What is Kwanzaa

The rich history of a memorable holiday

The holiday season is right around the corner. Around the world, there are several occasions for celebration, however, many people are unaware of the true value of the lesser-known holidays.

 Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the director of the Black Studies program at California State University. Karenga sought out ways to unite African Americans after the Los Angeles riots in Watts and to promote African family and social values. He incorporated themes from many festivals and celebrations to build the foundation for the seven-day holiday. 

The Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ is where Karenga derived the word kwanza, which means “first.” Dr. Karenga added the seventh letter, an extra a, to make the word long enough to fit one letter for each of the seven kids involved in the early celebration.

Kwanzaa begins on Dec. 26. Each day, the family gathers to discuss the day’s teachings and light one of the candles in the kinara. Each of these candles stands for one of the seven Kwanzaa principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. 

Along with the principles, the candles are certain colors as well, specifically green, black, and red. The singular black candle stands for the people’s unity. The future of African communities and regions is symbolized by three green candles, and three red candles symbolize the historical suffering experienced by African ancestors during their fight for freedom.

 There also are seven symbols of the holiday: fruits, vegetables, nuts, a straw mat, a candle holder, ears of corn, gifts, a communal cup representing unity, and of course, the seven candles. 

On the final day of this celebration, families join in a community feast called the karamu. This feast is in a buffet style that includes foods from West African traditional dishes among other things. Along with the feast, gifts are also exchanged. Family members frequently receive handcrafted gifts. Generally, the gifts are original creations that emphasize African heritage and enhance the interests of the Black community. As an alternative, some family members opt to purchase books, music, art supplies, or other items with cultural themes from mainly Black-owned enterprises.

Even though Kwanzaa is predominantly an African-American holiday, it has become popular outside of America, primarily in the Caribbean and other nations with significant populations of African ancestry. It is intended to be a nonreligious, politically neutral celebration and it is not seen as a replacement for Christmas. In fact, many people celebrate both. 

“Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality,” Karenga wrote. “Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, such as Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc.”

 “For Black power activists, Kwanzaa was just as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kwanzaa was their answer to what they understood as the ubiquity of white cultural practices that oppressed them as thoroughly as had Jim Crow laws,” scholar of African-American history, Keith A. Mayes said,

For the African-American community, this holiday is extremely meaningful. It demonstrates this beautiful culture through teachings, family reunification each year, and promotes Black heritage for all to see.  Everyone can — and should — be learning more about African-American culture this year with the most recent movements against racial inequality, such as the protests of 2020, as Black Americans continue to lead movements promoting racial justice and equality in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous others. Although celebrating Kwanzaa is not necessarily a solution, it is a step towards equality in the world.