Festivities continue: Kwanzaa next

If you haven’t had your fill of family festivities by the end of Christmas Day, fear not: there is still Kwanzaa to celebrate from 26 December through to 1 January.

Nobody actually knows how many people celebrate Kwanzaa. According to Maulana Karenga, the professor of Black Studies studies at California State University who founded the festival, some 28 million people around the world celebrate it. Keith Mayes, the author of “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition” on the other hand, estimates that between half a million and 2 million people celebrate Kwanzaa. The festival was ‘created’ in 1966, by Karenga as a specifically African American holiday that would give black people in the US an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their roots, rather than adopting “the practice of the dominant society”. The celebration was born at the height of the black nationalist movement in the US and aimed to foster a sense of unity, identity and shared heritage among African Americans.

At first Karenga took a rather hard-line approach, declaring Kwanzaa to be an alternative to Christmas, which Karenga said was a white religion, and Jesus a “psychotic”. This philosophy has since been toned down and practicing Christians as well as non-African Americans may celebrate Kwanzaa as well as Christmas.

Kwanzaa is today neither a religious nor a spiritual holiday, and the name, which is Swahili for “fruits of the harvest” reflects the pan-African nature of the holiday.

Seven principles of African Heritage are celebrated during Kwanzaa, one for each day of the festival. These are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Seven candles, which represent the seven principles, are a particularly recognisable and important symbol of Kwanzaa.

Green, black and red are the dominant colours at Kwanzaa (green represents the fertile land of Africa, black is for the colour of the people and red is the for the blood that is shed in the struggle for freedom) and those who take part in the celebrations do so by decorating their houses with African art, wearing colourful Kaftans and enjoying meals together.

The main event takes place on 31 December with the great feast of Karamu. Karamu may be held at a home, community centre, or church. Celebrants enjoy traditional African dishes as well as those featuring ingredients Africans brought to the United States, such as sesame seeds (benne), peanuts (groundnuts), sweet potatoes, collard greens and spicy sauces. There may be talks, singing dancing and drinking from a shared unity cup. Gifts may also be exchanged although these are typically handmade gifts or, if purchased, should be educational or inspirational items.

The traditional greeting during the week long festival is “Joyous Kwanzaa!”

So Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa and a Happy New Year to you all.

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