Every year between December 26 - January 1, people gather together for the celebration of African heritage known as Kwanzaa. This holiday is actually newer that most people think. Even though it honors African roots and heritage, it wasn’t created until the mid 1960s. Maulana Karenga was the founder, also known as Ronald McKinley Everett, who created the first celebration exclusive to African-Americans in 1966-1967. His goal was to help African Americans come together to honor their African culture and history with the seven core principles of African heritage, Nguzo Saba.
Kwanzaa was derived from a Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’
In Swahili, the phrase means “first fruits of harvest” or simply “first fruits”. The seven day celebration would conclude with a feast on New Year’s day. While corn is not a fruit, it’s the primary symbol for decoration and celebratory dining. What’s even more interesting is the choice of the Swahili phrase which is an East African language. When you look back at the Atlantic slave trade, this brought most African people to America from West Africa. Regardless of what region Africans were from, the founder Maulana Karenga, wanted to really strengthen Pan-Africanism in America.
Kwanzaa is cultural celebration instead of a religious holiday
During December, there are so many religious holidays that are celebrated across the world but Kwanzaa is not one of them. Kwanzaa is really a seven day cultural celebration of African heritage, specifically focusing on seven core principles that the founder Maulana Karenga created a year before Kwanzaa was first celebrated. His intent was to help unite and educate African-Americans about their roots with African culture. The seven principles (Nguzo Saba) are symbolized with its own candle that is lit each day until all seven are lit on the final day of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa was viewed as an alternative to Christmas until the 1990s
Karenga (the founder) intended on Kwanzaa being be an alternative to Christmas. In the late 90s, it was changed so Christmas was not omitted since it was never meant to give people an alternatives to their own religion and religious holiday. To this day, it’s very common for African Americans to celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas where homes with include Christmas trees and kinaras which are traditional candle holders filled with seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) that represent the seven principles, Nguzo Saba.
Kwanzaa is now a commercialized holiday
When Karenga changed his view on Kwanzaa being an alternative to Christmas, it started to gain more recognition that would eventually become much more mainstream and commercialized. Many feared this would have a damaging effect on the holiday’s core values especially with the sale of the first Hallmark card for the holiday. More recognition would follow when a Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Synthia Saint James, was released in 1997. Within that same year, U.S. president Bill Clinton declared it a national holiday. Many presidents would make public statements supporting the holiday and the cultural celebration.
Kwanzaa is celebrated globally by millions of people
There are several numbers out there declaring the amount of people that celebrate Kwanzaa. According to the African American Cultural Center in 2009, it’s estimated that 30 million people celebrate Kwanzaa, making it a holiday celebrated globally. With the holiday gaining popularity worldwide, it expanded from North America to France, Great Britain, Jamaica and Brazil. More recently in Brazil, Kwanzaa has become a term synonymous to Black Awareness Day, observed on November 20.
We wish you a happy and joyous Kwanzaa
While the origin of the culture dates back hundreds of years, the holiday itself is only a little more than 50 years old. Families continue to decorate their homes with art and colorful African cloth (which can also be worn) for each yearly celebration. Children will get involved by honoring their ancestors with respect and gratitude. Drumming, music, libations and discussing African history are some of the activities that make up the celebration. The candle-lighting ritual continues for seven days and concludes with a wonderful feast.