day after. The original Christmas story itself honors the idea of family – a mom and a dad and their newborn child are joyously together – no matter their poverty and lack of proper shelter. It must be noted, however, that even that first Christmas story idea of traditional family is not what it appears. The Bible itself admits that Joseph is Jesus’ adoptive dad – and not his biological dad.
Kwanzaa, as a seven day holiday intended to celebrate African culture and heritage, lifts up family togetherness as its primary value. Just like Unitarian Universalists have seven principles that guide their spirituality, so does the Kwanzaa holiday have seven principles that define and guide it. And the very first Kwanzaa principle, Umoja, calls for those with African heritage to importantly honor the unity……..the unityof family and of community.
Beginning on December 26th, families of African heritage gather together every night to discuss that day’s Kwanzaa principle and to light one of seven candles in their kinara, or Kwanzaa candle holder. The family then says a prayer and ends it, each night, by saying together “Harambee” – which is Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together”. Unity of purpose, love, and family is a recurring theme in the holiday.
And that same theme defines Christmas and, indeed, all of Christianity. From the beginning the Bible, through the Ten Commandments, and including Jesus’ statements, the Bible teaches respect for the family and its members. People are to not only honor their mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, they are also to love and honor total strangers. When he was once told that his mother and brother were waiting to see him, Jesus pointed to the hundreds of people surrounding him and said, “Who is my mother and my brother? Here are my mother and my brothers…” His message, as we know, was one of love and respect for every person – not just blood relations.
That enlarged family ethic got lost for a time in the United States, but thankfully it has been renewed over the last twenty or more years. I’ve mentioned that twice this past year I’ve guest spoken at the Unitarian Universalist church in Key West, Florida. That church, called One Island Family UU, conceived of its name from Key West’s motto – “One Human Family.” I love that motto. It captures what Key West has always been about – to welcome and celebrate people of any race, religion, sexuality, or economic status.
But more than a motto for one city, I think “One Human Family” is a motto for the world. When the human genome was finally and completely mapped in 2004, it was astonishingly discovered that each and every human being shares 99.9% of the same DNA. The .1% of DNA that humans do not share determine minor differences such as eye and hair color – and, of course, the amount of melanin in skin. Such minor differences can be found even in biologically related families. But the bigger point is that the 8 billion people comprising the human species are all closely related. Everybody belongs to the One Human Family.
My message series this December has been entitled “Around a World of Holidays” – and we’ve examined inspiring values from December holidays in Scandinavia, China, Israel and, for this evening, here in the United States.
And what inspires me about Christmas and Kwanzaa as American holidays, is their mutual emphasis on unity and love not just for our biological families, but for our much larger community, nation and world families.
It is cliche, but still true, that family ought to be defined as where the heart lies…….with people who we love. In that case, each and everyone of you are my family – as members of this congregation, as friends and family of members, and as visitors welcomed and embraced.
The Christmas and Kwanzaa challenge for me, therefore, is to tear down the false walls that define traditional family. Christmas and Kwanzaa, as we celebrate them in America, call us to disregard the minor differences between us – and to literally think of each other as brother, sister, mother, father, aunt, uncle, cousin. That is the message of the two holidays we celebrate tonight – that the human family wants and needs unity, respect, and love.
My daughter Amy and her husband are in town now – visiting from Denver. My partner Keith and I had dinner with them yesterday. And after this service, Keith and I will rush out to meet my other daughter Sara and her husband. And tomorrow evening, it will just be Keith and me sharing a non-traditional holiday meal at an Indian restaurant – one of the few places open on Christmas.
And so I’ll be very blessed this Christmas. Last night I was with family. Tonight I’m with two of my families – all of you – and later with my eldest daughter. And tomorrow evening I’ll have dinner with my other family – a man I love very much. But in the days, weeks, months and years beyond these holidays, I – and all of you – will be with our One Human Family. And it is with all of them that we must draw close, find common cause, and cherish.
I wish each of you, my sisters and my brothers, much peace, joy and a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and meaningful Kwanzaa.