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.
On each day of Kwanzaa, a family member lights a candle, then discusses one of the principles. The next-to-last day, December 31, is marked by a lavish feast, the Kwanzaa Karamu, which, in keeping with the theme of black unity, may draw on the cuisines of Africa, the Caribbean, South America--wherever people of African descent live. The Karamu is also an opportunity for a confetti storm of cultural expression: dance and music, readings, remembrances.
When my family lights the black, red, and green Kwanzaa candles during the last week of December, we do so with black Americans around the nation. Major community celebrations are held in just about every city with a significant black population: Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Dayton, Atlanta, Durham, Charleston. Some people invite non-African-Americans to Kwanzaa as a way of sharing African culture. For others, the idea of sharing Kwanzaa with anyone other than a fellow African-American would be anathema. Some people "Kwanzify" their Christmas by using African-inspired Yuletide decorations and tree ornaments. Others celebrate Kwanzaa in lieu of Christmas.
My family takes an a la carte approach. We decided we'd have just one Kwanzaa meal in the middle of the holiday week. Our first such meal consisted of dishes that brought forth sweet memories. I remembered helping my grandmother make collard greens, especially the arduous task of washing dirt from the leaves (and getting bawled out if someone got a gritty mouthful during dinner). I remembered sorting the black-eyed peas for the Hoppin' John she cooked. I remembered visiting West Africa when I was 18 and tasting the spicy peanut soup for the first time. And, of course, there was my lifetime of eating cornbread.
Like Christmas, our Kwanzaa tends to be a small celebration comprising our nuclear family of four (although we also attend Kwanzaa cultural events--dance performances and the like--at the American Museum of Natural History or the Studio Museum of Harlem). After our Kwanzaa meal, I relate the biography of a black man or woman, tell a black folktale or myth, or describe a historical event central to blacks. And every night, I turn the seven Kwanzaa principles into bedtime stories. For example, I describe how Frederick Douglass showed nia, or purpose, in overcoming the institution of slavery that forbade him from learning how to read.
At my family's Kwanzaa, we don't drink from the unity cup but pour a small libation into it and leave it on the center of the table. We use freestanding candles instead of a kinara. That may change, however, with this coming Kwanzaa, or the Kwanzaa after that. It took several years for me even to feel comfortable saying, "Happy Kwanzaa." But I think that is only natural. Any holiday, together with its rituals, derives its symbolic and social power from its cultural context. It takes time for a cultural context to crystallize. It's easy for someone to devise a holiday from on high, but it takes time for the buzz to develop, and for people to find out if, and how, their neighbors are celebrating.
I always remind myself--and my family--that celebrating Kwanzaa is not an end in itself. Like wearing kente cloth hats or giving our children African names, newly created rites should remind us of our collective strength and of the fact that this strength is manifest only through individual effort. The seven Kwanzaa principles aren't just part of a ritual but a set of practical tools for helping us live our African-American cultural ideals throughout the year. That is why I've decided, even though I'm not much for holidays, to make a place for Kwanzaa on my end-of-the-year calendar.