The Stranger at Starbucks and My Relationship with Holidays

So one thing about me is that I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. And for those of you who know anything about this religion, you know that JWs are notorious for what they DON’T do – most specifically for not celebrating holidays. The excuse for not celebrating was mainly attributed to the pagan and otherwise unsavory origins of the holidays and all of the excessive spending and marketing campaigns, etc., etc., etc.

Fast forward to yesterday. I was at Starbucks living my heathen life, sipping a latte and tapping away at my computer. Some middle aged man was sitting nearby waiting for an opportunity to chat me up and as soon as I stood up and prepared to leave, he used the word on my shirt (LOVE) to strike up a conversation.

Guy: “Hey! What does LOVE mean to you?”

 

I managed to avoid answering his random-ass question but did engage in conversation with him for a little bit because – why not? So any who, we start talking about holidays, specifically Kwanzaa. As someone who has celebrated Kwanzaa, I told him that I love the holiday and what it stands for but I don’t think it’s very accessible. He – a person who hadn’t celebrated Kwanzaa in a long while (from what he said) – seemed to become defensive of it. “Well, we need to start exhibiting some of the qualities of Kwanzaa, like Nia (purpose) or Kujichugalia (self-determination)” he said. I agreed, but also remembered that “damn… Kwanzaa has a lot of big African words/phrases that I don’t remember.” Again I reemphasized that it’s not accessible and he starts in on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Guy: “Christmas is supposed to be about Christ but people are focused on giving gifts to EACH OTHER.”

Me: “Well, I’m sure Christ doesn’t mind that people spend time together and take time out to give gifts to each other in celebration of him.”

Please don’t take that last sentence as my endorsement of Christianity or Christ. I’m not saying I don’t believe, but I’m not saying I do either.

Guy: “And then you have Thanksgiving. A holiday that celebrates the slaughter of Native American people. How can we sit there and–”

Me: “I’m Black so that’s not MY burden to bear, nor is it yours… BROTHER.” (I emphasized brother because he was also Black, obviously.)

And for those of you who may feel confused, here’s what I meant by that’s “not my burden”. As Black people, we don’t carry the cultural burden of having ancestors that enacted and carried out the slaughter of millions of Native Americans. And additionally, we don’t carry the moral burden of benefitting from white supremacy so we haven’t received anything from Native American genocide. We can feel anger for Native Americans and the injustices of this country, but Black people have been co-opting American holidays (that were forced on us) and doing whatever we wanted with them since slavery days. And in MYYYYYYY experience, when MYYYYYY Black-ass family gets together, we continue that tradition by using our time together to talk politics, entertainment, history, day to day life and ways to fight white supremacy soooo…. yeah, ain’t nobody wearing Pilgrim hats or standing around saluting the damn flag.

Anyway, I told him that if our country is collectively giving us a day off and telling us to eat delicious food/spend time with our loved ones (something I don’t do enough of, as it is) – then that’s what the hell I’m going to do. And this goes for Independence Day*, Christmas or Memorial Day, my family will be enjoying our day off, eating together and talking shit about white supremacy. It’s just how holidays work for us.*

What was interesting about this entire exchange, though, was I knew everything he was going to say before he said it. It was as if I was hearing all of the speeches, anecdotes and excuses I’d recited as a Jehovah’s Witness kid being thrown back at me. And it all sounded like the words of an overly self-righteous person who took themselves way too seriously. I wanted to tell him to lighten up. Eat a Snickers or Kit-kat or Butterfinger (or whatever candy bar is supposed to make you relax). He was stressed out trying to make me feel guilty for celebrating holidays (outside of Kwanzaa, of course). And I didn’t understand why. I didn’t get why he’d stopped me on my merry way to my car to express his irritation with so many traditional pastimes that – in and of themselves – are harmless and open to personal interpretation. (He also spoke of the trappings of cell phones taking away from person to person interaction – – insert eye roll).

Either way, I still maintain that Kwanzaa needs to be more accessible but I’m going to study up so I can see about celebrating this year even though it’s literally been over fourteen years since I’ve last done so. I’ll consider buying a candle and see where the discussions, performances and dinners are going to be. Again, lovely holiday but as someone who has enough on their plate… it can be exhausting to have to research and actively participate in a week long holiday.

So yeah, that was my interesting experience talking to a total stranger yesterday and it’ll probably be my last for the year. I try not to chat with strangers on the street – if I can help it – and, well, this guy caught me on a good day.

* I have a special shirt that I wear on Independence Day that says “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It’s based on a speech by Frederick Douglass. I wear this shirt every year but you know what else I do every year? Enjoy delicious barbecue with my friends and family.
*Except Columbus Day. Every person of color knows that man was a POS so I don’t really know what other people do on this day but I know my family barely acknowledges it. And now my state has made it Indigenous People’s Day so I’ve made it tradition to watch movies by Native American filmmakers.
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