Kwanzaa: A Time For Community And Unity

Megan Ray  |  December 26, 2013

How much do you know about Kwanzaa? You're probably familiar with Kwanzaa as a holiday, but are you aware of the day's meaning and traditions? Dec. 26, 2013, will mark the 47th anniversary of Kwanzaa's founding, and the date offers the perfect opportunity for people in senior living to familiarize themselves with the holiday and share what they learn.

In 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa to celebrate the African-American community and promote unity. In fact, the name Kwanzaa itself means "first fruits" in Swahili, and serves as a reminder of how history and tradition can bring people together. Following that principle, Kwanzaa is not limited to celebration by people of African-American heritage, and its traditions and virtues are meant to be shared with everyone.

Why do we celebrate Kwanzaa?
There are several facets to Kwanzaa's origins. According to the History Channel, Dr. Karenga was moved to action following the Watts riots in Los Angeles. A major milestone in the Civil Rights movement, the riots had begun Aug. 11, 1965, after a young African-American man was arrested while driving by a white California Highway Patrolman. The altercation sparked tension between outraged bystanders and the police, which ultimately turned into physical violence that lasted for days and resulted in thousands of dollars in damages. According to the source, Karenga wanted to create an opportunity to celebrate unity instead of separation.

The University of Pennsylvania indicated that Kwanzaa was also Karenga's response to what he saw as the commercialism of Christmas. This may account for the fact that Kwanzaa's annual celebration always begins Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. Although gifts are traditionally exchanged Dec. 31, the primary focus of Kwanzaa is meant to be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones, and highlighting important values and traditions.

What are the symbols of Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is a holiday abundant in symbolism, and this can be experienced throughout the seven-day celebration. According to PBS, the number seven itself is key to Kwanzaa​ celebrations. In addition to the length of the holiday's observation, there are also seven Primary Symbols and Principals - each one representing a different value. Among the symbols are the unity cup, or Kikombe cha Umoja; the mat, or Mkeke, which represents history and foundation; and the candle holder or Kinara, which serves as a reminder of the community's African roots.

In addition to the symbolic items, there are also seven principles that are commemorated, one on each day of the celebration. PBS indicated that Umoja, or unity, is one of the most prominent values and symbolizes the basis of the holiday. Other important principles include Ujima, collective work and responsibility; Nia, purpose; Kuumba, creativity; and Kujichagulia, self-determination.

At a typical Kwanzaa celebration, you may see an abundance of the colors red, black and green. These shades are also symbolic of African-American pride and heritage. The black represents the people of Africa, the red symbolizes blood as a unifying force and the struggle of the African people. Finally, the green signifies Africa as a country of agricultural and cultural wealth, and hope for the future. These colors are present in the Kwanzaa candles, as well as on the flag and other decorations.

How is Kwanzaa celebrated?
The official Kwanzaa website outlines some guidelines for commemorating the holiday. Families who celebrate are called upon to display the Kwanzaa symbols prominently in their homes. Starting with the mat, the items are placed together in a specific order, along with art and books about African culture. These objects become part of the celebration, and bring people together in learning and sharing their heritage and pride.