It’s probably the least known of the trifecta of celebrated holidays during the month of December. It’s reminiscent of Hanukkah with its colorful candles with a fusion of African roots and Christmas flair. Although the holiday is often thought of an alternative to Christmas, Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that can be celebrated by people of any faith.
Kwanzaa has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with peacefully coming together to share traditions with friends and families during the holiday season. A college professor, Maulana Karenga, created the seven-day celebration, which lasts from December 26 to January 1, as a way of uniting and empowering the African-African community in the aftermath of the deadly Watts riots. However, according to Karenga, non-blacks can also enjoy Kwanzaa (History.com).
Having modeled his holiday on traditional African harvest festivals, he took the name “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” The extra “a” was added, Karenga has said, simply to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, each of whom wanted to represent a letter.
Kwanzaa is centered on seven principals. There is Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). They are each represented by seven symbols: Mazao (crops), Mkeka (mat), Kinara (candleholder), Muhindi (corn), Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup), Zawadi (gifts) and Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), which are traditionally arranged on a table.
There are three red candles representing the struggles, three that are green, representing the land and hope for the future, and one candle is black representing the people of African descent. Homemade and educational gifts, preferably from a black-owned business, are also exchanged
So why is it important for people to celebrate Kwanzaa?
The celebration honors African heritage in African-American culture, but the holiday is often always being criticized for being fake or, for those at war with the color of Starbucks’ holiday cups, as something that is attacking Christmas. Kwanzaa was created to give people of African descent an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history in a time when the African diaspora, or the communities throughout the world that have resulted by descent from the movement in historic times of peoples from Africa, predominantly to the Americas into slavery, and among other areas around the globe.
History, names, information, culture, and families were often lost by the people of African descent that were subjected to slavery, and where so many other people and cultures can easily look back generations into their own past and hear about themselves and where they came from, the descendants of African slaves cannot. Kwanzaa can’t ever replace the centuries of knowledge and history of the past that was lost, but this fairly new tradition can be there for those seeking something to connect with and build upon.
”For Africa to me … is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”
– Maya Angelou (b. 1928), U.S. author. Quoted in New York Times (April 16, 1972).