A few years back, my husband, two children and I were invited to a friend's home to kick off the seven days of Kwanzaa. I was reluctant to go because I am a Christmas baby through and through — even my birthday is the day after Christmas. Many of my fondest holiday memories are tied to the tradition and preparation that goes with the Christmas festivities, and mistakenly, I thought I was being asked to choose.
What I learned that night is that Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits" in Swahili, is not about discarding Christmas, but rather making a space in our family's holiday traditions to celebrate and honor black America's rich, cultural past through our food, music and stories. It only asks us to remember and to recommit ourselves to our values, community and our future.
After that first celebration, we embraced Kwanzaa in our own home. It still seemed crazy to add more celebrations to the already overwhelming holidays. After all, I didn't grow up with Kwanzaa. It required digging into my cookbooks to gather recipes from Africa and the Caribbean to be the centerpiece of our feast. Soon, the learning outweighed any anxiety I had. Kwanzaa became a family project.
Many of the dishes we prepare, like the ones made from greens or sweet potatoes were already a part of our family favorites. But some were new to us — like the ground nut stew or the chicken cooked with spices that I had never combined before. When cooking these dishes for our Kwanzaa meals, I am thinking not only about the task at hand, but meditating on my ancestors who used what the earth offered them to build a feast.
I'm still a woman who wears Christmas sweaters with little reindeer on them, and elbows through the department store looking for the perfect present. I still sweat over not making the turkey too dry or the ham too salty. But I rejoice because Kwanzaa is time to acknowledge the deep roots of family, as they reach across continents, and to pay respect to the cooks who came before me. I cook not only to sustain my family, but as art and craft. I use the best knives, the perfect cuts of meat. I go to three or four markets to get that perfect yam. I put heart and soul into it, but with no more love and intention than those came before me.
Each year when we light the candles, and recite each of the seven principals of Kwanzaa — Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamma (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith), I am filled with an emotion.
One hundred years from now, in the midst of cyber-Santas and virtual Christmas cookies, I hope my great-great-grandchildren will find importance in celebrating Kwanzaa, too. For now, I take joy in preparing and acknowledging the food, family and friends that have brought us so far.
Andrea King Collier is the author of The Black Woman's Guide to Black Men's Health and her memoir, Still With Me...A Daughter's Journey of Love and Loss.