(AP)—A holiday tradition dating back not centuries but decades has begun with the start of the seven days of Kwanzaa.

Unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa isn’t a religious holiday. Based on the year-end harvest festivals held in Africa for thousands of years, it’s observed worldwide starting Dec. 26 and ending Jan 1. by people of African descent.

HOLIDAY TRADITION—Ruth Ndiagne Dorsey is shown with a Kwanzaa setting at her church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna, in Atlanta.

Kwanzaa is a Swahili word that means “first fruits of harvest.” The holiday was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, who is also executive director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

The holiday was a way for African-Americans to honor their culture, but it was also part of the Black power movement of the era. The big boom in Kwanzaa came during its first two decades, according to Keith Mayes, author of “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition.”

But he said participation has leveled off. Based on his research, he estimates a half-million to two million people in the U.S. celebrate Kwanzaa, out of about 40 million Americans identified by the U.S. Census as Black, including those who are multiracial.

Celebrations take multiple forms, from a family lighting a candle each night in their home to an afternoon community celebration with African song and dance honoring the principles.

Camille Zeigler, president of the Atlanta Alumnae Chapter for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., said many of the girls who are first-timers at the Black sorority’s annual Kwanzaa celebration know very little about the holiday.

“When you start talking about Kwanzaa and the history of it and what it truly means for African- American people, this is something that is new and mind-boggling for some of our students,” she said.

“It brings me back to my ancestors,” said Ruth Dorsey, 48, a teacher who lives in Union City, Ga., who has been observing Kwanzaa for almost 20 years.

Teresa Hendrix Franco, 44, of Huntersville, N.C., has been observing Kwanzaa with her family for nearly 30 years, sometimes renting out a community center to hold all the people.

“We started celebrating Kwanzaa when people were like ‘uh huh, whatever,’ not taking it seriously,” said Franco, who is from the Bronx, N.Y. “So many people have embraced it. We have passed the word on to other people.”


The seven principles of Kwanzaa:

Umoja (oo-MOH-ja): Unity.

Kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-yah): Self-determination.

Ujima (oo-JEE-mah): Collective work and responsibility.

Ujamaa (oo-JAH-ma): Cooperative economics.

Nia (nee-AH): A sense of purpose.

Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah): Creativity.

Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Faith.

The seven symbols of Kwanzaa:

Kikombe cha umoja (kee-KOHM-bee chah oo-MOH-jah): The unity cup; sharing the cup of unity in honor of African ancestors.

Kinara (kee-NAH-rah): A candleholder similar to the menorah used during Hanukkah. It symbolizes stalks of corn that branch off, similar to the roots of a family tree.

Mazao (mah-ZAH-oh): Fruits, nuts and vegetables representing the harvest.

Misshumaa saba (mee-shoo-MAH-ah SAH-ba): Seven candles arranged from left to right in green and red, with the middle candle being black. Each day, beginning Dec. 26 and ending Jan. 1, a different candle is lit in accordance with the day being celebrated.

Mkeka (em-KEH-kah): The mat on which all Kwanzaa items are arranged, symbolizing the foundation of a community.

Vibunzi (vee-BOON-zee): An ear of corn which is placed on the mat to represent each child participating in the celebration.

Zawadi (zah-WAH-dee): Gifts given to children on the last day of Kwanzaa, Jan. 1, to enhance their educational and cultural knowledge.

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