How I Celebrated My First Polyamorous Kwanzaa

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kwanzaa candles

When I joined my boyfriend and his wife to become part of their polyamorous family, I was delighted to be invited to celebrate Kwanzaa in their home with their children, friends, and family.

The experience was both educational and heart-warming.

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Celebrating Kwanzaa in a polyamorous relationship

It happened so suddenly: a whirlwind romance and lesson in cultural celebrations that changed me from being in a twenty-year monogamous, heterosexual marriage with two children into entering what I learned was a polyamorous triad with two people I fell in love with almost immediately.

Then they invited me to celebrate Kwanzaa. 

How I ended up in a polyamorous relationship and celebrating Kwanzaa

I met the male hinge of what was to become a relationship with his common-law wife during a business trip to the West Coast. I was immediately smitten with him after some light banter in the hotel lobby where I was staying.

It was clear he was interested in me, too. He told me he had a partner at home, and wanted to know me better and perhaps introduce me to her. I was taken aback at his honesty about practicing what he described as ethical non-monogamy.

I’d always known I was inherently bisexual and didn’t really believe monogamy was for me. Still, I played the straight and narrow game in my marriage until I asked my then-husband if we could re-evaluate our lives together.

After that business trip, I came back to the east coast and had a very serious conversation with my spouse, asking if he would be willing to enter an open relationship. I didn’t mention polyamory at that time, because I knew he would be confused and frankly I was still learning what this meant myself.

After some time, he reluctantly agreed and our lives changed forever.

A few months from that first trip I was deeply in love with this couple. I’d already traveled back to their city and met most of their six combined children.

It was during that visit that I was invited to come back in December to celebrate Kwanzaa. 

I was to join my couple, their family, and various friends, some of whom were also part of the polyamorous lovestyle, to officially welcome me as a “mama” in their home. I was honored to be asked to participate, but I had a few reservations. 

Unfortunately, the only real background knowledge I had about Kwanzaa was a few mentions here and there. And I'd seen the cards you find in stores next to the Hanukkah cards at Christmastime.

I’d never celebrated Kwanzaa as a child in my own family growing up or as a parent. My military-dependent upbringing occurred primarily in Europe, and even when we moved back to the States I wasn’t exposed to any people of color who celebrated Kwanzaa. So, I accepted the invitation, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

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I learned how to celebrate Kwanzaa from my polyamorous family

What I now know is that Kwanzaa is a week-long African-American holiday that begins on December 26th and lasts until January 1st.

Kwanzaa was created in the 1960s in America for Black and African-American people to pay homage to their African ancestors, values, and harvest festivals held across the continent.

I was told by one of the eldest daughters of my partners, in a text, that homemade gifts, called Zawadi, were a Kwanzaa tradition and preferable to store-bought presents.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take it as gospel and went on a spending spree to give to the people coming to my partners’ home. On the first day of Kwanzaa, called Umoja (unity), we all gathered in the small living room. Each day, when everyone is gathered, someone greets the guests with the Swahili question “Habari gani?” meaning “What’s the news?” and all would answer aloud the day’s Kwanzaa principles.

For example,  “Nia,” the fifth day, signifies “purpose'' and happens to be the name of my partner’s daughter. The first of seven-colored candles (black, red, and green) called Mishumaa Saba, is placed in a holder called a kinara and then lit.

The 7 principles of Kwanzaa and the 7 days of Kwanzaa

Each candle represents the seven principles of Kwanzaa called Nguzo Saba. Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith are the principles of Kwanzaa.

We all talked about how we’d incorporated the principle in our lives. Then, one of the elder sons played the bongos with a riveting rhythm I felt through my soul. 

The sixth day, Kuumba, is about creativity, and I was presented with a homemade knitted hat from one of the children. I was also given a red strand of traditional African waist-beads which signifies femininity, sensuality, and passion.

The color was chosen by my boyfriend, and a family friend made it for me. The strand was placed just above my hips, with both end threads burned and tied together. It was truly one of the most loving gifts I’ve ever received. 

After the presents were given out, I brought out the gifts I’d purchased as if it were Christmas Day. It was a mistake on my part. After giving them out, I was pulled to the side by the eldest daughter who reiterated that giving commercial presents wasn’t in the spirit of creativity and Kwanzaa.

She wasn’t harsh in correcting me, but still, I felt the sting of trying to incorporate what I was used to in my home with people who had different values. I apologized and promised I would do better in the future. 

The last night of the Kwanzaa celebration is the Feast of Faith, called Karamu. The dishes are a mix of African, Caribbean, and soul food. During the day, my partners’ kitchen was filled with people taking turns making various dishes for what can only be described as a heavenly smorgasbord.

A hearty stew is usually the cornerstone of the meal, and because this was a no-pork household, a steaming pot of beef and vegetables was served. Traditionally, ears of corn are also on the menu and are meant to represent the children of the home.

Black-eyed peas and collard greens represent a new year full of good luck and financial prosperity. I love cooking, and was pleased to contribute to this amazing meal enjoyed at the table amongst my second family.

After celebrating Kwanzaa and returning home in January, I came back with a new perspective about how I wanted to live my life. Many changes were made in my household over time. Some were difficult to transition into, but I'm grateful to have been exposed to what has become a new way of living life.

It’s finding family where you least expect it, learning there are many ways to love, and becoming open to continuing my education on the many lifestyles and traditions celebrated around the world.

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Chanize Thorpe is a lifestyle editor and writer, who's spent over two decades traveling the world and contributing to both national and international publications.