Roots of Kwanzaa: Celebrating 50 Years

holiday-wallpaper-14-1024x640Christmas is right around the corner, and most of us move forward in our traditional rituals — preparing our homes filled with holiday decorations, family visits, gift shopping and extending our love of giving.

It’s also a time where religious traditions are implemented to embrace cultural celebrations, whether you are celebrating the birth of Christ, honoring the Jewish eight days of Hanukkah or recognizing the meaning of Kwanzaa.

Growing up, some of us have become familiar with the religious meaning of what Christmas held for us. The biblical meaning of Joseph, Mary and little Jesus in the manger was translated and instilled in us since childhood from school plays to celebrating the big man in a red suit.  Hollywood has had a creative way of interpreting our sense of nostalgia and romanticism of Christmas — mostly with white characters. 

It wasn’t until 1966 that Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga created Kwanzaa, a holiday that recognizes the need to preserve and revitalize the first harvest celebrations of Africa. Kwanzaa means “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, a widely spoken language of Africa.

The Seven Principles

The Pan-African holiday celebration has a long history that dates back since ancient Egypt and Nubia, as well as other parts of Africa, such as Yorubaland, Swaziland and Ashantiland. The holiday is observed right after Christmas Day, from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, building upon seven fundamental principles known as “Nguzo Saba.”

1.    Umoja or Unity

2.    Kujichagulia or Self Determination

3.    Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility

4.    Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics

5.    Nia or Purpose

6.    Kuumba or Creativity

7.    Imani or Faith

Now, this can be somewhat confusing to those who are trying to elevate their cultural motherland roots without losing the traditional celebration of holiday giving. We will walk you through each meaning in addition to your religion, Kwanzaa is about preserving the cultural significance of our African roots.

portcitynewskwanzaaIn Chicago, the newly formed recognition of the seven-day celebration was influenced by the Pan-African movement that took place during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. Dr. Conrad Worrill is the director of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for the Inner City Studies. Dr. Worrill has done extended research on the history of Kwanzaa as well as headed up several Chicago organizations centered around the preservation of African culture and community activism.

He says the first Kwanzaa gathering was organized by Dr. Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and his wife, Safisha Madhubuti (Carol L. Lee), co-founders of Institute of Positive Education Inc.

“With that first celebration of 200 people coming out in the snow, it was jammed packed in that storefront. I.P.E. had a little storefront at 78th and Ellis Ave. There was a tremendous celebration, and word began to spread as people in Chicago began to have Kwanzaas in various communities between 1971-72. But in 1973, an organization was created called the Confederation of Pan-American Organization,” Dr. Worrill said. 

The citywide event was held at a church on Garfield Blvd. that drew over 1,000 attendees. The following year, the event grew larger, catching on on a grassroots level as Black people began to tune in to the idea of Kwanzaa.

Over the last four decades, several groups have continued the tradition of celebrating its holistic values to bring people together.

In many ways, we don’t realize how we practice the fundamental activities of Kwanzaa because our ancestors made it a habitual gesture around the holidays. We look at ourselves as Americans whose origins are from Africa, but for the last 400 years our traditions have blended into other cultures.

Five Rituals

According to the Organization Us, the founding organization of Kwanzaa, the following five first-fruit rituals can be recognized in how we celebrate the holidays:

kwanzaa1-700x469Ingathering: This is the time where friends, family and community come together to reaffirm their support, friendships and bond. We often do this during holiday parties, dinners, and Christmas Eve, sharing the goodness from the year.

Reverence: It’s about giving thanks to God or the Most High in the blessings. Whether it’s serving the homeless, gathering toys for kids and families in need.

Commemoration: In some ways, the holiday time can bring up memories of those loved ones who are no longer here with us in the physical, but their spirit lives on in us.  We commemorate their memories by following the same traditions they set forth during their time on earth. 

Recommitment: How many of us begin to work on the following year’s goals and plans? How do we make ourselves better? How do we improve on our relationships at work, home or community commitments?

Celebration: December is the last month of the year. After 11 months of non-stop work, personal and financial obligations, we look forward to letting our hair down and exhaling. We look forward to discovering the good in people and spreading our holiday cheer with our neighbors, family and friends. We celebrate the birth of Christ, but also can celebrate the prosperity of life.

Similar to the rituals to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, some of the activities of Kwanzaa hold great meaning to our Pan African culture.

The lighting of seven candles during this time is known as Mishumaa Saba. The colors are red, black and green, which are a representation of the African Gods.

Lighting the Kinara, which is the special holder, is not a form of “voodoo” for some of our traditionalist fellow Black Christians who may think “candle burning” is some kind of satanic worship. These colors are represented in the African flag created by Marcus Garvey,  each color representing the positive vitality of our culture.

Red represents self-determination and freedom — Shango the Yoruba God of Fire. Green is earth that sustains life and provides hope, divination, employment and fruits of the harvest. Lastly, the black candle represents the people and the earth, which is the source of life, hope, creativity and faith. In Kwanzaa, black symbolizes the opening and closing of doors.

The first day is launched with the pouring of Tambiko, which pays homage to our ancestors. The elder of the household pours an alcoholic beverage, wine or juice from the Kikombe Cha Umoja, or unity cup, into the earth while honoring a lost loved one or family member.

One of the key programs centered on the celebration of Kwanzaa takes place at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The Council of Elders for Bolizi Wazee has organized the Annual Kwanzaa Holiday Celebration for the past 10 years, drawing return and new attendees seeking to participate and gather a renewed understanding of African culture. As the celebration continues for the next six days, ending on the evening of Dec. 31, the celebration of Karamu takes place with dancing, food and the renewal of recommitment among friends and family.

kwanzaakidsWith similar anticipation as unwrapping gifts on Christmas, handmade gifts (Zawadi) are shared and opened by children on the last day of Kwanzaa —observing Imani.

From the formation of several African-based organizations and committees, including the Confederation of Pan American in the early 1970s, the African Community of Chicago in the ’80s, the Chicago Chapter of the National Black United Front to ‘Stop the Exploitation of Kwanzaa’ in the 1990s, it influenced a loyal commitment of organizers. 

Dr. Worrill explains: “All of these groups in beginning in the late 1960s were key to the development and advocacy of Kwanzaa in Chicago. There was a lot of controversy. People thought it was trying to knock out Christmas and other people’s religious holidays. Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration. It’s a cultural and spiritual celebration that has nothing to do with people not participating in Christmas and other holiday celebrations during that time.”

As an author, professor and expert on the subject, Dr. Worrill unapologetically has fought hard alongside other leaders to preserve the integrity and cultural purity of the 50-year-old holiday tradition for the next generation.

“Kwanzaa has become an institutionalized cultural holiday celebration that is embraced in the larger African community. Kwanzaa is everywhere in Chicago.”

Upcoming Chicago Kwanzaa 2016 Programs

19th Annual Kwanzaa Observance Program at West Side Learning Center (WSLC)

4624 W. Madison Street, Chicago

Marketplace and Food Court – 8 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. 

Edu-tainment: 1:30 p.m. \ 4 p.m. \ 6 p.m. daily 

Ritual – Noon

Free & open to the public

DuSable Museum of African American History 

Address: 740 E 56th Pl., Chicago

Join us at the DuSable Museum for our annual Kwanzaa Holiday Celebration 

For more information, contact Education Department – 773-947-0600


Chicago State University

9501 S. King Dr., Chicago

4 p.m. – 10 p.m.

Have an upcoming Kwanzaa event in the Chicago area? Email us to be added to our digital calendar:

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