As you can see from our family photo, we are quite an ethnic blend (Jewish, Asia-Pacific American, African American and us, the older folks of european descent). As we adopted each child, my wife and I tried to give our children a sampling of their cultures. That’s when we came across Kwanzaa, an after-Christmas-between-New Years-Thanksgiving celebration, or so we thought.
This African American cultural holiday always begins on December 26, ending on January 1st. The celebration uses a rich set of symbols. These include a decorative mat (Mkeka) [on which other symbols are placed], corn (Muhindi) and other crops, a candle holder called a kinara with seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), a communal cup for pouring libation (Kikombe cha Umoja), gifts (Zawadi), a poster of the seven principles, and a black, red, and green flag. The holiday is not specifically religious, but more cultural in nature; it is compatible with anyone’s faith and certainly fits into the values of Scouting.
Each evening, our family would light a candle and read a story related to that day’s principle. These include:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle
For us, it was like having seven days of family “Scoutmaster’s Minutes.” We usually read a biography from one of Spencer Johnson’s series called “Value Tales.” (You can find samples on the web at GoodReads).
In those early days with our children, the holiday was not well known and without an internet it took some real work to understand each of its parts. I remember visiting an African American supply store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, only to be disappointed when no one on staff knew anything about the celebration. So we made do on our own—you should have seen my first kinara!
Bit by bit and with some library research we came to know how to use this for our family. Each year we tried different things, which let our family explored the holiday for its possibilities. I think we had fun doing it together.
These days a simple web search will give you dozens of family activities. So today I say: “Habari gani” and wish you a joyous Kwanzaa and some new family fun during the next week.
How do you celebrate your family traditions and holidays?