"I grew up celebrating Kwanzaa just cause my parents were into Islam when me and my brother were born. So we did that in my early childhood up until the time my dad died. When that happen, thirty years ago yesterday, when he passed away (I was only nine years old). After that my mom kinda reverted back to Christianity but she gave me and my brother the choice of what we wanted to do. The fact that I was already used to not doing the Christmas thing or whatever, I just never really felt the need to after that."
Did you continue celebrating Kwanzaa after that?
"Not on a consistent basis. Whenever that time of year would come, my mom would ask us, and it took a while cause by him (his dad) passing away, like a week before Kwanzaa would've started, that kind of made it hard to really get into it. We were used to doing it all together. I think I probably waited till I was a teenager before I really was ready to get into it again."
What is the custom of Kwanzaa?
"Each day is slightly similar to Hanukkah, where you light the different candle. Kwanzaa is a seven day thing and each day has a different principle. Whatever day that principle represents, you give gifts based on that principle. And it doesn't have a be a gift all the time. It used to be that each person in your family would host a get together. But of course being a work week, what we used to do, was the day, or whatever the closest weekend was, we would have the big celebration. The elders would just sit around and tell stories about the ancestors, how they grew up. A lot of our ancestors, talking about my grandparents, were from down south, so they would just talk about why we should be thankful to have what we have. They had a more difficult life than we did, of course, being that they migrated up north. So the last day of Kwanzaa we'd celebrate with a big feast, kind of like what you would do at Thanksgiving. They always wanted to give gifts to the kids. I thought it was a cool concept. And a lot of the gifts would be hand made stuff and not necessarily something you had to go out to the store to buy. The Grandmoms or the Aunts always made stuff like cool hats and matching gloves. They'd be red, black and green; the African colors. Stuff like that. My one aunt was in ceramics, so she made all of us personalized tea mugs. Every once in a while, the aunts and uncles would buy us toys and stuff, but for the most part, they tried to stress that handmade stuff is more important. Like when we made cards for our parents when we were little. It's more valuable. I got stuff from my kids now on my refrigerator from when they were little. So, that's how we celebrated. Some people you talk to may have done it a little different but it's all based around that same concept."
Getting to hear those stories from our ancestors is invaluable, isn't it?
"Yeah, and fortunately I still have one grandparent left. My Grandmom turned 95 in October. Still lives by herself in Germantown (a section of Philadelphia) which is right around the corner from my mom and step dad. On my days off, at least once a month, I go down there and see if she needs anything or whatever. But then just sitting down and talking to her.... her memory's starting to go a little now, but she's still strong enough that we're not putting her in a home. I mean she still lives in a three story house by herself! Same house my mom was born in. Her and my grandfather bought the house in 1955 and my mom was born in 1957. I get a lot of old stories from her."
Do you still celebrate Kwanzaa?
"The last time I did it was in 2005 the year before my daughter was born and my son was 5. I wanted him to at least experience it. What would happen was, the family would alternate (who hosted). My mom had it in 2003, then my aunt in 2004 and my turn was in 2005. Basically, it's supposed to rotate where you'd host it about very five years. Once it got to my house, it kind of stopped."
"You know how some families are? They'll commit to it in October but then when you try to confirm everything and find out who's bringing what....
The way I had it set up was I would cook most of the main dishes and have everyone else just bring the sides. But then people, at the last minute, just checked out. And I just got frustrated and figured I'd just do it with my immediate family since no one seemed like they were interested anymore. My daughter was born in the beginning of '06, and that whole year it was supposed to be at my aunts house. She ended up having a stroke that year, so we were focusing on her a lot. In '07 was when I moved to Glenside from Mt. Airy. I was still interested in doing it, but I think by that time it was kind of broken, so to speak. Then my kids were starting to get into that Christmas mode more than the Kwanzaa mode and I didn't wanna force it on them. Their mom grew up with Christmas so I let them do their thing, basically. This is maybe the second year there's decorations cause my daughter is really into the Christmas decorations and all that. Since we moved up here, I've kind of compromised a little bit. Mainly for the little one. My son's now 14, so he don't really care. We had a little tree last year. We do the stocking thing and all that. And I went to the stores yesterday and got some stuff my daughter had on her list."
Do you celebrate Christmas with them?
"I guess you could say yeah, but no. My mom would always get on me cause when my son was little, I would tell him about the whole Santa Claus being a fictional thing."
What made you decide to tell him that at a young age?
"I guess cause that's how my dad was with me and I was kind of glad he did. Growing up in the Islam faith, they don't really believe in fictional Gods. I guess it's sort of similar to Christians when they say like, "there's no God before him". They always thought the whole Santa Claus thing was like worshiping a fictional God. Plus, as hard as me and their mom worked, I'll be damned if I'm gonna spend all that money on gifts and have them thinking someone else gave them to them. (Laughter) We put in all that overtime and stuff for that! So my thing is, I let them do it but I try to teach them the real. Sometimes I get criticized for it, but I just like to tell them the truth."
Does their mom feel the same way about the holidays as you do?
"No, she always celebrated."
Does she get frustrated that you're not into the holiday?
"Not anymore. She's used to it by now."
How do you celebrate Christmas Day?
"Christmas Day I'm always home. Sometimes my brother might be in town from Indianapolis. When he is, my mom always has something over her house, so we'll go over there. He'll bring his wife and daughter with him. Othe than that, I'm always home."
What is your favorite Kwanzaa memory?
"The last Kwanzaa celebration we had when my dad was still here. It was just me, him, my mom and my brother. My paternal grandmother came over, a couple of cousins and we had a nice, big old feast. I was amongst the oldest of the cousins at that time. I was 8 and my brother was 6 and we had a couple of cousins between those ages. The grown folks were doing their thing and all the kids were doing their thing. That was the last one we had and the last one he was alive. That's my favorite one. December of '83."
"The second one was one I had as an adult. My mom had a big Kwanzaa dinner. My brother was in town that particular year. It kind of brought back the memory of the one in '83, except we were older and my dad wasn't there. It was more people involved. When my mom married her current husband back in '93, he already had four kids so we were like a blended "Brady Bunch" kind of family. They were involved in the whole thing. It was a bigger celebration."