Aside from the Hanukkah and Christmas, a different but equally meaningful celebration happens in December – the Kwanzaa. Celebrated by the African-Americans, Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture marked from December 26 to January 1.
“Kwanzaa is a special season and celebration of our sacred and expansive selves as African people. It is a unique pan-African time of remembrance, reflection, reaffirmation, and re-commitment. It is a special and unique time to remember and honor our ancestors; to reflect on what it means to be African and human in the most expansive and meaningful sense; and to reaffirm the sacred beauty and goodness of ourselves and the rightfulness of our relentless struggle to be ourselves and free ourselves and contribute to an ever-expanding realm of freedom, justice and caring in the world,” reads Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga’s 2020 message.
He added, “Kwanzaa is a special and unique time and pan-African space to recommit ourselves to our highest values that teach us to live our lives, do our work, and wage our struggles in dignity-affirming, life-enhancing, and world-preserving ways as we continue forward on the upward paths of our honored ancestors.”
Though it has clear origins, Kwanzaa is not an exclusive celebration. Anyone can join in the rituals and fun – all you need is an open mind that’s willing to learn the beautiful history of the African-American culture.
To help you better understand what Kwanzaa is, we’ve listed down five of the most important facts you need to know.
- It was Dr. Maulana Karenga, a Black nationalist who late became a college professor, who introduced the festival in 1966 to the US as a ritual to welcome the first harvest. Dr. Karenga created this festival for Afro-Americans as a response to the commercialism of Christmas. In fact one might say that Kwanzaa has similarities with Thanksgiving in the United States or the Yam Festival in Ghana and Nigeria. He took the name “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” The extra “a” was added, Karenga has said, to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, each of whom wanted to represent a letter. There are five common sets of values that are highlighted in the week-long festivity: ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration.
- Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days, with each day dedicated to the Nguzo Saba, also known as the seven principles. The kinara (Swahili word for candle holder) holds seven candles, one black, three red and three green, which represent the people, the struggle and the future. They also represent the seven principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).
- Kwanzaa is not an alternative celebration to Christmas, though many mistakenly think it is. The latter is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality, according to Karenga. “Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’i and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc.” According to Karenga, non-Black people can also enjoy Kwanzaa and participate in its rituals, just as non-Mexicans commemorate Cinco de Mayo.
- Kwanzaa is about the feast, too. Known as Karamu, the African feast takes place on New Year’s Eve. Parents also give gifts during the holiday, which are encouraged to be homemade educational in nature and promote the African heritage. Many of those who celebrate Kwanza often buy books, music, art accessories or other culturally themed products, preferably from a Black-owned business.
- Despite not observing the holiday, US presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush issued Kwanzaa greetings during their administrations. “We know that there are still too many Americans going through enormous challenges and trying to make ends meet,” Obama said. “But we also know that in the spirit of unity, or umoja, we can overcome those challenges together.” The holiday also has made inroads with the U.S. Postal Service, which has issued Kwanzaa stamps since 1997.
Happy Kwanzaa! Have a safe and joyful celebration!