14 December 2012, 15:00

African traditions and values: Kwanzaa, the “authentic holiday”

African traditions and values: Kwanzaa, the “authentic holiday”

Ask about Kwanzaa and people will probably tilt their heads and raise eyebrows. Even though this holiday features on the calendars of America, how it came to be is far from widely known. Is it an artificial holiday or genuine one and why should we care? In 2004, a survey found that 4.7 million people in America celebrated the Kwanzaa holiday, while worldwide 18 million are said to be adherents. Why is Kwanzaa such an important part of global culture? Two experts on African American traditions speak out to the Voice of Russia on what Kwanzaa really signifies.

Unlike Christmas or Hanukah, Kwanzaa has no direct religious links or associations. Instead, this holiday, which runs from December 26 until January 1, is a celebration of African traditions and values. The creator is none other than Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Back in 1966, Dr. Karenga wanted to revitalise the African American community. His research led him to devise the festival of Kwanzaa which originates from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya Kwanzaa," meaning first fruits.

Yet a good chunk of the general public in America has no idea what Kwanzaa is about, and either crack jokes about the celebration or completely fail to register its existence. “For those who don’t know about Kwanzaa one can only speculate, because Kwanzaa hasn’t been fully incorporated into the holiday culture of America. Although with every passing holiday season, there’s more interest being created by community organizations and websites such as KwanzaaCulinarians.com. The celebration of Kwanzaa takes on many forms. Therefore, we can’t completely say that it’s not celebrated in the US,” said Sanura Weathers, Editor of KwanzaaCulinarians.com.

Though its chief celebratorysymbolsclosely resemble some of the other holidays we are all familiar with, the underlying concept differs significantly. Candles exemplify this; for Hanukkah white candles are placed in the menorah for 8 days, Kwanzaa requires one less. Each day a coloured candle is lit in a festivecandleholder

“There are many artefacts and symbols associated with Kwanzaa, the most important and visible symbol is Kwanzaa’s candleholder called the kinara. It has seven holes that represent seven principles and the seven days of Kwanzaa,” explained Keith Mayes, Associate Professor of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota. According to the African American museum of Iowa, only 2 gifts are usually given for Kwanzaa, they should hold special meaning according to African American heritage. So, the festival is clearly not as overdone as Christmas now is.

The candles, 3 red, 3 green and 1 black, all symbolise basic principles that should be respected as contributing to society. Each day, a different concept is recognized, and a single candle is lit. The core values of Kwanzaa are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

“Kwanzaa is a values-based holiday in that its seven principles are not “black” principles but universal ones that people can live by all year around,” Mayes told the Voice of Russia.

While some may be sceptical about Kwanzaa’s roots and true beliefs, that doesn’t stop Weathers from keeping the tradition alive. “My family celebrates Kwanzaa by simply lighting a candle to either silently reflect or discuss the daily principle. Kwanzaa is a graceful and joyous moment to think about ourselves, how to help others and support businesses in our community. It’s more of a spiritual time to reflect on the past year, embrace loved ones, remember our ancestors and celebrate the future,” explained Weathers to the Voice of Russia.

Like every holiday, Kwanzaa has the same variety of customary traditions, which bringmembers of a culture closer together. Instead of ignoring this observance, maybe it is time to recognize this celebration as an untainted week dedicated to family and cultural remembrance.

“The most memorable part of Kwanzaa is the sixth day or night when the karamu is held. The karamu is when everyone gets together for a large feast to reflect on the past year and the upcoming one. It is also festive,” said Mayes.

Cuisines representing Kwanzaa can range from African jewel rooibos teacakes to foufou, a common ingredient originating in West Africa and used in stews and soups. However, there’s no specific Kwanzaa menu, as food is adopted from all parts of African culture but the week is about more than just candles and eating.

“When someone hosts a get together in their home to celebrate Kwanzaa, it’s a festive party full of spiritual love. I love that everyone contributes to the occasion without spending money, or if money is spent, it’s supporting a black-owned business. The memorable part of the evening is when everyone is silent as we thank our ancestors. It’s spiritually uplifting,” Weathers asserted.

Whichever holiday we decide to celebrate this year, the 7 principles of Kwanzaa could easily be incorporated into any of them. Though Kwanzaa seems not, so far, to have achieved widespread popularity, its deeply rooted philosophy is ingrained in its followers. No matter how unreal Kwanzaa may be non-believers, a holiday can only be genuine if those who celebrate it are equally so.

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