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Celebrating 45 years of Kwanzaa

TRADITION: families have been celebrating Kwanzaa for many years

“MY FATHER would have given us everything he could for Christmas – until he found out there was an alternative!”

These were the words of US comedian Chris Rock, who once comically reflected on the era when his father learned about Kwanzaa.

I know exactly how the comedian feels, because when I was about 12-years old, my mother decided she too wanted to celebrate Kwanzaa. It was the same year that she began growing dreadlocks and became a vegan – and decided to turn her back on Christmas!

Widely regarded as the ‘black alternative’ to the Western festive period, celebrating Kwanzaa meant that we didn’t buy presents – we made them. In addition, instead of finding chocolates or Brandy’s debut album (which I really wanted) in my stocking, there were nuts and citrus fruits. Oh, and to top it all off, the traditional turkey was ditched in favour of a nut loaf!

Fast-forward about 18 years and I’m a little ashamed to say I have not kept up the Kwanzaa revelry. Maybe it’s time I did, as the pan-African holiday is celebrating 45 years since its creation.

Seen by many as a substitute to Christmas, the joyous festival is celebrated all over the world from December 26 to January 1, by millions of people of African origin.


SUPPORTERS: (l-r) Kwanzaa founder Dr Maulana Karenga, poet Maya Angelou and MP Diane Abbott

Focusing on family, community and culture, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr Maulana Karenga, as a way to bring African-Americans together in a festive spirit, which means ‘first fruits’ in Swahili, often includes gift giving, story telling, decorations and of course, large meals.

Seven is the magic number during this holiday, as there are seven nights of celebrations; the symbolic kinara candleholder holds seven candles; and there are seven principles of Kwanzaa. These principles could be considered as ideals that Christmas is supposed to have but, according to many, have been lost along the way.

* Umoja: unity within the family, community and race,

* Kujichagulia: self determination; the inspiration for all participants to define themselves.

* Nia: purpose; the celebration was created to help black people restore their greatness in the world.

* Kuumba: creativity is an integral part of the festivities. Instead of buying presents it is the tradition to make gifts.

* Ujima: collective work and responsibility, encompassing the true spirit of the year in order to work together as a community and form bonds.

* Ujamaa: Cooperative economics helps to maintain the shops, businesses and enterprises of the community.

* Imani: faith, to yourself and one another.

Of course, no celebration or period of merriment would be complete without decorations and Kwanzaa is very colourful, encompassing wonderful reds, greens and blacks.

Like Christmas, Kwanzaa is different for everyone, but the one remaining feature in every Kwanzaa-rejoicing household is the kinara candle.

Made up of seven candles, the centerpiece has three red candles on the left and three green candles on the right with one black in the candle. And each colour has its meaning.


SYMBOLIC: the kinara candles are an important part of Kwanzaa

The red candle embodies the struggle that people of African decent have faced over the years, though some also say it symbolises love. The black candle for some people represents freedom and the colour of the African race.
Finally, the green candle signifies vegetation and hope or future dreams.

Prominent celebrators of the occasion, apart from my mother, include our very own Westminster matriarch MP Diane Abbott, and US poet Maya Angelou, among others.

On an economical level, due to lacking the materialistic drive that a typical Christmas inevitably creates, Kwanzaa is a perfect example of how to be festive when you are on a budget.

But putting practicality aside, it is a respected tradition that encourages togetherness in the community.

Happy Kwanzaa to all those who celebrate the long-serving festival.

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