Kwanzaa is a popular holiday that is unique in its origins. Like other major holidays, it often received its own special episode in TV programmes – especially Black TV programmes – such as The Proud Family, Everybody Hates Chris, and other classic sitcoms. In this blog, we will explore Kwanzaa’s origins, its traditions, principles, and clear up some preconceptions and myths.
It’s celebrated from 26th December to 1st January, and affirms positive social values, places emphasis on the importance of family, and helps to preserve heritage and culture. Kwanzaa (sometimes spelt Kwanza) was created by Maulana Karenga in the 1960s. Alongside being a professor at California State University, Maulana Karenga was an advocate for the unity of Black people around the globe, and the integral preservation of Black cultures and identities. He was a recognised figure in Afrocentrism.
The desire to preserve Black cultures inspired him to model Kwanzaa around traditional African harvest festivals such as the first-fruits celebrations in Southern Africa, the Yam Festival celebrated in Nigeria and parts of Ghana, and the Homowo Festival celebrated by the Ga people of Ghana. These festivals have themes of celebrating their respective cultures, affirming their heritage and interacting with the community with food as a unifier.
Further in line with the preservation of African culture, the name Kwanzaa has Swahili origins. It comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” , with kwanza meaning “first”. The extra ‘a’ in Kwanzaa was added by Karenga to represent each of the seven children who were present at the first Kwanzaa celebration in 1966.
Kwanzaa’s creation was in the aftermath of the violence and turmoil of the Watts Riots, to empower and unite African American communities. The Watts Rebellion was a series of riots that began on August 11 1965 in Watts, Los Angeles, a predominantly Black neighbourhood. Riots broke out as a result of a white police officer attempting to arrest two Black brothers.
The effects of the riots were severe – there were 34 recorded deaths (most of whom were Black), just over 10,000 injuries, 4,000 arrests and the involvement of about 34,000 people. A substantial amount of damages were caused, worth approximately $40 million. After the Watts Rebellion, community spirits were low and Watts residents were still reeling from the losses, injury, and damage both to property and community. The conception of Kwanzaa provided the community with a chance to reflect on positive societal values and the importance of family, and community.
Although it’s often thought of as an alternative to Christmas, it’s possible to celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas. Many people believe Kwanzaa is an alternative to the festive holiday. Maulana Karenga did not conceive Kwanzaa to be a religious holiday, like other major end-of-year annual holidays. He writes, “Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality”. He goes on to say that Africans of all faiths can (and do) celebrate Kwanzaa, and it can also be celebrated by non-Black people. In addition, although Kwanzaa is recognised as an African American holiday, it’s also celebrated outside of the US, with celebrations taking place where there are a large number of African descendants, like in the Caribbean.
Like many holidays, Kwanzaa comes with its own set of principles. There are seven principles of Kwanzaa which originate from Swahili: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). These seven principles are in place to affirm African heritage, community, and positive societal values. There are an additional seven symbols of Kwanzaa: fruits, vegetables, nuts, a straw mat, a kinara (candleholder), corn, gifts, a communal cup and seven candles.
Kwanzaa is typically associated with the Pan-African colours of red, black, and green – these are the colours of the candles to symbolise the seven principles. Three of the candles are red, representing the struggle for liberation including the lives lost; one of the candles is black, representing people of African descent; three of the candles are green, representing the land and hope for the future. It’s common that celebrating families wear these colours, or decorate their homes in these colours.
On each day, the celebrating family comes together to light one of the candles in the candleholder and discuss the principle for the day. For example, on one day they may discuss the principle of Umoja (unity). On December 31st, families celebrating Kwanzaa join in a community feast known as the Karamu. Homemade and educational gifts are encouraged when celebrating Kwanzaa, which promote a closer family bond and sustainability, as they avoid commercialisation and promote deeper connections, consideration and thoughtfulness. Gifts when bought are related to culture, such as art, books, or music-related gifts with cultural significance, preferably from a business that is Black-owned.
Kwanzaa places emphasis on community reflection and cooperation, as well as cultivating a habit of reflection and consideration towards others. The focus on community values, self-development and care towards yourself and others is one which makes it a great holiday for children to be introduced to. Alongside the promotion of positive values, it helps to affirm culture and heritage as people of African descent.
You can read Karenga’s annual address here
Will you be celebrating Kwanzaa this year? Let us know!