Why We Celebrate Kwanzaa

Since we decided to bring Kwanzaa to our family and make it the centerpiece of our winter holiday festivities four years ago, I have been questioned, teased, and even mocked for celebrating a holiday that has nothing to do with me, and involves seven days of intense preparation, execution, and reflection. Why bother? “It’s not even a real holiday,” a student once rolled her eyes. “Some dude made it up.”

Didn’t some dude make up Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and all the other holidays people choose to celebrate? So what that I am white? I have Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas. Why can’t I celebrate Kwanzaa? Am I insulting people of African heritage by adopting a holiday created for them? Am I not simply honoring my own children’s African heritage, and reminding them of their importance and responsibility in this world? (I am not even going into the fact that we all originated in Africa, so if the chief criterion for who gets to celebrate Kwanzaa is one’s embrace of her African heritage, then, well.)

I have made an informed decision to honor a holiday built on the premise of community values and principles that enrich my own and my children’s understanding of and interactions with our immediate and extended communities. So what that this holiday is relatively young, little known, and barely acknowledged by the mainstream media and businesses that profit from the sale of holidays? All the more reason to celebrate and share it, no? Don’t holidays gain prominence when their cheer spreads? I intend to do my part to highlight Kwanzaa in every way I can. Why shouldn’t more people celebrate a holiday that is meaningful, honorable, and enlightening? Here are some questions we ask ourselves during Kwanzaa: Who am I? Who do I strive to be? What can I give to my community? How can my community support me? What is my purpose? What does it mean to live a life of purpose? What does it mean to believe in myself and in others? This is what Kwanzaa is, among many other things. And so what that it takes more work than anything should during a vacation?img_8752This year marked our family’s fourth celebration of Kwanzaa. We saw many friends, served plenty of food, drinks, and desserts, reflected on who we are as individuals and members of communities, gave gifts, and brought the seven principles of Kwanzaa to life.

And here is a glimpse into our family’s Kwanzaa celebrations.

Day 1 of Kwanzaa, Umoja/Unity: To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

My husband and I met in the most unlikely and magical of ways seven years ago on this day. It’s a day that is very special for us because my son and I hadn’t expected to become a family of three (and soon after, four). But that’s exactly what happened on Umoja in 2009. So on the seventh anniversary of our unity, we hosted about thirty of our friends for a Jamaican-Armenian feast.

Day 2 of Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia/Self-determination: To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves. Today, we ask ourselves, “Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? Am I all that I ought to be?”

To honor the second principle of Kwanzaa, we each made a booklet in which we reflected on what we love about ourselves, and what we would like to learn and become.

Day 3 of Kwanzaa, Ujima/Collective Work and ResponsibilityWe focus on ways to build and maintain our community together, make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems, and solve them together.

To bring to life the third principle of Kwanzaa, we made three different kinds of cookies, wrote notes, packed three cookies and a note in each ziplock bag, and handed them out to forty people in our neighborhood. Lots of surprised faces. Some people thought we were trying to sell them. Some said, “That’s mad cute.” Imani’s friend made our celebration even more fantastic with her spirit, energy, and enthusiasm. During our reflection, she said that she had never celebrated Kwanzaa, and really liked that it was about doing things for other people.

Advice from an eight-year-old to a five-year-old: “Do your best ’cause you’re the best.”

Day 4 of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa/Cooperative Economics: To build our own businesses, control the economics of our own community, and share in all its work and wealth.

This was a lazy day. The original plan was to dine at a family owned restaurant. We went from wanting to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant in the City, to wanting to order in from our neighborhood Mexican restaurant, to deciding that we had too many leftovers from the Umoja dinner to get more food. So, while we didn’t do much for the economy of our community, we did do all our shopping at a family owned grocery store.

Day 5 of Kwanzaa, Nia/Purpose: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

To celebrate Nia, we had brunch with our good friends from Jamaica, Italy, and America, and asked ourselves what we can do to make the world a better place. The award goes to Charlotte, who was visiting from Bellingham, MA, and who said that this year, she will try to be “so kind to others.” Imani asked her to light the fifth candle, and she agreed.

Day 6 of Kwanzaa, Kuumba/Creativity: To do always as much as we can in the way we can in order to leave our family and community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

To celebrate Kuumba, we decorated popcorn balls, made bead art, and quilted a collage with some of our favorite people. Daniel’s friend Adrien, who was visiting from San Francisco, lit the sixth candle.

Day 7 of Kwanzaa, Imani/Faith: To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

To honor Imani/Faith (whence comes the name our daughter carries), we spoke about the things we believe in–life, love, equality, friendship, animals, family–and about what it means to believe in ourselves and each other.

Happy Kwanzaa. And a Happy New Year.

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