First Fruits for the Family

Observing Kwanzaa is an important part of sharing African heritage with family.

Excerpted from "Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking." Used with permission.
Before eating, open your mouth.
--Mauritanian proverb

I was never a holiday kind of guy. Perhaps that was because my family observed few rituals of any kind. Although we put up a Christmas tree every year, there was no ceremony to it--no drinking of eggnog or listening to carols while hanging ornaments. To me, the tree seemed more or less like another piece of furniture. Over the past few years, however, the holiday season has taken on new meaning for me as my family sits at the dinner table during the week following Christmas to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Like many black Americans, I was introduced to Kwanzaa, the cultural observance for people of African descent, purely by chance. The ritual is only a few decades old, created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, now chairman of black studies at California State University-Long Beach. The word "kwanzaa" means "first fruits of the harvest" in Swahili, and the ceremony incorporates elements from many different African harvest festivals to create a unique celebration that lasts from Dec. 26 through New Year's Day. I first heard the jubilant sound of African rattles marking a Kwanzaa dance performance a few years back when I was visiting the American Museum of Natural History, where a Kwanzaa celebration has taken place since 1978.


The holiday didn't make much of an impression on me then, but when my son Evan was born in 1987, I wanted him to have a three-dimensional sense of his African heritage. I wanted him to learn about creative giants of African descent--such as the poet Aleksandr Pushkin, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, the composer Duke Ellington, the 16th-century explorer Esteban, and the mechanical engineer Elijah McCoy--and also about African tenacity and purposefulness and hard work.

I could have made up some ritual for Evan. But then we'd miss one of the major reasons for celebrating a cultural holiday: the hoped-for metaphysical bonding with other African-Americans. So I decided that Kwanzaa was the best lens through which to view the landscape of the African diaspora and the lessons it has to teach. Because it climaxes with a glorious feast, Kwanzaa has an intensity and focus that provides the perfect atmosphere for Evan, and now my daughter, Siobhan, to experience the joys of being black--a celebratory aspect they can pass on to their own children.

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