Kwanzaa: A Groovy New Holiday
Kwanzaa celebration in 2013. (David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The groovy sixties gave us a new holiday to celebrate during the winter holiday season, in a lieu of or in addition to Christmas and Hanukkah. The Civil Rights Movement and the racial unrest of the 1960s led many people to respond by renewing interest in their African heritage and incorporating traditional African ideals and celebrations into their modern American lifestyles. The time was ripe for a new holiday that honors the pride and culture of African-Americans. The time was ripe for the birth of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa was Dreamed Up By a Professor
Kwanzaa was the brainchild of California State University Long Beach professor, Dr. Maulana Karenga, the chair of the university’s Black Studies program. After the Watts Race Riots in Los Angeles in the summer of 1965, Dr. Karenga was hoping to bring the African-American community together in a traditional way, much like the celebrations of their African ancestors. He researched African harvest festivals, called ‘first fruits’, and brought together aspects of different African harvest festivals, including those of the Ashanti and Zulu, to create the basis for Kwanzaa, which he introduced in 1966.
Kwanzaa is a Cultural Holiday, not a Religious One
What makes Kwanzaa different from Christmas and Hanukkah is that it is not based on religion. Instead, it is a cultural holiday meant to instill pride in the African heritage as well as providing a foundation for unity in the black community. Dr. Karenga envisioned that people would gather together in peace and fellowship during Kwanzaa.
“Kwanzaa” Is a Swahili Word
Dr. Karenga chose the name ‘Kwanzaa’ for his celebration from the Swahili phrase, ‘matunda ya kwanza’, or ‘first fruits’. Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration beginning the day after Christmas and culminating on New Year’s Day. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is represented by a different grain that was important to the African people, and by a different value or concept that is representational of African pride.
There Are No Rules For Celebrating Kwanzaa
Dr. Karenga hoped that each family or each community would choose to celebrate Kwanzaa in a way that was meaningful to them. Instead of establishing certain rules or rituals for the celebration of the holiday, Dr. Karenga offered some suggestions, such as incorporating traditional African storytelling, poetry, or songs into the celebration. As each day of Kwanzaa is marked by a candle, not unlike Hanukkah, Dr. Karenga suggested that families could have the youngest family member light that day’s candle…or the oldest family member. Kwanzaa is purposely open-ended so that each person can find their own personal way to celebrate it.
The Seven Principles
Dr. Karenga based each day of Kwanzaa on the Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles in Swahili. Because the focus is on one particular principle each day of Kwanzaa, Dr. Karenga hoped that families and communities would use that day to reflect on the meaning of that principle and how to apply it to their own life or to their community. These Seven Principles are unity, self-determination, collective work/community responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Kwanzaa Principles are Represented by Symbols
A tangible item from harvest time is the symbol of the day’s guiding principle. For example, the first day of Kwanzaa is unity and the symbol is Mazao, of food crops. In African harvest festivals, the community would unite to share in the work and in the harvest. Other symbols include the placemat, the candles, the candleholder, corn, a unity cup, and gifts.
Kwanzaa Means Gifts, But Not Like Christmas
Even in the 1960's when Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa there was an idea in the country that Christmas was becoming too commercialized and the focus was shifting more to the gift-giving than to the meaning behind the celebration. Dr. Karenga wanted to avoid that with Kwanzaa. Yes, there is a gift-giving element to the last day of the Kwanzaa celebration, but people are encouraged to give handmade gifts because those are in line with the principles of creativity, self-determination, and purpose. People can choose to give a small gift to someone to encourage them to grow and be successful. Accepting a gift on Kwanzaa means you are obligated to keep the promise symbolized by the gift…that you agree to work on becoming a better person and a better member of your community.
Kwanzaa has its Share of Haters
For many people, Kwanzaa was seen as a fake holiday, because it was invented instead of developing organically. Critics also say that the holiday is linked to Black Power extremists. Despite the criticism, Kwanzaa is still celebrated and recognized nationally. It is not marketed as a black Christmas or an African-American exclusive holiday. In fact, the main goal of the celebration is unity and to that end, all are welcome to celebrate Kwanzaa.
Tags: The Civil Rights Movement, 1960s, cultural holidays, Kwanzaa, African-Americans, Dr. Maulana Karenga
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