Berger’s Burg: Kwanzaa’s principles celebrate the individual and community

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It takes a village of villages to celebrate Kwanzaa.

It is almost the end of the year and the time when 18 million African Americans celebrate the holiday of Kwanzaa from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. It is America’s fastest-growing holiday. The celebration, now in its 43rd year, is similar to Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, so let me count the ways.

Each successive day begins with the lighting of a candle and a recitation. Gifts are exchanged, feasts of holiday food are eaten, music is played and dance and song are enjoyed. Particularly, it is the time to look back and ahead.

Dec. 26: “Umoja,” unity and community, emphasizes the importance of togetherness in family and community.

The observance of Kwanzaa celebrates traditional African harvests. The word “Kwanzaa” is part of the phrase “Matunda ya Kwanza” in the East African language of Swahili, which means “first fruits.”

Dec. 27: “Kujichagul­ia,” self-determination, emphasizes the making of choices that are best for the family and community.

Candles are placed in a “kinara,” candleholder, and lit — a new one for every day. Each candle represents one of the seven principles that combine African traditions with African-American ideals. As each candle is lit, another principle is recited and a libation (“Tamshi la Tambiko”) is poured and quaffed in memory of an ancestor. Celebrants also bring food to the homeless.

Dec. 28: “Ujima,” collective work and responsibility, is a reminder to look at one’s obligations to past, present and future members of the community and the world.

The holiday is full of rich meaning. The straw mats and ears of corn on display remind the celebrants of African traditions. They are focused toward looking forward and working together for a unified, promising future.

Dec. 29: “Ujamaa,” cooperative economics, is a reminder to support one another and use economic strength to help meet the needs of the community.

Curiously, Kwanzaa is strictly an American holiday. It was created in 1966 by Maulanga Karenga, then-chairman of the black studies department at California State University. He dreamed of a cultural expression that would allow people of African descent to reflect on their roots.

Karenga patterned the holiday after African harvest festivals and the seven noted principles (“Nguzo Saba”). All seven values are universal and proper guides for all people.

Dec. 30: “Nia,” purpose, encourages people to set personal goals that will help the community.

At present, boosted by the revival of the 1960s concept of Afrocentrism, the number of people observing this cultural holiday increases each year. The obvious reason for this growth said Karenga “is because the holiday satisfies the need [of African Americans] for a holiday in their own image and interest.”

Kwanzaa is a time of family bonding and a reaffirmation of ties to the past and the community. It is not a replacement of Christmas because it is a cultural, rather than a religious, observance.

Dec. 31: “Kuumba,” creativity, teaches to use personal creative energy to build a stronger community.

An alternative to Santa Claus during Kwanzaa was created for children. He is “Nia Umoja,” a storyteller who narrates African tales. Although gift-giving is an integral part of the holiday, this activity is not as prevalent as in Christmas. This is because Kwanzaa is essentially a family-centered, reflective period.

Jan. 1: “Imani,” faith, encourages people to honor the best in themselves and to strive to reach even higher levels of success.

Though Kwanzaa is a family celebration, public events are also planned, including parades, dancing and storytelling. As with Christmas, there is no single way to celebrate Kwanzaa. What is important are its philosophies: the gathering of people, reverence for the Creator and creation, commemoration of the past, recommitment to cultural ideals and the celebration of the good.

[Kwanzaa is a] time for African Americans to reflect upon their rich cultural heritage, as products of two worlds. — Cedric McClester

On the seventh and last day of the holiday, families gather together for a special feast with music and dancing called a “karamu.” Isn’t that a fitting way to end a holiday and start a new year? (Reminder to children: If you are creating a Kwanzaa card, color it red, black and green.)

In the spirit of this holiday, Gloria and I wish all our African-American readers a warm, bountiful and joyous Kwanzaa.

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 6:29 pm, October 10, 2011
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