What is Kwanzaa and how to celebrate this serene cultural holiday

Dec. 17, 2021
A young girl with lit candles showing how to celebreate Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that celebrates the achievements of Africans and African Americans. Learn how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Photo: Getty Images.

Are you craving a calm, non-commercial holiday that helps you to reflect on past accomplishments and prepare for a better future?

Then Kwanzaa is a perfect celebration to add to your December traditions.

What is Kwanzaa and how to celebrate it?

Kwanzaa is the fastest-growing holiday in the world. It’s a non-religious celebration created by African Americans 55 years ago to highlight accomplishments of Black people throughout history and to honor Black leaders here in the U.S. and around the world. The holiday lasts from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 every year and is not just for Africans and African Americans. People of all races and ethnicities are welcome to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, which is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits, is based on African harvest festivals. And, the good news is that Kwanzaa, by design, is a low-stress affair focused on friends, family and community. Kwanzaa is explicitly not about buying presents or other stuff. You can join in Kwanzaa celebrations at designated Kwanzaa events. Or, you can light some candles at home, eat a good meal and talk with loved ones about the year that has passed and the one that is coming, quietly reflecting on triumphs and disappointments while also setting goals for the future.

Revered poet Maya Angelou narrated a seminal documentary about Kwanzaa called “The Black Candle” and described the holiday this way: “Kwanzaa is a time when we honor our family, our community and our heritage. We give special thanks for the harvest of good in our lives. We remember our glorious past and celebrate the future.”

So, what do people do for Kwanzaa and how can everyone celebrate Kwanzaa? We talked with Kwanzaa leaders in Colorado to answer your questions and highlight how everyone can join in Kwanzaa celebrations.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. African drummers perform at a Kwanzaa celebration.
African drummers perform at a Kwanzaa celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.

Who created Kwanzaa?

Maulana Karenga, a Black professor and chair of the department of African American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa. He wanted to create a positive holiday for Black people after the devastating Watts Uprising in 1965 in California.

I hear the number seven is important in Kwanzaa celebrations. Why is that?

Kwanzaa focuses on a Swahili phrase, Nguzo Saba, which means “Seven Principles.”

What are the seven principles?

The seven principles of Kwanzaa (in the order of days that you celebrate them) are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. There are also seven symbols: fruits/nuts/vegetables, place mats, ears of corn, candles, candle holders, communal cups and gifts. These seven symbols are arranged on a table at the beginning of Kwanzaa. On each day, families or communities gather to discuss the principles, read poems or enjoy musical or dance performances.

Colorful candles and colors in general are an important part of Kwanzaa celebrations. What do the colors symbolize?

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. A young man lights a candle during a Kwanzaa celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.
A young man lights a candle during a Kwanzaa celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.

Red, black and green are important symbols for Kwanzaa. Red symbolizes the struggles that Africans and African Americans have faced. Black represents the earth and Black people. And green symbolizes hope and the future. Kwanzaa candles are arranged in a holder, with a black candle in the center and red and green candles on the sides. People celebrate Kwanzaa by lighting one candle each day.

How do people greet each other during Kwanzaa?

On each day of Kwanzaa, participants greet each other with the phrase “havari gani,” a Swahili phrase which roughly translates as “What’s up?” or “What’s the news?” Celebrants answer with that day’s Kwanzaa principle.

Are there gifts for Kwanzaa?

No. Gifts are not necessary. But, if parents give children anything, they focus on small educational gifts, like books.

Is Kwanzaa a religious celebration?

No. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday based on harvest festivals in Africa.

Can people who celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas also celebrate Kwanzaa?

Yes. Kwanzaa is open to everyone, whether people are religious or not. Kwanzaa is like Day of the Dead, Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July, a time when everyone in a community can gather together. It’s a celebration of African history and pride in the Black community.

How can I celebrate Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa Celebration in Denver, Colorado. 2021 Theme: “The Best is Yet to Come.”

Events:

December 22, noon. Volunteers set up the Kinara, or 12-foot by 12-foot decorative candle holder, at Denver Public Library’s Blair Caldwell’s African American Research Library. 2401 Welton St., Denver, Colorado.

December 26, 6 p.m. Kwanzaa parade from Blair Caldwell African American Research Library, 2401 Welton St. to Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theater, 119 Park Avenue West. Performance by the Platinum Divas, coached by Ms. Chinique.

December 26, 6:30 p.m. First Night Celebration at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Induction of four new Circle of Wisdom candidates. Hosted by Brother Jeff Fard and the Kwanzaa Committee of Denver. Kwanzaa 101. Local entertainment. Children also give a Kwanzaa 101 presentation.

Dec. 30 at 10 a.m. Kwanzaa Celebration and Lunch for Seniors. Zion Senior Center, 5151 E. 33rd Ave. in Denver.

December 31, 5 p.m. The Big Dance, a Masquerade Ball. Wear a mask. Face masks and beads will be available at the entrance for a donation of $5. Platinum Divas to perform. Line Dancing. Prize for best outfit. Dinner will be served. Gumbo and rice.

Theodora Jackson is the executive director of the Kwanzaa Committee of Denver.

She loves Kwanzaa and has supported Denver’s celebration for many years.

“In the beginning, after the Watts riots, Kwanzaa brought the community together and gave people a way to celebrate our culture,” Jackson said.

She said everyone is welcome.

“Anybody who wants to celebrate with us is welcome,” Jackson said.

This year’s celebration will be especially powerful because the community was not able to celebrate Kwanzaa in person last year due to the pandemic. And, COVID-19 has hit members of the African American community particularly hard.

Unity is the principle for the first night.

“We will be celebrating togetherness,” Jackson said. “It’s really important for us to get back together and to get people inspired again.”

While people can celebrate with community members throughout the six days, on the seventh, people hold private dinners.

“This is when we get together with friends or family and have a nice dinner. We sit and talk to children, husbands, wives, partners, sisters and brothers. We talk about what we’re going to do to make next year even better, something as simple as helping more around the house. It’s a special dinner and a special occasion. Any gifts are based on education,” Jackson said.

Join the annual Colorado Springs Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration, December 26-31, free and open to the public.

The Colorado Springs celebration is a 6-day community celebration. On the final evening on Jan. 1, people celebrate in their homes.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. A young girl is dressed in traditional African garb. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.
A young girl is dressed in traditional African garb for a celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.

The Kwanzaa festivities take place at In-Balance Wellness Studio, 2820 E. Pikes Peak Ave., Colorado Springs, Colorado, each evening from Dec. 26-31 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

The Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado (formerly known as the Colorado Springs Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration) sponsors the event. The group has been celebrating Kwanzaa in Colorado Springs since 1989. Kuumba Cultural Collective also sponsors a Pre-Kwanzaa African Marketplace in November every year and hosts Black history lectures, African drumming and dance festivals, Black history film and community discussions and exhibitions of work by African American artists and writers.

Dr. Anthony P. Young, a retired clinical and forensic psychologist, is one of the founders of the Colorado Springs Kwanzaa events.

Young said there’s a great deal of confusion about Kwanzaa. He wants people to know that it’s an inclusive, welcoming event for Black folks and others too.

“We’re celebrating who and what we have been throughout history, not just in the U.S. People of African descent have played an important role all over the planet since time immemorial,” Young said.

“We come together for Kwanzaa with our families and our community to celebrate our heritage,” he said.

Young loves the simplicity of Kwanzaa and starting the new year with joy and resolve.

“The important thing is our relationships with each other. Kwanzaa, at its core, is a celebration of family, culture and community,” Young said. “We reflect on the previous year and identify ways to make the upcoming year more beneficial for the community collectively.”

Learn more about the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado on their website and Facebook page.

Additionally, there are seven symbols associated with Kwanzaa and are also expressed in Swahili. Mazao, (fruits, vegetables, and nuts), mkeka (place mat), the kinara (candleholder), vibunzi (ear of corn), zawadi (gifts), kikombe cha umoja (communal cup of unity), and mishumbaa saba (the seven candles placed in the kinara).

Join in virtual Kwanzaa events sponsored by the Denver Public Library

Hadiya Evans, a librarian at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, helped organize this year’s Kwanzaa celebration.

Typically, the library hosts in-person events and performances for Kwanzaa, but due to the pandemic, virtual Kwanzaa events will continue this year. The benefit of the virtual celebration is that many more people can attend.

“Kwanzaa is a wonderful, cross-cultural celebration,” Evans said. “We’re honoring our ancestors, which is important across cultures. We also honor youth. Each day, we light a candle and intentionally think about how to connect with the principle on that day.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. A woman dances during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library
A woman dances during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library.

“You celebrate the end of the year and welcome the next. The seven principles guide you intentionally into the new year. All of them are very meaningful. They encompass the individual, the family and the community,” Evans said.

Registration for the Kwanzaa events is encouraged, but not required. Local artist, Jawana Norris, will serve as the host for events, which will also include daily special guests.

Browse the Denver Public Library catalog for books, videos, and more about Kwanzaa.

Learn about the Kwanzaa events.

View the Kwanzaa calendar and sign up in advance to join (recommended, but not required).

Kwanzaa Activities

Monday, Dec. 27. Celebrate self-determination or kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) meaning “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.”

When: 1 to 2 p.m. with professor and author, R. Allen Brooks.

Where: Virtual event via Zoom

What: Professor and graphic novelist R. Alan Brooks, will talk about some of his experience writing and drawing comic books, and how self-determination can help us all accomplish our creative goals. Q&A to follow. Ideal for all ages.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. African drummers perform during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.
African drummers perform during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library.

Join the event at 1 p.m. on Dec. 27 or learn more about registering in advance so you’ll receive an email information on how to join the session along with getting an email reminder.

Brooks teaches graphic novel writing for Regis University’s Master in Fine Arts program, and at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He’s the author of “The Burning Metronome” and “Anguish Garden” – graphic novels featuring social commentary. His award-winning weekly comic for The Colorado Sun, “What’d I Miss?” has been praised for its direct engagement with social issues. His TED Talk on the importance of art reached 1 million views in 2 months. His graphic novel work is featured in the Denver Art Museum’s renovated Western exhibit. He hosts the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art’s “How Art Is Born” podcast, as well as his own comics podcast, and has written comic books for Pop Culture Classroom, Zenescope Entertainment, and more. Follow R. Alan on InstagramTwitter or his website.

Tuesday, Dec. 28. Celebrate collective work and responsibility or ujima (oo-JEE-mah) meaning “to build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.”

When: 1 to 2 p.m. with Pam Jiner

Where: Virtual event via Zoom

What: Pam Jiner who will discuss how her work with Girltrek Denver has inspired community and individual change agents across Colorado. Q&A to follow. Ideal for all ages.

Join the event on December 28 at 1 p.m. or learn more about registering in advance so you’ll receive confirmation and an email reminder.

Since 2016, Pam Jiner has been advocating for a safer and healthier community and lifestyle for all Denver residents. Ms. Jiner formed the Montbello Walks, a subsidiary program of the Montbello 2020 Nonprofit Registered Neighborhood Organization, with the intent to promote walking, hiking, bicycling in groups as a way to bring people together regardless of the many language barriers preventing people from connecting. The Montbello Walks Program was instrumental in securing sidewalk installations from CDOT under the I-70 @ Peoria Street Intersection, including lighting under the freeway onto the 40ft wide sidewalks, with crosswalks, flashing pedestrian beacons, traffic calming signage, upgraded traffic lights, and sidewalks on all four ramps. They were also part of initiatives to establish the Bicycle Obstacle Course at the Recreation Center; a Bicycle Pump Track at Montbello Central Park, bicycle lanes coming soon on 4 major Montbello interior streets. Last year, the Mobile Food Pantry distributed over 868,000 pounds of food amidst COVID-19, a service that has been feeding elders and families with children since 2018. Follow Montbello Walks on InstagramTwitter or on the website.

Wednesday, Dec. 29. Celebrate cooperative economics or Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) meaning “to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them.”

When: 1 to 2 p.m. with Cecilia and Josh Hem Lee, the owners of Trini Rican Vegan

Where: Virtual event via Zoom

What: The co-founders of Trini Rican Vegan will demo Caribbean vegan and plant-based holiday recipes using ingredients that can be easily obtained here in the United States. Q&A to follow. Ideal for all ages.

Join the program on Wed., Dec. 29 at 1 p.m. or learn more about registering in advance to receive confirmation and a reminder.

Trini Rican Vegan, co-founders, Josh and Cecilia met when he was an exchange student at Cecilia’s alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. They moved to the Denver area in 2013 and have two sons aged 14 and 11. They had been looking for ways to eat in a way that was both mindful and better for the planet and decided to transition from a vegetarian to a vegan diet in 2016 and have never looked back. As West Indians in the diaspora, food is an essential way to stay connected to our ancestral lands. Josh and Cecilia started the Trini Rican Vegan brand in 2020 in an effort to share with their children their culture, identity, and lifestyle. Follow the Trini Rican Vegan team on FaceBookInstagram, and their website.

Thursday, Dec. 30. Celebrate purpose or nia (nee-AH) meaning “to make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”

When: 1 to 2 p.m. with and educator and wellness advocate, JaLisa Williams

Where: Virtual event via Zoom

What: JaLisa Williams who will guide us through a mindfulness exercise to tap into our purpose. Q & A to follow. Ideal for all ages.

Join the event on Dec. 30 at 1 p.m. or learn more about registering in advance to receive confirmation and an email reminder.

JaLisa Williams is a licensed clinical social worker, a fierce therapist, educator, and curator who has worked to create intentional spaces and conversations regarding self-care, diversity, and liberation. In both roles as an educator and therapist, JaLisa enjoys the ability to help others grow within themselves and their understanding of the world. As a college professor, she challenges conventional ways of teaching by engaging students in experiences that shift their perspective and understandings of their own social positioning. Once she started to claim her power in creating space, she began her business Soulflower Experiences, where she cultivates space in the community to ground people in goodness, love, and light. Find her on Instagram @SoulflowerExperiences to keep yourself updated on the spaces she’s creating or email at soulflower.jw@gmail.com for booking inquiries. #NamasteFam

Story time at Tattered Cover Kids at Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas St., Suite 144, Aurora, Sunday, Dec. 26 at 5 p.m.

Habari Gani! It’s a magical time of year, and whether you already celebrate Kwanzaa or want to start traditions of your own, please join us at Tattered Cover Kids on Sunday, Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. for storytime with a selection of Kwanzaa stories and books. Celebrate and learn more about the rich traditions and history of Kwanzaa, the annual celebration of African-American culture and African heritage.

“Kwanzaa is a special time to remember the ancestors, the bridge builders, and the leaders.” —Dorothy Winbush Riley

Learn about Kwanzaa by watching The Black Candle, which is available to stream online.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.

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