For many people, the holiday season has become synonymous with blatant consumerism. Gift-giving and holiday sales are often the focus of what was once a time of appreciation and family gathering.
But among the more commercially-recognized holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah, another holiday is also celebrated: Kwanzaa. While many Americans know Kwanzaa as simply the holiday that puts the “kwanz” in Chrismahanukwanzikah, Kwanzaa has become an important African American holiday, celebrating family, community and culture and placing emphasis on traditional African values.
“This holiday was created to give black people a sense of community, belonging and pride while celebrating a common heritage,” explained Dennis Williams, Jr., co-coordinator of the Black Student Union.
Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. In 1965, a large-scale riot had occurred in the predominantly-black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, resulting in 34 deaths and great racial tension in Los Angeles and other areas of the country. In response to the Watts Riot, Karenga searched for a way to bring African-Americans together as a community. Karenga combined aspects of several different African harvest celebrations to form the basis of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with each of the seven days representing an African principle: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
“These principles, when practiced, can definitely uplift a people,” Williams said.
As in Hanukkah, the spiritual aspect of Kwanzaa is celebrated with the lighting of candles. On the first night of Kwanzaa, a black candle representing the people is lit. The following three nights, participants light red candles that represent struggle. On the final three nights, participants light green candles that symbolize hope. According to the Official Kwanzaa Web site, created by Karenga, this procedure is used to indicate that the people came first, followed by struggle and then hope that resulted from the struggle.
These candles are placed on the mkeka (a mat that symbolizes the foundation of African culture) in a central area of the celebrator's home and surrounded by other symbols of Kwanzaa and African culture. Ears of corn, which symbolize children and the future, are placed on the mat, as well as a Unity cup, which is used to pour libation to ancestors.
Gifts don't play as large a role in Kwanzaa celebrations as they do in other holidays. The recipients of Kwanzaa gifts are mainly children, and they always include a book to emphasize the value of learning and a heritage symbol to reinforce African traditions.
While Kwanzaa is celebrated mainly to honor African values and create lasting cultural traditions, it is not off-limits to people of other backgrounds. According to the Official Kwanzaa Web site, the principles of Kwanzaa have a universal message for all people of good will.
“Anyone who wants to learn more about African and African American culture can celebrate the holiday,” Williams said.
Currently there are no plans for a Kwanzaa celebration at Western, but honoring your culture in this way can also be done on an individual basis, or with a group of friends.