With Christmas just around the corner, it’s easy to get tunnel-vision on your particular holiday. Most of us celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, but there is a third holiday that is celebrated during the same time of the year, which is Kwanzaa. First fact you probably didn’t know about Kwanzaa and now do: how to spell it. That one’s free. Even if you didn’t read the article you’re bestowed with knowledge you previously didn’t have. Thanks, Jim! You’re welcome.
Kwanzaa is a holiday that most people are aware of but have no idea what it’s about. White people in particular are pretty far removed from the holiday and can be found scouring Wikipedia any time the subject comes up. It’s understandable, as the two major holidays of December get all of the attention, while Kwanzaa is put by the wayside. Kwanzaa doesn’t get that much play nationally, and this is actually intentional. Kwanzaa was created to be a sort of anti-Chrstmas (I’ll get more into that below). Christmas traditions, that have been encouraged by corporations, are the exact opposite of what people do for Kwanzaa.
So here you are: your one-stop shop for facts about a holiday you probably know nothing about. If you ever meet someone who celebrates Kwanzaa, you’ll be able to discuss the origins of the holiday with knowledge, instead of frantically Googling to find out if they’re part of some special religion you’ve never heard of.
15. It’s So Young, Turning 50 This Year
Many people are unaware of just how young Kwanzaa is. People tend to assume that all holidays around this time of the year have some sort of ancient significance. While this is true in part (Kwanzaa was created to celebrate and remember African Heritage), the holiday itself is actually a relatively young one. Kwanzaa was created in 1966, and its creator is actually still alive today. There’s no story that was lost in time as to how the holiday started; you can still call the founder up and ask him about it if you like. Don’t worry though; Kwanzaa is not some sort of new-fangled Scientology-type cult holiday. It was created to celebrate the African roots of those celebrating. It is a kind of outlet for those who feel no attachment to Western religions such as Christianity, but want to celebrate their own cultural heritage around the same time of the year. Any religion can celebrate.
14. Its Origins Are American, Not African
Kwanzaa was created in America, out of the struggle of African Americans in the 1960s. Because of this, most of the people who celebrate Kwanzaa are African American. It’s a young holiday, and for years African Americans were the only ones to truly celebrate Kwanzaa. Just because it started in America, though, does not mean that it is an exclusively American holiday. While the number varies depending on the source, around 20 million people worldwide celebrate the holiday. People from across the globe celebrate their African roots by partaking in the Kwanzaa traditions and rituals. Even though it’s only around 50 years old, people from Africa, Canada, England and the Caribbean recognize and celebrate Kwanzaa.
13. The Founder Was A Political Radical
Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga, a prominent figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. He was a member of the Black Panther party, and fought against the injustice that plagued the African American community. Kwanzaa was created in 1966, and was conceptualized as the first pan-African holiday. Kwanzaa is celebrated December 26th through January 1st every year. It was meant to give Black Americans a means of celebrating their heritage during the holiday season instead of imitating the holiday of the majority class. The holiday was created one year after the Watts riots raged in Los Angeles. Karenga actually spent time in prison for a brutal crime, which cast a shadow on the holiday (more on that below), but many people who celebrate Kwanzaa are able to put this aside. After his release, Karenga became a professor of African-studies at California State University. At the age of 75, Karenga is now the chair of that department and has several publications to his name.
12. Kwanzaa is Nonreligious
Kwanzaa, while it takes place during major religious holidays, is not a religious holiday itself. Many people miscategorize Kwanzaa as a religious event, but it is instead considered a cultural holiday. The holiday was intended to celebrate African heritage and African traditions. The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanzaa”, which means “first fruits.” The primary celebrators of Kwanzaa are African Americans, but some black Caribbeans have adopted the holiday as well. Kwanzaa is meant to celebrate and honor African heritage, so it makes sense that other cultures would be equally receptive to exploring their heritage. The rituals of the holiday are meant to promote African traditions and the seven principals of African Heritage.
11. There Are Seven Principals
The Naguzo Saba, or the seven principals of African Heritage is what Kwanzaa is focused on. The number seven appears a lot in the traditions of Kwanzaa, with the principals being Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). There are seven symbols attributed to the holiday, and those include fruits/nuts, place mats, ears of corn, candles, candle holders, communal cups and gifts. All of these symbols are to be arranged on a table on the first day of Kwanzaa. Every day of Kwanzaa, the family members and others celebrating within the household gather around the ceremonial symbols and discuss the seven principals of the holiday. After this, those celebrating usually partake in some sort of appreciation of the arts, including poetry, music and dance.
10. It’s After Christmas So Gifts Are Easier
Many people associate gift-giving around the holiday season with the bounty that Santa puts under the tree. The gift-giving spirit of Kwanzaa is quite different. It is actually intentionally the exact opposite of gift giving of Christmas. Kwanzaa was designed in opposition to the consumption, price gouging, and materialistic culture that traditionally surrounds the holiday. Karenga placed Kwanzaa after Christmas, so if shopping is done, it’s for half the price. Those celebrating Kwanzaa give modest gifts, which are often homemade and reference the principals of the holiday. These gifts are never expensive and purposefully separate themselves from the consumerism that circulates during the holiday season. People who celebrate Kwanzaa are not supposed to add to the chaos of shopping during the holiday season. Gift-giving during Kwanzaa is truly the thought that counts. Educational gifts and gifts that relate to the holiday itself are usually the preferred gifts of the Kwanzaa holiday.
9. The Three Colors of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa has three official colors that reference the holiday. The colors are red, green and black, but they have nothing to do with the traditional Christmas red and green. Each color is given a unique symbolic meaning: red represents the struggles of the African people, green symbolizes hope and future, and black represents Earth and the African people. There are three red and three green candles placed on the kinara (the name for the traditional Kwanzaa candle holder), with a black one in the center. Each day of Kwanzaa a new candle is lit, until all seven are illuminated on January first, the last day of the holiday. The candles are a staple of the Kwanzaa holiday, much like they are in traditional Hanukkah celebrations. The colors of green, red and black are often featured on traditional African garb during the Kwanzaa season.
8. A Kwanzaa Greeting Means: “What’s the News?”
Kwanzaa is a unique holiday in many ways, and stands apart when it comes to the traditional greetings that are used. The traditional Kwanzaa greeting is Habari Gani, which means “What’s in the news?” The response to such a greeting is the principal of whichever day of Kwanzaa it is. On day one, a person would respond by saying Umoja. This will remind everyone to focus on unity during that day, and to tell stories that involve that principal. The same is true for the following six days, as the members of the celebrating household focus on the specific principal of the day. Another greeting featured during Kwanzaa is Harabee, which means “Let’s all pull together.” Of course, if this is all over your head, I’m sure a, “Have a good Kwanzaa!” will suffice.
7. Happy Kwanzaa From POTUS
While no United States president has ever celebrated the holiday, most presidents in modern history have made sure to wish the nation a happy Kwanzaa. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wished all Americans celebrating Kwanzaa a happy holiday last December and will likely do the same again this year. President Obama evoked umoja or unity during the holiday season, a value that not only applies to those celebrating Kwanzaa but to all Americans. President George W. Bush and his predecessor President Bill Clinton echoed similar sentiments in their holiday address to the nation during their presidencies. In 1997, the United States Postal Service showed their support of the holiday with the first official Kwanzaa stamp. There is a new design on the stamp each year, which adds a new way to send specialized Kwanzaa greetings from across the country. Even though the holiday is a young one, it has been largely embraced by American culture as a whole.
6. Big Business Wants A Piece
Kwanzaa was intended to be the one holiday of the season that was not centered on materialism and shopping like Christmas and (to a lesser extent) Hanukkah have become. While you won’t see too many (if any) Kwanzaa Hallmark Originals on at your parent’s house, Kwanzaa has become relatively mainstream and commercialized in the years since its conception. Businesses always find a way to put their hand in the cookie jar, and they have once again with this holiday. Everything from decorations to appropriate Kwanzaa gifts can be found in stores nationwide. There are also targeted advertisements for those who celebrate the holiday, enticing them to spend their money on more things for the holiday. Of course, as stated above, a person can celebrate Kwanzaa alongside another popular December holiday. The spirit of Kwanzaa, however, is much different than the other December holidays, which means part of the point is being missed if a person indulges in the materialism of the holidays while simultaneously preparing for Kwanzaa.
5. Most Black Americans Don’t Celebrate Kwanzaa
Don’t pull a Michael Scott and assume that all black people celebrate Kwanzaa, as most of them don’t celebrate it at all. In fact, more than a few of them know as little about the holiday as all other races in the melting pot of America. Only about 2.6% of African Americans celebrated the holiday in 2006, and the number has only declined since. It is now down to an estimated 1.5% of the population, as less and less people are practicing the holiday. There are a few reasons for the decline in Kwanzaa support. Some people would rather celebrate a holiday that is more widely recognized. Others feel as though it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs. Surprisingly, one argument for not celebrating Kwanzaa is that it feels as though it’s a Pagan ritual. Celebrating the holiday is celebrating the person who created it, which would be a Pagan ritual. It’s kind of ironic, as many of the people with this complaint are Christians. Most of their holiday traditions revolve around old Pagan rituals such as the beloved Christmas tree itself.
4. Founder Accused Of Murder, Torture, R*pe
As stated above, the creator of the holiday, Maulana Karenga, aka Ron Karenga, spent some time in prison, which detracts a bit from Kwanzaa itself. Many people feel as though this distracts from the intentions of Kwanzaa, and therefore refuse to celebrate it. Karenga founded the US (United Slaves) Organization while studying at UCLA, which was in direct opposition to the prominent Black Panther party. The two sides had heated disagreements, which lead to the shooting death of two Black Panther members, John Huggins and Bunchy Carter. The Black Panthers claimed that the killings were put into action by Karenga himself, but this is not where the controversy ends. In 1971, Karenga and another US member were sentenced to jail time for kidnapping and torturing two women who were also US members. Karenga claimed that the women tried to poison him, though there was no evidence supporting his claim. The women said Karenga whipped them, made them disrobe, and force fed them detergent, among other despicable acts. The judge even considered declaring Karenga insane, as he held frequent discussions with his blanket. Needless to say, the creator of Kwanzaa was shorted a bit of credibility.
3. You Can Celebrate Both
Kwanzaa, as stated above, is not a religious holiday but a cultural holiday. This means that there is no official or unofficial reason that a person has to choose which holiday to celebrate. Kwanzaa begins the day after Christmas, which means you can have your Christmas traditions and segue into your Kwanzaa celebrations. Kwanzaa’s website reiterates this point, as they state that a person can accept the teachings and the significance of Christianity and Christmas but not the cultural mess (shopping, Santa, mistletoe, etc.) that comes along with it. The original founders of the holiday did not celebrate Christmas, but this has changed for the most part more recently. Of course, Kwanzaa was intended as a rejection of the consumer culture that surrounds the other major December holidays, so to stay true to the spirit of Kwanzaa would mean you’d likely have to treat Christmas or Hanukkah as only religious days and not days of gift-giving.
2. Other Holidays Feel Slighted
The fact that Kwanzaa has been widely recognized as a holiday hasn’t been as peacefully accepted as you would think. When President Bill Clinton first addressed the nation, wishing them a Happy Kwanzaa, many people were upset and offended. Likewise, the 1997 stamp gave people further pause on the acceptance of the holiday. Of course, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday and it can be celebrated alongside any other religious event. However, many Hindus and Buddhists felt slighted as the United States chose to publicly recognize a non-religious holiday over their own. Hindu’s Holi and Buddhism’s Parinirvana have never truly been mentioned on a large scale by the United States. Although two wrongs don’t make a right, many religious organizations felt as though their ancient holidays should take precedence over a holiday that was created only fifty years before. This frustration is understandable, but Kwanzaa is an original American holiday and presidential recognition shows much needed inclusiveness around the most generous time of the year.
1. You Don’t Have To Be Black
Much like all other holidays, you don’t have to be a Black American to celebrate Kwanzaa. Any race can join in the celebration and are welcome to join the festivities. The official Kwanzaa website even welcomes those of all races to join the Kwanzaa party, just as non-Mexicans celebrate Cinco De Mayo, or non-Irish drink on St. Pats. Of course, many of the traditions and rituals are intended for Black Americans, but this doesn’t mean that other races can’t join the fun. It is important, however, to keep the spirit and the intentions of Kwanzaa in mind while celebrating. The principals of Kwanzaa should not be perverted by our own seasonal holidays, and instead should be treated with respect. With that being said, who doesn’t love dancing and introspective conversations. Things like these are something that everyone can enjoy together.