The Year Ends with the Weeklong Celebration of Kwanzaa

Photo courtesy of Tim Caldwell

Candles are lit every night of Kwanzaa, each representing one of the guiding principles.

Some of the most celebrated holidays in December include Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. But unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa isn’t a religious celebration; instead it’s a cultural one. 

Kwanzaa is an African American and pan-African holiday which is celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. The occasion honors the values and practices of continental African and African American culture while also celebrating family and community, according to the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles. 

Maulana Karenga, an activist and leader in the Black Power Movement, and now a professor of Africana studies at Cal State Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966, a year after the Los Angeles Watts riots, as a way to bring the African American community together through the practices derived from ancestral African roots. In “The Complete Kwanzaa” by Dorothy Winbush Riley, Karenga states that he started Kwanzaa as “a necessary minimum set of principles by which Black people must live in order to begin to rescue and reconstruct our history and lives.”

The word Kwanzaa means “first” in Swahili, and the celebration was inspired by the beginning of the African harvest season. During the week of Kwanzaa, families are encouraged to connect, share feasts and light candles to honor their ancestors and reflect upon seven guiding principles (one for each day of the festival).

The principal values, practices and symbols are the most essential aspects of Kwanzaa for those wanting to respect the holiday’s traditions. On Karenga’s website about Kwanzaa he writes: “Without definite guidelines and core values and practices, there is no holiday.”

These principles, also known as Nguzo Saba in Swahili, are taught and honored to reflect values and practices from several African cultures. 

The Seven Principles

Umoja: Translated from Swahili as “unity,” this principle refers to support and nurture unity among the community, family, nation and race. 

Kujichagulia: Also known as self-determination, kujichagulia is the principle of defining your identity and having “both the right and responsibility to exist as a people and make our own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history.” 

Ujima: Ujima means collective work and responsibility. This principle is like unity in that it focuses on maintaining a community, but in the sense of ujima, it also means that freedom among African people is collective, not individual. “As long as any African anywhere is oppressed, exploited, enslaved or wounded in any way in her or his humanity, all African people are also,” according to the official Kwanzaa website. 

Ujamaa: Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics,” is the practice of sharing work and wealth in the African community by strengthening and supporting “our own stores, shops and other businesses.” 

Nia: The fifth principle is nia (purpose). Karenga writes: “In order to restore our people to their traditional greatness,” it’s imperative to focus on the development and sustainability of the African community.  

Kuumba: Kuumba, translated from Swahili as “creativity,” is rooted in both social and spiritual aspects coming from “the social and sacred teachings of African societies,” Karenga writes. One of its main values is to leave the African community even more beautiful and beneficial for future generations. 

Imani: The last principle is Imani (faith). It’s essential to have faith in family, community, people and the culture in order to upkeep it. “Without unity, we cannot begin our most important work, but without faith we cannot sustain it,” writes Karenga on the official Kwanzaa website. 

Celebrating Safely

Although celebrations this year have been challenging due to the pandemic, there are still ways to celebrate Kwanzaa while staying safe. 

  • The New Jersey Performing Arts Center: The center will be hosting online programs, panel discussions and classes to celebrate Kwanzaa in place of its annual in-person Kwanzaa Festival and Marketplace. The virtual Kwanzaa Festival also features an online marketplace where buyers will be practicing ujamaa (cooperative economics) by directly purchasing products made by local Black designers, artists and creators. The festival will run through Dec. 31.
  • National Museum of African American History & Culture: On the first day of Kwanzaa (Dec. 26), the museum will be launching a webpage that will be featured as a digital resource to learn about Kwanzaa and celebrate its traditions each day at home. 

Kristina Garcia is an intern for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at [email protected].