Christmas has been a popular, federal holiday in the United States since the 1870s. Kwanzaa, on the other hand, has only recently received mainstream attention. Some who don't know the significance and history of Kwanza might assume it's a "Black" Christmas. And though the timing often coincides with the Christian holiday, Kwanza and Christmas are very different.
In short, "Kwanzaa celebrates African culture, family, and tradition," At least, that's what Dawn Hicks Tafari, one of the co-founders of the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective, tells Woman's Day. But, as with any holiday, there is a deeper meaning.
"For the African-American community, Kwanzaa is not just any 'Black holiday.' It is a recognition that knowledge of black history is worthwhile," Frank Dobson, associate dean of students at Vanderbilt University, wrote in a piece for The Conversation,
Honoring culture, including the history of Kwanza, has always been important. But this year, as Black Americans continue to lead movements calling for racial justice and equality following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, learning more about African-American culture is something that everyone can — and should — be doing.]
Here's what you should know about Kwanzaa, from it's origin story to it's modern-day celebrations.
What Is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa, which takes place every year from December 26 to January 1, was created 54 years ago by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies as well as an activist and author. He, along with activist Hakim Jamal, founded an African-American community movement in 1965 called US Organization (sometimes referred to as Organization Us.) According to the website, the aim of US Organization is to "provide a philosophy, a set of principles and a program which inspires a personal and social practice that not only satisfies human need but transforms people in the process." The set of principles is called the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles), and these principles are ultimately what Kwanzaa celebrates. The US Organization website explains "on the national level, we created Kwanzaa and introduced the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, a critical value system for rescuing and reconstructing our lives as a people."
In addition to celebrating the Nguzo Saba, the holiday was also initially founded to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday (Christmas) and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
Where did the name come from?
According to the book, Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition by Keith A. Mayes, Karenga was inspired by the cultural traditions of African harvest celebrations. He chose the word "kwanza" from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza." Matunda means "fruits" and ya kwanza means "first." He also capitalized the "K" in Kwanzaa, then added another "a," which made it into "Kwanzaa."
The additional "a" at the end of the word was added because there were seven children involved in US Organization, and each one of them wanted to represent a letter in the name, according to the official Kwanzaa website.
Why is Kwanzaa a seven-day celebration?
The official Kwanzaa website explains that Kwanzaa is modeled on African first fruits celebrations, like Umkhosi of Zululand, which has seven days. But the primary reason for the holiday being seven days is to honor the Nguzo Saba, which are the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
What is the Nguzo Saba?
The Nguzo Saba (also called the Seven Principles) refers to the set of guiding principles created by Karenga and the US Organization. Their website describes these principles as "essential standards of personal and social excellence directed toward building and sustaining moral community, and strengthening and maintaining the community's capacity to define, defend and develop its interests in the most positive and productive sense."
The principles are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).
How is Kwanzaa celebrated?
Celebrations may differ slightly among groups. But Tafari says the community celebration organized by the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective usually begins with a drum call. "In traditional African culture, whenever there's some kind of celebration or event, you hear the drums first," she tells Woman's Day. "The drum call is the way historically that you are informed that something is about to happen."
The attendees then participate in a processional through the audience. Next is the libations, which is "when you pour out water into a plant, or if you're outside you do it on the ground, but it's a way of honoring the ancestors and asking that those who have come before us to bless the way and to be with us as we move forward in this journey," Tafari says.
After the libations, an elder will give permission to begin the program. Tafari says the program begins with the singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and then the lighting of a candle that represents one of the seven principles. At the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective celebration, families light the candle and discuss the principle of the day.
"We invite different families to come up, and the children get the opportunity to light the candle and they talk about what that principle means to them," Tafari says. "So like what does Umoja mean to me, and this is how I've shown Umoja this year, and this is how I want to show Umoja in a better way next year."
After the candle lighting, there is an "ancestors moment," where someone shares how a deceased family member or friend has impacted the lives of others. At the Greensboro celebration, the next part of the event is honoring someone with the Nguzo Saba Community Champion Award, which recognizes a person doing amazing things in the community.
Following that, a guest speaker discusses the principle of the day, what it means, and how people can demonstrate this principle as a community. After the guest speaker, there is a performance from African dancers and/or singers.
The ceremony officially closes with Harambee, which is a closing chant done with arms outstretched. Following the ceremony, there is Karamu, which is the Kwanzaa feast.
However, as Tafari notes, community celebrations like this might be different this year thanks to COVID-19.
How to celebrate Kwanzaa at home.
Tafari suggests those celebrating at home lay out the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, which represent the seven principles. You would then pour a little bit of water into a plant to symbolize the libations, and ask the ancestors to bless the programming. Next, you would light the candle for the day.
"If it's the first day, you light the black candle for Umoja and then each person in the family would talk about Umoja means to them, how they've shown Umoja this year. . . and how they want to be better as far as Umoja for the following year," Tafari explains.
After that, it's all about sharing stories, eating holiday food, and simply enjoying time with loved ones.
Can people celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas?
In the early days of Kwanzaa's founding, Karenga believed that Christmas "stood in the way of Black cultural advancement," according to Mays' book. He believed the holiday "engulfed Black America in its crass consumerism and its images of a white Christ." That's no longer the case today. The official Kwanzaa website explains,
"Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday," the official Kwanzaa website explains. "Kwanzaa is a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one."
Tafari adds to explanation, saying "I can be Black and Christian, right? So I celebrate my Blackness and my African cultural tradition and still celebrate the love of Jesus Christ."
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