Kwanzaa is a week long observance, held annually from December 26th to January 1st.
In comparison to other holidays, Kwanzaa is pretty young. The history can only date back 50 years, to a period of segregation in the United States. As equality grew, the celebration became less exclusive, but it started as a non-dominant holiday to practice through oppression.
Part 1: Social Unrest
The year 1965 was anything but easy for African Americans in the United States. During this time, their rights were limited and they were unwelcome in white communities. The unequal treatment, police discrimination and violent attacks from radical Ku Klux Klan members brought citizens to the tipping point.
On August 11th, an incident involving a driver and policeman changed the Los Angeles Watts neighborhood into a war zone. Marquette Frye, was pulled over by highway patrol Lee Minikus for drunk driving. Both Frye’s mother and brother got involved and the situation escalated. Rumors spread, and a mob against the police formed, even after the Frye family’s arrest.
The resulting “Watts Riot” involved some 30,000 adults over the course of six days. When it ended there were 34 deaths, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage.
At least they fought over something important, like social equality. The riot could’ve started because of a soccer match.
Part 2: Uniting People
In response to thickened social tension, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach decided to embrace African heritages. In 1966, he created Kwanzaa.
The new holiday helped African Americans reconnect with their culture through meditation and the study of “Nguzu Saba,” the seven principles of Kwanzaa. These principles are Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba and Imani, which translate to Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.
The term “Kwanzaa” is derived from the Swahili phrase “”matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” Dr. Karenga chose this because Kwanzaa is based off of African harvest traditions.
So, it’s a holiday that went through retro repurposing, like a fancy record player or antique bike.
Part 3: The Traditions
Typical Kwanzaa activities include singing, dancing, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading and feasting. Families gather to light a candle each night and emphasize one of the seven principles.
Kwanzaa also has seven symbols: Mazao, Mkeka, Vibunzi, Mishumaa Saba, Kinara, Kikombe Chu Umoja and Ziwadi. These translate to Crops, Place Mat, Ear of Corn (representing fertility and children), The Seven Candles, The Candleholder, The Unity Cup (containing libations) and Gifts.
It’s all about community and togetherness as a family, with a hint of spirituality.
Traditional decorations include colorful African cloth, kaftans (worn by women) and the colors black, red and green. Black represents the people. Red represents the African bloodline. Green represents the lush African land. The Seven Candles are colored as such, with black being the center candle that lights the others from left to right.
Basically, if Hanukkah had a baby with Civil Rights, they’d name it Kwanzaa.
Even though humans still disagreed on what some consider “basic ethic principles” well into the 20th century, it’s reassuring to know that we can still overcome social challenges.
Kwanzaa is a non-religious celebration observed by roughly two million people in the United States. Although it is a newer holiday, the roots go back thousands of years. Embracing the African heritage while uniting families and communities is the good message of Kwanzaa.