I was seven years old when my father brought the concept and beginning traditions of Kwanzaa into our home. It was sometime after Thanksgiving of 1968 when he suggested that we try it. Of course, not knowing much about it, having my father endorse it, and knowing that it started after Christmas, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad. Little did I know that my brothers and I were in for a life changing experience.
Now before I go further, a lot of people share that they have life changing experiences all the time. A good book, a movie, a collection of songs/videos dropped without you knowing, all of these and more have been indicators that lives will never be the same. Now, I don’t discount anyone who says they have had a life changing experience but for me, the true test of a life changing experience is simply you are now doing something radically different from before.
Okay, back to 1968. As the calendar neared December 25th, I knew something was, as Sherlock Holmes would say, afoot. When asked when do we go to pick up a Christmas Tree from the gas station down the street (for 4.00), my father said that we weren’t going to get one. We’re celebrating Kwanzaa now. NO CHRISTMAS TREE??? What in the name of holly jolly is going on here? Immediately, the prospect of celebrating Kwanzaa became the number one agenda for our next family meeting. Can you imagine Christmas without a tree. That’s like Thanksgiving without the turkey (which our family did several times as well). My brothers and I conspired to make sure we would have a tree. We would do like kids would do on the Wonderful World of Disney and go into the woods and cut down one ourselves…unfortunately, we lived in the city, didn’t have a saw, and it was too cold.
Thankfully, our father had another plan…not a plan B…he had already had the answer for where our presents (yes, we still would receive presents) to appear magically. He told us…I mean he schooled us on the history of the Christmas Tree, explaining its Germanic roots and clarified that it was cool for others but for us it was important to have symbols which represented us. On that note, he gathered a few boxes, attached lights (the lights we would have used for the tree), covered the boxes with African print cloth, and then adorned the structure with plants and African figurines. The tree was retired and replaced with our new African Rainforest. This was our connection to the Motherland while still embracing our American cultural practices of getting presents on Christmas morning.
Truth be told, I didn’t think it would work. Thankfully, for a seven year old child, I was wrong. Christmas morning I awoke, crawled out of bed, booked it downstairs, and stood in awe. There they were…presents under the tree rainforest. From there our Christmas continued as normal. The fire was lit in the fireplace, we took turns reading portions of the Christmas story from the Bible, shared the highs and lows of the year, and proceeded to take turns giving out presents (I don’t know what it feels like to run downstairs and just opening presents without other family members—someone will have to share that with me).
The next day we began experimenting on how to celebrate the new cultural holiday, Kwanzaa. The first step was to learn and memorize the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles). My mother found recipes for different dishes for us to eat over the next seven days. We held Kwanzaa parties and introduced friends and family to Kwanzaa, demystifying it, taking it from being characterize as “Black Christmas” to a time to reconnect with our culture and prepare our hearts and minds for the new year. While Kwanzaa focuses its symbols on the agricultural practices back in our collective homeland, we urbanites can harvest the skills and strength to build our families, communities, nation, and race (that’s taken from the first principle, Umoja).
Just like people of different backgrounds and life stations celebrate Christmas in their own way, Kwanzaa offers the same flexibility. It doesn’t require the banishment of a tree, Santa, or Sugar Plum fairies (if that’s your cup of eggnog). It is about coming together as a family and remembering the strength our ancestors have planted within us.
As for trees….have you seen the price for a live one? Makes you wanna shout Habri Ghani!?!
Guy A. Sims is the author of the Philadelphia-based romance novel, Living Just A Little and crime novella, The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim and the much anticipated, graphic novel, Brotherman: Revelation. He also adapted the award winning youth novel, Monster (by Walter Dean Myers) into a graphic novel.