The Other Holiday in December….


In addition to Christmas and the Persian New Year, and in an effort to be more multicultural and to help our daughter understand and love her heritage, we wanted to include Kwanzaa in our annual celebrations. We began amateurishly last year when she was three by getting a couple of books for her and reading up a little on Kwanzaa ourselves.

This year we wanted to put more effort into our Kwanzaa celebration and wanted to start a tradition of celebrating properly. We are fortunate that our daughter attends a school where Kwanzaa is a big deal and our daughter’s teacher is an expert on Kwanzaa. Check out this piece by Eva Sollberger at 7 Days on the Schoolhouse celebration featuring my daughter’s pre-K teacher Nari Penson:

Born and raised in Alabama, Nari came to Vermont to go to college. She spent over 13 years in a group called “Kwanzza” doing diversity workshops for kids and adults all around Vermont. She has been a kindergarten teacher at the Schoolhouse for over 30 years and is truly a special person. She is responsible for bringing the annual Kwanzaa ceremony to the Schoolhouse and admired by her students, parents and colleagues.

Who better to teach me about this wonderful holiday?

the other holiday in December1

The Schoolhouse has been celebrating Kwanzaa with an annual ceremony for 30 years and Nari was kind enough to spend an hour with me last week to talk about Kwanzaa, diversity and race relations in Vermont. In her quiet classroom before the sounds of her energetic 4.5 to 6 year olds filled the room we began talking about Kwanzaa, what it means to her and how she has brought this wonderful tradition to this very special school.

Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1 and is a celebration of family, community and culture. The name Kwanzaa is Swahili for “To Begin” and the holiday was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga as a way for African Americans to reconnect to their African heritage and culture. Kwanzaa celebrates seven principles of African heritage and each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the principles. The ceremony consists of symbols such as lighting candles each day in a candle holder called kinara, placing corn and other crops on a decorative mat and using a communal cup to pour libation.

The other holiday in December

The principles are as follows:

  1. Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  3. 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.
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  5. Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

The Schoolhouse guided by Nari, began teaching these principals by incorporating them into family discussions with the kids. Talking about family, traditional foods and cultural practices, the kids had a chance to learn about their own families, traditions and culture. At the same time, the teachers would share African American stories and biographies with the kids so they would learn about African American history. Nari believes that “it is really important for kids to have an understanding of what the African American contribution to our country has been,” and I couldn’t agree more. I feel that by having the kids participate in the Kwanzaa celebration, they get exposed to more than what is taught in history books.

I am glad that my daughter will have the amazing experience of the Schoolhouse Kwanzaa ceremony this year and I hope that it will be an experience that will stay with her. Thanks to Nari, I now have a great understanding of Kwanzaa, how it originated and what it is meant to celebrate and will be celebrating with our own ceremony at home every year.

Do you celebrate holidays other than Christmas?

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A city girl at heart, I moved to Vermont in 2005 and now can’t imagine calling any other place home. Born and half raised in Iran (I moved here when I was 12), I moved a lot before making Vermont home. I live in Essex with my amazing multi-cultural and multi-racial family. My little family consists of my wonderful Canadian husband, my strong, smart and beautiful little girl, Zara (June 2010), and our sweet chocolate lab. I work for the State of Vermont as a Housing Program Officer and own Tala, Taste of Persia, specializing in delicious Persian sweet treats. I am a reluctant runner, love to entertain and shop. My passions are social justice and politics and travel.


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