I wrote this essay eleven years ago. This year my daughter came to visit for a couple weeks (she now lives in Las Vegas) and left early Christmas morning with her five kids to drive back home. During the visit here-she flew back home for a few days to have a mini “stay vacation” with her husband and to get the house ready their Kwanzaa Celebration. The kids were excited when it was Christmas Eve—because that meant it was almost Kwanzaa.
We are celebrating Kwanzaa this year. We did last year too though I really shouldn’t say “we”. My daughter, her husband and kids celebrated and my husband and I were swept into it because they were at our house. This year my son’s family has joined us for the week-long celebration and they all plan to come again next year. It seems we have a new family tradition and as usual, I’m not prepared.
I tried to find a Kinara (a seven candle holder) and couldn’t. Where I live there are no stores that sell them and there wasn’t time to go into Chicago. The clerks looked at me oddly when I asked. Especially after I explained what I could remember and stumbled over the names. I gave up for this year. Next time I’m in Chicago I’ll look. Maybe there are “After Kwanzaa!” sales. (Actually, I hope not.)
We created our own Kinara with candles around the house, but when I left for work this morning my daughter-in-law was helping the kids make construction paper candles which may be more practical for the littlest ones who, like little moths, circled the flames.
I don’t know much about Kwanzaa, but I’m learning. There are seven principles (Nguzo Saba), seven days and each day is named for one of the principles. We’ve created a little ritual we may or may not keep, since we are the ones making this up. Every night the grandkids state the name of the day in Swahili, what it means, give an example and tell what they did that day. My daughter and daughter-in-law create projects that complement the days.
The first day was Umoja, which means unity. We went to a Japanese restaurant together for dinner. (I know that’s a stretch, but we were also celebrating a birthday and they sing to you in Japanese). When we got home the kids recited their principle and gave gifts to the elders (that would be me & my husband) their parents, and each other.
Yesterday was Kujichagulia (Self-Determination). Together they (the daughters/mothers) were determined to help the kids go through toys and sift and sort and keep only what could fit into one tub. They have big bags of toys to donate. And that night (after working all day to get rid of stuff), the principles were recited and the kids went on a treasure hunt to find new toys (sigh).
Today was Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility). They continued the cleaning adventure. Friends of the family came over and after the kids shared the principle of the day to thunderous applause we threw towels over them. This has nothing to do with any African tradition. We didn’t have time to wrap the presents so we “wrapped” the kids instead.
I don’t know what is planned for the other days except this Friday. I’m in charge of that day. It is Kuumba (Creativity) and we’re having a party. There will be dancing. We’ll drum and sing and recite poetry. My actor husband will tell African folk tales, and I’ll help the children act them out. There will be snow sculptures built in our courtyard and finger-painted murals in the halls. And we’ll eat. A friend from Rwanda will give cooking lessons.
My oldest grandchild is eight and leans toward the dramatic. He felt like he was the only child in the world not celebrating Christmas. It doesn’t matter that we can point to our many Baha’i friends and family who don’t celebrate it, his father and friends who are Muslim, the scores of people of other Faiths and the fact that the majority of the world isn’t Christian. His world right now is his classroom and in his class he is the only one. His teacher was sympathetic and wondered if we wanted to explain to the children about Hanukkah. We explained Bahá’i isn’t Jewish either and we do not have any religious holidays in December.
But there was Kwanzaa so he did a presentation for two classes (why I was looking for a Kinora). He recited the principles but emphasized the length of the celebration. Not just one day, like Christmas. It’s one whole week. Seven full days. His teacher told us he did a great job. Several children went home and asked to celebrate Kwanzaa instead of Christmas.
When our kids were little I asked my husband if he wanted to celebrate Kwanzaa and he laughed because he knew I was trying to compensate. We didn’t celebrate Christmas and it would give the kids something interesting to share when the teacher asked what everyone did for Christmas break.
They weren’t completely without Christmas. We traveled to my parents’ home, the only ones in our immediate family who were still Christians, so my kids got a few gifts. We did the Santa Claus bit except we told them from the beginning it was pretend.
My parents are gone now. I loved my Christmases with them. I have felt sad my grandkids won’t have Christmas memories, but I stepped back tonight and saw the memories they will have: Family and friends gathering, listening intently to what they have to say, applauding and praising their accomplishments, working together on projects, eating and preparing exotic foods, silly dancing and laughing. And presents…the getting and the giving.
The best of what I remembered about Christmas, is what I saw tonight.