Christmas and Chanukah are two holidays ripe with tradition and history. Despite its comparatively short history, Kwanzaa is another important end-of-year holiday. It is based on African heritage and values, which tie in seamlessly with the giving nature of the holiday season.
Kwanzaa was established and first celebrated in December 1966 under the direction of Dr. Mulanga Karenga, who was the chair of Black Studies at the California State University at Long Beach. A year prior, Karenga bore witness to a deadly riot that took place in the predominantly black area of Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. The community was devastated after 34 people were killed and 1,000 injured. Karenga wanted to revitalize the spirits of those hit hard by these acts of violence and also establish a way the African American community could band together through heritage and shared traditions. He looked to the customs of African people and became inspired by the harvest celebrations that took place in Africa. In turn, Karenga developed a nonreligious holiday that melded appreciation of the harvest with the unique identity that is African culture to establish Kwanzaa.
At the heart of the creation of Kwanzaa was the desire to reaffirm communitarian values and practice ways to strengthen and celebrate family. It was also designed to link African Americans as a people in the United States and those on the African continent.
The name of the holiday, "Kwanzaa," was taken from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits." The extra "a" was added onto the name to coordinate with seven children, who each wanted to represent a letter in the holiday's name. Therefore, the additional "a" was added to make it a seven-letter word. One might also deduce that the seven letters tie into the seven days the holiday is celebrated as well as the Nguzo Saba, central to the holiday, which are the Seven Principles of the celebration.
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Dr. Karenga believes Kwanzaa has grown among African people for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its ability to speak to the community's need and appreciation of life-affirming values while reaffirming the African tradition. The holiday also brings together people from various countries, several different religious affiliations, different ages, and various political persuasions. Although Kwanzaa was an African holiday created for people of African descent, others can and do celebrate the holiday. Because the basis for Kwanzaa is good will, many people are drawn to its practices.
Unlike other holidays of the season, Kwanzaa has largely avoided commercialization. Although widely celebrated, Kwanzaa is still a mystery to much of the public.
Some people mistakenly assume that Kwanzaa provides an alternative to celebrating Christmas. Although both holidays are celebrated in December, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday but a cultural one. It is perfectly acceptable to celebrate both, taking religious cues from Christmas and cultural cues from Kwanzaa.
For the last 46 years, African Americans and celebrants across the globe have come together to explore cultural togetherness by participating in Kwanzaa.