A little Kwanzaa lesson

It’s December 28th, 2011. Last night, we lit the eighth candle on our Hanukkah menorah. As I make plans for the New Year’s Eve countdown, a handful of African-Americans in our community light Kwanzaa candles.

Kwanzaa stirs controversy within the Black community. In the article, Kwanzaa: More Than a Cultural Celebration, in The Christian Research Journal, La Shawn Barber, a Black Christian writer from North Carolina, asserts that Kwanzaa is harmful to the spiritual well-being of Black people, and hostile toward Christianity, quoting Kwanzaa’s founder as saying, “Christianity is a white religion. It has a white God, and any ‘Negro’ who believes in it is a sick ‘Negro.’” Read the article [here].

Others believe that the principles of the secular holiday are compatible with Christian teaching.

Since I’m not of African-American heritage, I asked Charity Dell–cyber-friend and African-American Hebraic Christian–to write us a little something for Kwanzaa. She offers the following Kwanzaa lesson:

Kwanzaa Celebrates Shared Cultural Values

by Charity Dell

Kwanzaa–a seven-day African-American holiday starting December 26 and continuing to January 1–was first celebrated in 1966 in the United States, by Dr. Ron Maulana Karenga, a Black Studies professor at California State University. The holiday celebrates shared cultural values of African-Americans. Ceremonies are derived and combined from various African cultures. The KiSwahili language is utilized, as it is a major East African language spoken in various countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. (KiSwahili refers to the language. Swahili refers to the people/ethnic group.)

Most Kwanzaa celebrators are African-American Christians, who also celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Day. Some African-American and Euro-American churches also incorporate Kwanzaa into December celebrations. The holiday is meant to focus upon, and instill pride in the heritage, history and cultural traditions that link African-Americans to their various countries of origin. Most African-Americans were taken from West, Central and Southern Africa, although some East and North Africans were also sent to the New World. (Thanks to the availability of genetic testing, African-Americans can now find out which ethnic groups they share genetic material with.)

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase matunde ya kwanza, which means “firstfruits.” The founder of the holiday originally conceived Kwanzaa as an affirmative means of celebrating African heritage and culture, and providing an alternative to participating in the commercialized aspects of Christmas. As the holiday gained acceptance among Black Americans of various faiths, Dr. Karenga welcomed participation by African-Americans of various faiths. Kwanzaa celebrations are typically sponsored by churches, libraries and community centers.

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa represents a principle or ideal that African-Americans, their families and communities should strive for. These principles are collectively called the NGUZO SABA.

December 26–Umoja–Unity

December 27–Kujichagulia–Self-Determination

December 28–Ujima–Collective Work and Responsibility

December 29–Ujamaa–Cooperative Economics

December 30–Nia*–Purpose

December 31–Kuumba–Creativity

January 1–Imani*–Faith

Seven green, red and black candles are lit in a kinara (candle-holder), each representing the principle of each day. In addition, there are several symbolic objects placed near the kinara.

KIKOMBA–the unity cup. Sometimes a libation is poured out to either honor one’s ancestors, or symbolize the ancestor’s sacrifices made for us.

MKEKA–a simple woven mat, symbolizing home and hearth.

MAZAO–crops, representing the harvest.

MUHINDI–corn, symbolizing children.

ZAWADI–gifts, typically given from parents to children. Gifts are supposed to be crafted by the giver.

As the holiday evolves, families and communities plan celebrations reflecting the customs and traditions of their cities. For Black churches that sponsor Kwanzaa celebrations, festivities may center upon the contributions of African-American Christians throughout history.

For community centers that sponsor Kwanzaa, a huge get-together (HARAMBEE) and feast (KARAMU) may be featured, and will usually feature African dance, music, theater, art, poetry readings and other creative artistic endeavors presented by children, youth and adults. As Kwanzaa occurs during the winter holiday break for school children and college students, it is usually convenient to celebrate, since families are already together for Hanukkah, Christmas and Three Kings’ Day/Epiphany (January 6).

Individual families are also free to design their own home-based celebrations (in addition to other holidays celebrated in the household), since there is no standard liturgy of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa’s popularity has been growing steadily since 1966, and it now has its own children’s and adult books; informative websites; annual US postage stamp; wrapping paper; greeting cards and commercially available ritual items.

Charity Dell hails from Connecticut. She’s a third-generation Black Pentecostal, raised in the Church of God in Christ. She holds a Masters degree in Divinity and one in Library Science, and leads celebrations of Biblical holidays from a Hebraic perspective.


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