“Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community and culture,” according to Kwanzaa’s official Web site. “Celebrated from 26 December thru 1 January, its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name.”
The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.”
Dr. Maulana Karenga created the holiday in 1966, while he was a professor at California State University, Long Beach. It thus originated within the context of the Black Freedom Movement.
Karenga established Kwanzaa to reinforce African culture, communal bonds and “seven communitarian African values” known as the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles. The principles are:
3) Collective work and responsibility
4) Cooperative economics
Kwanzaa also uses seven basic symbols:
1) Crops, which represent harvest celebrations and rewards of labor
2) A mat, which represents tradition and therefore a foundation
3) A candle holder, which represents ancestors
4) Seven candles, which represent the Nguzo Saba
5) Corn, which represents children and the future
6) A cup, which represents unity
7) Gifts, which represent the bonds between parents and children
Kwanzaa is not an alternative to Christmas. It is “a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one,” according to the site.
Christmas is both a “religious holiday for Christians” and a “cultural holiday for Europeans.” Karenga emphasizes the possibility that one may accept the religious nature of Christmas and reject its cultural baggage (e.g. Santa Claus, reindeer, etc.), according to the site.
Kwanzaa constitutes a cultural, but not religious, holiday. Nevertheless, its African heritage imbues it with a concern for spirituality.
“There is a real and important difference between spirituality as a general appreciation for and commitment to the transcendent, and religion which suggests formal structures and doctrines,” reads the site.
Kwanzaa’s “profound and pervasive concern with values” has resulted in grave efforts to resist commercialization.
Faith, one of the Seven Principles, “stresses the spiritual and ethical resistance to market values which undermine and distort the sacred and significant,” Karenga says on the site.
The official site emphasizes how, and why, Kwanzaa celebrants work to preserve the holiday’s values in the face of corporate efforts to market the seven-day celebration.
“Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people,” says Karenga on the site. “It speaks to the world.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s project coordinator.