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By the time the family gathers at Edith Hilliard’s house to celebrate Kwanzaa, baked goods outnumber the people 20 to one. “My granddaughter and I do a massive baking, and I do mean massive,” she says of the 12 dozen chocolate chip cookies, 12 dozen peanut butter cookies and 12 dozen blonde brownies baked to share, along with 25 loaves of zucchini bread and—the signature treat, the prize—24 to 30 mini loaves of vanilla yogurt pound cake. “Almost a roomful” of treats, and for how many people? “About 25,” she laughs. “When everybody leaves, they take all the baked goods that they want. That’s my Christmas gift to the family.”
Kwanzaa begins on Dec. 26, celebrating seven principles over seven days. The first is Umoja, meaning Unity, and that is Hilliard’s favorite. For her, there’s nothing more meaningful than bringing people together, whether it’s the broader community she introduced to Kwanzaa by holding public celebrations at Olbrich Botanical Gardens and Goodman Community Center throughout the years, or around her own table. There, her children’s children feast on ham, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and sweet potato pie. They laugh and tell jokes, share stories of Kwanzaa celebrations past and look forward to Kwanzaa in the future.
“The principles just make you a better person. And with all the things going on in the world, even in Madison today, bringing different ethnic groups together and celebrating over food and conversation will make a huge difference and join and unite people more,” says Hilliard, who comes from one of the first African American families in Madison and has celebrated 50 Kwanzaa seasons since discovering it as a senior at Madison East high school. “It would make a difference in all of the lives of people if we could just come together and have a great meal.”