If you were watching TheBlaze TV last week, you likely saw Glenn Beck’s satirical “Kwanzaa Edition” of “Jeopardy.” The general premise of the game show was to drive home the point that most people know little to nothing about the African holiday. While Christmas and Hanukkah are more mainstream, the celebration, which is only decades-old, is widely unknown by most Americans.
Unlike the Christian and Jewish observances, Kwanzaa is not religious in nature, although many incorrectly assume that it is. An official web site for the celebration describes it as “an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community.”
Thus, Kwanzaa (which is a word that comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya Kwanza,” which means “first fruits”) is a holiday that is predicated upon ethnicity, pointing to a vastly different lens through which the newly-minted tradition can be viewed.
Whereas Christmas focuses upon Jesus, the central figure of the Christian religion, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. But Kwanzaa, in contrast, celebrates a people. As a holiday that is ethnically and not religiously based, it’s possible for Christians and people of other faith traditions to still partake in the celebration of culture.
Each year, from December 26 through January 1, a small portion of African Americans, descendants of Africa who reside outside of the continent and Africans observe the holiday. The general focus, as Patheos notes, is on “community, family, and culture.” Considering its root in the “first fruits” phase, Kwanzaa is set around the harvest festivals that were common in ancient Africa.
As Patheos notes, the festivities focus upon “Seven Principles. These include: “unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith” — all elements intended to unite individuals in the African heritage. The outlet also explains some of the traditions that are undertaken to commemorate Kwanzaa:
As part of the celebration, family members decorate a table with special symbols. They usually begin with an African tablecloth, which they cover with a woven mat and a candleholder with seven candles. These candles represent the Seven Principles and are black, red, and green. The one black candle symbolizes the African people, the three red candles their struggle, and the three green candles their hopes for the future. On each day of Kwanzaa, one candle is lit.
Besides these objects, observers also decorate the table with ears of corn, a cup (for pouring a libation in honor of ancestors), books on African life, as well as African objects of art. Many families have striven to keep Kwanzaa simple and focused on internal values, apart from the commercialism and hectic activities often accompanying Christmas.
Like the ancient celebrations it is modeled after, the modern-day holiday, lasts for seven days (observing one principle each day). While reflective of past traditions, Kwanzaa is a modern-day phenomenon. Founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the head of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach, it originated in 1966, during the Civil Rights movement in America.
Watch Karenga explain Kwanzaa and its central tenets in detail:
Despite the holiday’s relative newness, Karenga has noted that it is rooted in traditions that pre-cede Christmas and Hanukkah. Citing the fact that the aforementioned ancient festivals were and are often celebrated at the end of December and in January, the professor defends his choice to set Kwanzaa in its current time frame.
“Kwanzaa’s model is older than Christmas and Hanukkah and thus does not borrow from them or seek to imitate them in the or manner,” he told Beliefnet in a past interview surrounding this subject. “And it makes little sense to attribute Kwanzaa’s date of celebration to misconceptions about its replacing Christmas or Hanukkah when it is simply following a pre-established season for African first-fruit celebrations which precede both Hanukkah and Christmas.”
In the same interview, Karenga stressed unity and described Kwanzaa’s founding in a 1960s context, while also connecting its meaning to the importance of ancient and African culture:
“Of all the good which came out of the Black Freedom Movement, both its Civil Rights and Black Power phases, Kwanzaa stands as a unique heritage and cultural institution. It is this institution as a definitive and enduring carrier of culture which has kept the 60’s struggles and achievements as a living tradition.
But it also brings forth the whole of African history and culture as a valuable, ancient and enduring model of human excellence and achievement and uses this culture as a rich resource for addressing modern moral and social issues. It is in celebrating Kwanzaa and practicing its Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, that our families and community are reaffirmed and reinforced and our lives enriched and expanded.”
While Karenga claims that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa across the globe, there are no definitive estimates, especially considering that those who partake are spread throughout the world. In 2010, researcher and professor Keith Mayes, author of the book “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition,” said that the holiday has leveled off in its support, as the black power movement has simmered.
“It just no longer shows up in some of the places that it did 30 to 40 years ago. You still have people who actually celebrate it,” Mayes said in an interview with Philly.com. “You have third generations of Kwanzaa celebrants…but Kwanzaa no longer has its movement which brought it forth, which is the black power movement. That movement has waned.”
Watch Mayes describe the holiday, below:
Mayes’ added that conservative estimates claim that only one to two million Americans celebrate the holiday. If Karenga’s own assessment is true — that 28 million people observe Kwanzaa — then that means that the vast majority of people taking part reside outside of the U.S., with only a small proportion of African Americans observing the cultural holiday.
TheBlaze reached out to Karenga’s office and e-mailed questions surrounding the founder’s faith and his response to critics who have a negative view of the holiday’s founding. Despite being told by a secretary that answers would be sent back, we have not yet received responses.
If you’re interested in learning more information about the celebration, which is related to an ethnic “struggle to achieve social justice and build a better world,” you can go to the official Kwanzaa web site. In a special FAQ section, Karenga answers a plethora of questions and criticisms, clarifying the meaning behind the festivities.
As has been noted in the comments, Karenga was convicted of felony assault charges in 1971 after he was accused of torturing two women. He did serve time behind bars, but reports differ on whether he spent four or five years in prison.