Traditional symbols of Kwanzaa include: A mat/cloth representing the foundation of African traditions, crops to represent the harvest and toil of our ancestors, the kinara to hold the candles, seven candles (one for each Kwanzaa principle) in the colors of the Pan-African flag, a unity cup to be filled with a drink shared by those celebrating, and corn symbolizing the children (without the house) and their futures.

Traditional symbols of Kwanzaa include: A mat/cloth representing the foundation of African traditions, crops to represent the harvest and toil of our ancestors, the kinara to hold the candles, seven candles (one for each Kwanzaa principle) in the colors of the Pan-African flag, a unity cup to be filled with a drink shared by those celebrating, and corn symbolizing the children (without the house) and their futures.

In my younger years, I knew the full glory of commercialized Christmas. I was a latchkey kid whose single mother worked grueling hours as a cosmetologist. My father's family, who I saw on birthdays, school breaks, and holidays, made no exceptions in regard to spoiling me with material things. Hence, an abundant Christmas was an early onset expectation. Aside from a phone I wanted in high school (that I'm still bitter about/should probably get over), I can't recall one thing I asked for and didn't receive.

When I was 9, my mother passed, and I went back to living with my maternal grandmother. This woman was the original "carefree black girl" (before the term ever existed), and she was experiencing many spiritual awakenings at the peak of my pre-teen years. One of her awakenings would rudely interrupt my affinity for Christmas: we would no longer receive gifts on the 25th. That day was now reserved for the sole celebration of Jesus.

The day immediately after, we'd celebrate Kwanzaa, and I'd receive one gift for each of Kwanzaa's seven days. Apparently, this was supposed to be a strong selling point, but my precious grandmother gravely under estimated how ungrateful I was. The fact that MY gifts now had a numbered limitation left me completely stumped. There are no words to properly explain the level of "pissed'tivity" I felt being robbed of the joys of Christmas... especially in the name of a man I acknowledged every Sunday and a holiday whose name didn't roll smoothly off the tongue. 

As my friends were boasting the glory of their gifts on Christmas morning, I was sourly awaiting the next day. A day we would celebrate "Umoja," the Swahili word for unity. Never mind that unity was the last thing I felt. What I felt was excluded, ungrateful, and completely disconnected from this holiday intended to celebrate Pan Africanism.

Fast forward 15 years, and I now have a family of my own. When considering what traditions we'd honor and the holidays we'd observe, I was dead set on celebrating Kwanzaa and waiting until the 26th to open gifts.

I was proud to pull out the crafts I'd made as a child depicting Kwanzaa's seven principles. I was honored to receive my grandmother's kente cloth and kinara. I wasdownright overjoyed to find a wooden cup while visiting Aruba during my first Kwanzaa with my own family, because I immediately knew we'd found our unity cup. If only you could've seen me stuffing our suitcases before leaving for Aruba. I went out of my way to make sure our Kwanzaa decorations were coming with us, to ensure I did the holiday proper.

I see now, more than ever, what my grandmother sought to do in giving me a holiday rooted in my personal experiences. She was championing the God I only thought I worshipped by exalting Him, and only Him, on Christmas Day. She was also planting roots of heritage and self-celebration by adding Kwanzaa to our holiday roster. She was creating a tradition I could take pride in and affirming that these two holidays didn't have to be mutually exclusive.

Christmas seemed like a holiday we had fallen into along with everyone around us: hustling to purchase gifts, hanging lights, decorating trees. None of those made it clear to me that Jesus was the reason for the season. My grandmother made a decision that clarified this by rejecting consumer culture and giving me an additional holiday boasting the importance of our people. What once felt like being ostracized now feels like a personal triumph, because I know firsthand the joy of creating a family tradition and the intention underlying it.

On the inside of my left arm, there's a tattooed reminder to the ungrateful, lesser version of myself: a gift box and the words 1 Corinthians 4:7. It also serves as an ode to what the joy of Christmas has now come to represent. Should you look up that verse in the Bible, it'd read: "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift."

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