Here are the Top 10 things you always wanted to know about Kwanzaa!
It’s the time of the year again – we can now feel that Christmas is everywhere. You could see people rushing around buying gifts, hear people greeting everyone an early Christmas wish, and see people decorating things. However, many people don’t know that Christmas is not the only holiday that is celebrated during December. There is another holiday, called Kwanzaa that is celebrated during this season. What is Kwanzaa?
Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year, which are all popular events celebrated every year, Kwanzaa is a new holiday for celebrating African-American culture. It is a week-long festival held in the U.S. and African communities. Kwanzaa was started by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African activist who wanted to bring together the African-American communities. The term Kwanzaa was derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Observed from December 26th to January 1st, Kwanzaa is a beautiful holiday that was first celebrated in 1966. And here are other interesting facts you probably didn’t know about the holiday.
10. It Is The Fastest Growing Holiday.
While its roots came from the African traditions, the celebration of Kwanzaa began in the United States. It was established after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, California – one of the most severe riots in the city’s history. Disturbed by the disintegration of African-American community because of violence, Dr. Karenga decided to create an annual event that he and his fellow Africans could celebrate together. According to him, he created this Kwanzaa for three basic reasons: first, to preserve the African culture; second, to bring African communities closer together; and third, to promote the importance of communal African values.
Initially, Kwanzaa was practiced as an African-American holiday, since it was created to commemorate the life-long struggle of African-American communities. But in the years since it was established, Kwanzaa has gained appeal and widespread recognition with more than 20 million people now observe the festival, according to CNN. Despite its very young age, many countries now, such as Canada, America, Africa, Caribbean, and England, consider it as a part of their culture, and many people celebrate it as part of their year-end tradition. People claim it to be the fastest growing holiday.
- Not All Black People Celebrate Kwanzaa.
Even though Kwanzaa is celebrated for the purpose of uniting the black people, the National Retail Federation found that only 2.3 percent of African-Americans observed the holiday in 2006. And the number has significantly declined in recent years. According to the research done by Dr. Keith Mayes, a professor at the University of Minnesota, only about 500,000 out of 40 million black families in the U.S. now celebrate the holiday, which only amounts to a paltry 1.5 percent of America’s black population.
Well, there are various reasons why some blacks have made a conscious decision to entirely avoid the holiday. Some people consider Kwanzaa as pagan. They think that by celebrating the holiday, they worship the person who created it, which is an act of paganism. Other groups believe that the celebration is racist and anti-Christ. Others think that the holiday is just made-up, so there’s no reason for it to be celebrated.
BOND founder, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, said in an article in Front Page magazine that “Christians who celebrate or incorporate Kwanzaa are moving their attention away from Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the simple message of salvation: love for God through his Son.”
Another reason why some blacks decided to not celebrate the holiday is because it is not considered an actual holiday in Africa and the person, who founded it, has a not so good history. In 1971, Dr. Karenga was convicted of assaulting and torturing two black women, who were part of his own organization, which gave some critics the impression that the holiday detracts from Karenga’s claim that he created it to unite the black community. As what Kiilu Nyasha, a former Black Panther in New Haven CT, said, “How can I honor a holiday made up by a man who tortures women in his own organization?”
Other people, on the other hand, do not celebrate the holiday simply because they are already too busy to fit another holiday between Christmas and New Year.
- It Can Be Celebrated By People Of All Races.
There is a wide misconception that Kwanzaa is only for African-American people. On the contrary, Kwanzaa, like Christmas and New Year, is for everyone. Although it was specifically created for the black community, non-Africans can also celebrate the holiday. According to the official website of the Kwanzaa, which is also authored by Dr. Karenga, Kwanzaa “is clearly an African holiday created for African people. But other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans.”
Just like Christmas, Kwanzaa is a time for sharing, giving, and celebrating with friends and families. However, it is important to remember that a big part of the holiday is still meant for the black community. While advocates of Kwanzaa encourage everyone to join in the celebration of the holiday, they do not encourage adding things to the celebration that would destroy or diminish the true meaning of it. Kwanzaa ceremonies typically include dancing, drumming, reading of African principles, candle-lighting, feasting, and story-telling.
- Kwanzaa Is Not Alternative To Christmas (or Hanukkah).
Although Kwanzaa is often thought as an alternative to Christmas, the founder of the holiday said that “it is not a substitute for anything.” While Karenga’s initial purpose for creating Kwanzaa was “to give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday,” Karenga later revised his statement and said, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holidays…but rather as a means to help African-Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage.”
He also emphasized that unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, which have religious purposes, Kwanzaa has a cultural observation, “offering a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity, and chance to make a proactive choice.” The creation of Kwanzaa is also meant to give people an opportunity to take advantage the seasonal excitement present during the season. While it can also be an alternative to existing holidays, its purpose doesn’t focus on that. People definitely have a freedom to celebrate Christmas and other holidays in addition to Kwanzaa.
Remember, the principles of Kwanzaa include unity and cooperation. Thus, people of all faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Hebrews, Buddhists, and Jews, can celebrate Kwanzaa.
- It Is Organized Around Number 7.
Kwanzaa, which is also interestingly spelled in seven letters, has seven principles and seven symbols. The seven principles (also called Nguzo Saba) include umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (a sense of purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Each principle is celebrated each night, where members of the family gather together to discuss them, and one member lights one candle on a special holder, called kinara. Depending on the Kwanzaa observers, they may also include common activities in their ceremonies, such as dancing, drumming, and poetry reading in addition to explaining the values of African culture.
The seven symbols, on the other hand, include mazao (crops), mkeka (place mats), muhindi (ear of corn), mishumaa saba (candles), kinara (candleholder), kikombe cha umoja (unity cups), and zawadi (gifts). These symbols, which represent the values of African culture, are displayed on a table during the ceremony. The crops (fruits, nuts, vegetables) symbolize the African harvest celebrations and recognize the hard work of those who labored to grow them; the mats symbolize the foundation of African traditions and history; the corn represents the children and their future; the candles represent the seven principles of the holiday, the candleholder represents their ancestors – from where the African people came; the unity cup, as the name suggests, symbolizes unity; and the gifts symbolize the love and labor of parents.
- Kwanzaa Has 3 Official Color Symbols.
Just like Christmas, which has two official colors – red and green – Kwanzaa also has its own official colors, which were considered very important in ancient Africa. The official color symbols of Kwanzaa are green, red, and black, with each of them representing a different meaning. The green color symbolizes both the fertile land of Africa and hope for a brighter tomorrow; the black color represents the skin color of the African people, and the red signifies their blood that is shed in the struggle for their freedom.
During the seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa, observers light one new candle per day on the kinara. The placement of the candles is as follows: one black candle in the center, three red candles to the left, and three green candles to the right. The center black is lit first and then it alternates between the red and green candles starting with the farthest red, then the farthest green, and so forth, until it reaches the center. Each candle has a meaning, so every time a candle is lit, it is essential to pause for a while to reflect on the candle’s meaning.
The three color symbols of the holiday was based on the colors of the national flag of the African-American people, which was designed by Marcus Garvey, the father of the modern Black Nationalist Movement.
- On Each Day Of Holiday, People Greet One Another.
In addition to the seven-day tradition of lighting the candles, on each day of the celebration, observers greet one another a Swahili phrase, Habari gani, which means “What’s the news?” The response to the greeting is one of the seven principles, depending on which day of Kwanzaa it is. For instance on the first day, people will respond Umoja. During this day, people will focus on unity – telling stories that are related to the day’s principle and doing things that will demonstrate the oneness of African-American community. On the second day, people will answer Kujichagulia and focus on self-determination; on the third day, people will say Ujima and discuss the importance of the principle; and so on.
Another popular greeting during the celebration is the Swahili phrase Harambee, which means “Let’s all pull together!” If you’re not familiar with these phrases, though, you can simply greet your family and friends a “Happy Kwanzaa!”
- During The Holiday, It’s Customary For Observers To Wear African Clothing.
Just as Christmas and other holiday celebrations, Kwanzaa also features feasting, known as karamu. It takes place on December 31st, the sixth day of the holiday. During this event, the dining tables are designed with colorful decorations and filled with a blend of delicious Caribbean, African, and South American delicacies. Some popular dishes are fried chicken, okra, baked ham, plantains, sweet potatoes, and black bean soup. But while this event is an opportunity to satisfy the observers’ appetites, karamu isn’t all about food. It’s also a time to bond with other members of the community, honor their roots, and celebrate their rich history and traditions.
Apart from sharing meals, it’s customary for Kwanzaa observers to discuss the African principles during the karamu. Even children are encouraged to speak or share a story that has a relevance to the principle of that day. In addition, there are selection of music, drumming, artist performance, and poetry reading. And during this event, it is customary for observers (both adults and children) to wear traditional African-style garb with red, black, and green colors. Pieces of African clothing that people may wear include buba (a loose fitting blouse), busuti (a floor-length dress), dashiki (a hand-painted or embroidered shirt), kanzu (a colored robe), gelee (a West African headwrap), or a kanga (a colorful East African garment). Wearing traditional African clothing is meant to show pride in their culture and history.
- Expensive Gifts Are Not Expected.
Although one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa is about gift-giving, the holiday isn’t about buying and exchanging expensive presents. Instead, Kwanzaa observers are encouraged to give gifts that only cost a little but with richer meaning.
Kuumba, which is the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, relates to building and developing the creative potential of Kwanzaa observers. It pushes families and communities to always do the best they can, in the way they can, to beautify the lives of others and the land that they inherited. Throughout the year, each family member should find or think of something that they will give to their loved ones during the celebration of the holiday. While one may purchase gifts, handmade presents are much encouraged. Some gift ideas include African-inspired home decorations, linens, art symbols, ornaments, pillows, or jewelries. Books about African folk tales or African recipes are also a popular choice.
Every item that is given on the holiday is being cherished because every Kwanzaa observer knows that each item has been carefully thought out to show their care and love for each other.
- Even Famous People Observe Kwanzaa.
As we know, Kwanzaa is celebrated all over the world, but I think people didn’t know that even celebrities (including non-blacks) celebrate this African-American and Pan-African holiday. Among the celebrities, who have been known to celebrate the festival every year, are Oprah Winfrey, the famous talk show host, actress, and producer; Stevie Wonder, one of the most creative and loved musicians of all time; Maya Angelou, American author and poet; Chuck D., American rapper and author; Holly Robinson Peete, American actress and singer; Jim Brown, actor and former NFL star; Synthia Saint James, award-winning artist and designer of the first Kwanzaa stamp; and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the famous celebrity couple, raising a multicultural family.
In fact, even the presidents of the United States recognized the importance of this day. Even though no one can say for sure whether President Barrack Obama celebrates the holiday or not, he regularly issues an annual statement that sends his best wishes to all those celebrating the Kwanzaa festival. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush also did the same during their time in office.
Sure, it’s true that Kwanzaa still remains a mystery to other people. But let’s not forget that it’s a totally new holiday that has just been around for about 50 years. I’m sure that in the years to come, more and more people will appreciate the true meaning of the celebration, just like Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year, and other holiday celebrations, which have been around a thousand of years ago. Although Kwanzaa has some inconsistencies and its founder faces a lot of criticisms, the holiday aims to unite the black people, recognize their struggle, and preserve their culture and history. Like other holidays, Kwanzaa can be used as an opportunity to promote unity and togetherness, to enjoy and celebrate with others, as well as to learn the value of African society.