Kwanzaa Might Be the Most Mystifying Holiday Next to Groundhog Day

KwanzaaI’ll never forget my mother’s face the first year I decided to celebrate Kwanzaa with my daughter, who was probably about 5 or 6 at the time. She looked like I just told her I’d learned how to hula hoop with my tongue.

“So you’re not celebrating Christmas anymore?” she asked, her forehead all ramped up in concern that I, the child she’d raised, had called it quits on Jesus.

“No Mommy,” I assured her, “you can celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa and New Year’s. One doesn’t negate the other.”

She still wasn’t sold and told me fine if I wanted to do it, but because I was still living at home at the time, I had to do it in my room. I can’t figure out why Kwanzaa is a threat, a burden, or a bore to so many black folks.


Maybe they’re under the misconception, like my mom, that acknowledging Kwanzaa means you give up celebrating Christmas, that you trade in your fa la la la la for habari gani, which is the traditional greeting on each day of Kwanzaa. I’ve heard folks refer to it “African Christmas,” I’ve heard people call it a Muslim holiday, I’ve heard others talk like it’s the handiwork of black power militants wanting to brainwash “normal” citizens.

Goodness gracious. The truth is, Christmas has nothing to do with Kwanzaa and Kwanzaa has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s a non-denominational, non-religious holiday, which means anybody — Muslims, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Amish, whoever — can observe it without giving up or watering down their sacred allegiances. I wish somebody would tell me I had to forfeit Jesus’ birthday for any reason, let alone to adopt a new holiday.

I decided to incorporate Kwanzaa into our annual end-of-year activities because I fell in love with the principles that it embodies. There’s one for each of the seven days of the holiday. The first day, for example, is all about umoja, or unity. The second is kujichagulia, or self-determination. Every one is something I believe in and wanted Girl Child to embrace when she was still little.

I think a lot of the problem with black children who act out and end up making somebody’s news headline — or just wander through life feeling kind of useless or hopeless — is that they’re disconnected from the community at large and their culture as a whole. Everybody needs roots to grow from and so many of our kids are sprouting up without feeling like they’re part of anything greater. I wanted her to be proud of not only her blackness, but her African heritage, which is the whole of who we are. I wanted her to feel, in her head and her heart, that it’s her responsibility to be an active member of her community and not just take from it. All of that’s embodied in Kwanzaa.

But you can’t make it that deep to a kid, of course. Families exchange a present every day after lighting a candle on the kinara, which looks a lot like a menorah but is generally handcarved from wood and houses three green, three red, and one black candle to represent the blood, the land, and the people of Africa. That’s always been the highlight for her — being the one to light the candle and getting more gifts, especially on the heels of Christmas.

To detract from capitalism and materialism and consumerism and commercialism and probably a dozen other kinds of –isms, parents are encouraged to give handmade presents to their children. I scratched that a long time ago. What in the world am I going to make that a 13-year-old would want? Instead, I buy her functional items: a calendar, snazzy pens for school, a book or two, a journal to jot down her thoughts.

Then, on the last day, I cook a massive meal that I have tried unsuccessfully to turn into a potluck every year. So, like I said, I cook a massive meal, consisting of foods from black cultures around the world, but mainly Caribbean and soul food since my knowledge of African dishes is fairly limited. And we eat and laugh and play games and have ourselves a good ol’ time. And I never once try to convert anyone to a voodoo African religion or recruit them for a black nationalist revolution. Gasp.

My point is, Kwanzaa isn’t nearly as mystifying as some people who don’t celebrate it make it out to be. It’s based on African rituals but it can have as much — or as little — Americanized charisma as the people who observe it. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. With that, merry Christmas and happy Kwanzaa!

Does your family celebrate Kwanzaa?

Image via soulchristmas/Flickr

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