What is Kwanzaa? 7 enlightening facts about the holiday

  • Ashleigh Atwell
  • For the AJC
12:09 p.m Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Living

In 2017, Kwanzaa celebrates its 51st anniversary but compared to its more popular counterparts, it is relatively unknown. 

Here are a few facts to help anyone that is curious and considering celebrating this holiday.

Karenga, born Ron Everett, created the holiday during a particularly tumultuous time in American history. Karenga was a member of US Organization, or simply US, a black nationalist group that was providing relief after the Watts riots broke out in 1965. According to TIME, this turbulent season is when Everett created Kwanzaa. "He saw that black people here had no holidays of their own and felt that holidays give a people a sense of identity and direction." Imamu Clyde Halisi, then national chairman of US, told the magazine in 1972.

On each night, a candle is lit to observe the nguzo saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The principles of Kwanzaa are: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). 

The candles include one black, three red and three green. The colors red, black and green are important to Pan-Africanists. Black represents "the people" while red is for the blood spilled in the struggle for liberation and green for the future of black liberation.

JESSICA MCGOWAN / jmcgowan@ajc.com
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, who stressed the indispensable need to preserve, continually revitalize and promote African American culture. Here, Rashida Abdullah dances with Giwayen Mata during the celebration.

The holiday draws influence from a variety of African cultures and practices. "Kwanzaa self-consciously avoids theological emphasis, for it is this emphasis that reveals and cultivates differences. What Kwanzaa does stress is the ethical which brings forth the best of African and human thought and practice and offers a basis of common ground," Karenga said in a 2000 interview with Belief Net.

There's a common misconception that Kwanzaa is closed to non-black people because of its radical roots. However, according to the official Kwanzaa website, anyone is welcome to celebrate the holiday, comparing it to other cultural holidays."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," Karenga said in an interview with the site.

Deborah Cannon
Carol Kariuki, far right, joins, from left, Theresa Garcia, Elizabeth Kahura and Andrew Kahura, 14, as they encourage the audience dance along with them during a Kwanzaa Celebration at the George Washington Carver Museum on Friday, December 26, 2014. The event was celebrating the first day of Kwanzaa which focuses on Unity (Umoja). DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In the holiday's early years, it was frowned upon to celebrate Kwanzaa and Christmas. As it became more popular, participants began to observe both holidays. "We definitely had to come to terms with Kwanzaa," Celeste Morris, a mother of two, told the New York Times in 1990. "It was easier when the kids were younger because they didn't really grasp the full meaning of the holidays. As they got older, they wanted Christmas. Kwanzaa was good food; Christmas was toys." Still, the official Kwanzaa website urges families to not mix Kwanzaa with Christmas symbols because it contradicts the principle of kujichagulia.

Although Kwanzaa is often observed with Christmas and resembles Hanukkah in format, Karenga claims the dates have a different origin. "A central model for Kwanzaa is umkhosi or the Zulu first-fruit celebration which is seven days and is celebrated about this time," Karenga said in the Belief Net interview. "Other first-fruit celebrations were celebrated at the end of the old year and the beginning of the New Year such as Pert-em-Min of ancient Egypt. So, Kwanzaa's model is older than Christmas and Hanukkah and thus does not borrow from them or seek to imitate them..." This differs from what Halisi told TIME in 1972. "It begins December 26," said Halisi, "so we'll be in a position to benefit from the after-Christmas sales."

Dawn Sutherland celebrates Kwanzaa with friends at her home, Sunday afternoon in Baldwin Hills. Her home is filled with African art and African American art. (Photo by Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On the seventh night, gifts are exchanged. Handmade gifts are preferred and the items must relate to the principles. Typically, children are the primary recipients. The gift exchange must always include a book and a "heritage symbol," or item that represents African history and traditions. Kwanzaa concludes with a feast called the karamu. Hosts are encouraged to display their most beautiful art and African cloths along with fresh fruit and vegetables.

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