Even though Kwanzaa has been celebrated in this country for more than 30 years, I have only celebrated it for nine. I remember loving the rich, spiritually-based Christmases I grew up observing in Boston. When I moved to Washington in the early '80s with a family of my own, I tried to re-create those poignant yuletide moments. But my then-husband didn't share my enthusiasm and our festivities seemed lackluster. I came to realize that I was trying to create something from without rather than from within.
During the years that followed my divorce, I embarked on a spiritual quest that led me to Buddhism. My first two years of practice, I found myself in a quandary during the holiday season because Buddhism has no corresponding celebration. Our household would, nonetheless, boast a tree, holiday decorations and gifts, but they were merely floating symbols, rooted in nothing. And, always uncomfortable with the Santa Claus concept, even after locating a mall with a black Santa, I would tell my young son that the small presents in the stocking were from Santa and the larger, more desirable gifts were from me.
But I was co-opting the Christian holiday and acting like the secular consumers I frowned upon. And Christmas still did not feel vibrant, the way it had when I accepted its religious principles, not even when I went home to my parents.
I have now been a Buddhist for 12 years. One of the benefits of Buddhism is that it constantly forces me to plunge below my own surface to discover who I am. A hunger to uncover and explore my Africanness and its origins led me to contemplate Kwanzaa.
The first appeal was that it is nondenominational, and not an alternative to Christmas. Many people celebrate both. Second, it is a celebration of African heritage, family and community. Additionally, because Kwanzaa begins Dec. 26 and is celebrated for seven days, the last day falls on Jan. 1, a time to start afresh with new determinations for the coming year.
I had finally found my holiday! One that could be festive and spiritual. So I, my second husband and now two sons decorated a tree and a Kwanzaa table. By the following year we were weaned of Christmas and only celebrated Kwanzaa.
I told the boys it wasn't fair to celebrate a religious holiday we no longer believed in. "But I like Christmas," my older son protested.
"What do you like about it?"
"Getting toys--we don't just want books," he said. (Kwanzaa discourages gifts that are not handmade creations or books.)
"I like the tree," the younger one added.
My sons soon discovered that they had the best of two worlds. On Christmas Day, they would visit with and receive gifts from relatives and on Jan. 1 they'd open their presents from me. By then many of their friends' Christmas toys were already broken or boring.
When my third child was old enough to understand the concept of Christmas, we already were firmly entrenched in Kwanzaa and I'm proud to say she has never sat on Santa's lap. Over the years my children have grown to love celebrating Kwanzaa almost as much as I do. The week before school vacation I make my yearly rounds teaching about Kwanzaa at the three different schools my children attend. The first few times, they feared I would embarrass them but now they seem to take pride in my coming.
Each season our ritual continues to evolve. I always buy a small pine tree with plastic ornaments for my son who mourned a tree. We adorn our home with the African liberation colors of red, black and green. Together we decide what should go on the Kwanzaa table in addition to the traditional symbols of seven candles, a woven mat, ears of dried corn and a fruit basket.
In recent years we've added a vial of earth from the island of Goree, Senegal, a replica of the 1994 South African ballot that featured Nelson Mandela, and mementos from the Million Man March. Last year we added photographs of deceased grandparents Elam, Clarke and Ruff, and my sister Alicia.
Each night of Kwanzaa we light the appropriate candle and discuss the day's principle and what it means in our reality. We pour libations and call out the names of ancestors, read stories about an African or African American hero and sing and dance to our Kwanzaa songs. We each announce what we're thankful for. After our own ceremony we often attend one of the many uplifting community celebrations.
During the seven days of Kwanzaa we all wear African attire. My children usually squirm about this but experience reminds me that they'll stop being self-conscious once they see other children dressed similarly. At these community events we feast and party but we also get serious as we praise the strength of our ancestral inheritance and share ideas about the healing and empowering we need to do.
Two years ago, Essence magazine published a dialogue between bell hooks and George C. Wolfe, who waxed unpoetically about why African Americans don't need Kwanzaa. Their criticisms ranged from Kwanzaa's specific tenets to the holiday being a response to assimilation. I've also heard some of my people complain that it's too "African." And at the other end of the spectrum, many die-hard Kwanzaa celebrants have expressed concerns that consumer magnets like Kmart and Target are trying to commercialize the holiday.
Kwanzaa can take all the heat, though. It is malleable enough so that it can be what one needs it to be. Yes, there are those who stipulate that the candles must be arranged and lit in a specific sequence or only the eldest male present may pour the libation. But there are no Kwanzaa police; we can choose whether to follow such dictates or not.
While I prefer buying my Kwanzaa gifts and decorations from small business owners of color, recognition by Kmart and other establishments, no matter how mercenary the sentiment, helps spread the word and ensure Kwanzaa's immortality.
If Kwanzaa is a response to assimilation, then so be it. Responses usually come from a concern or need. Heading the list is violence in our community, but there are other more subtle examples of internalized oppression. I was disturbed last year that some African American parents in New York turned into a verbal lynch mob when a white teacher gave a book celebrating our nappy, kinky hair to her students.
Similarly unsettling is the story of a debutante in North Carolina who was not allowed, by black organizers, to participate in the ball because of her dreadlocks. And how can I forget the black mother who dragged her black child away from a store that featured a black Santa, proclaiming, "He ain't the real one."
So for me Kwanzaa is a welcome opportunity for African Americans to love and appreciate who we are. I don't disparage those who choose not to celebrate this holiday, but I do believe that if we practiced, year-round, the Kwanzaa principles, learned the history of our heritage and emulated the fortitude of our ancestors, we adults would better pass on love of self and our roots to our children.
Then maybe they wouldn't sling words of self-loathing around the playground at each other, and maybe our troubled teenagers would begin to understand that real power exists in the mind, rather than in a gun tucked in the pocket of some baggy jeans. An African proverb says it best: "To go back to tradition is the first step forward."