Arts and Entertainment

Kwanzaa: Traditions Mixed With Modern Culture

Kwanzaa is a celebration of African heritage amongst Black Americans, one in which community is lifted above all, and Black culture comes alive.

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Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Hanukkah!—we know all of these greetings. But how often does one acknowledge the lesser known, yet just as beautiful, celebration of Kwanzaa?

So what exactly is Kwanzaa? The holiday is a Black American celebration that honors African heritage and ancestors in various ways by different families, with gatherings of immediate family members, extended family, or even as many as hundreds of people. In major urban areas, there are large Kwanzaa gatherings daily, especially on the first (December 26) and last (January 1) days of the holiday. New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia are all well known for their Kwanzaa celebrations, and many Black people will often come to stay in these major cities. During the seven-day celebration, a candle on the Kinara—a wooden holder—is lit every day. Each one symbolizes a major African value that builds and preserves community in African culture. The most important of these values are Ujimi, which represents unity and community, and Imani, which represents faith in not only ancestors and fate, but also family and humanity.

While the celebration of Kwanzaa is centered around African values, the interpretations and culture that have evolved from it are what make this celebration so special. People dance to African drums, exchange gifts and hugs, and hold parades to celebrate culture. The streets are filled with African vendors selling jewelry, fruits, Pan-African flags, and other cultural symbols. African jewelry can range from extremely minimal (small, shiny earrings or rings) to more elaborate (vibrant beaded necklaces that are often heirlooms or handmade), but the overall style—especially during Kwanzaa—is vibrant and bubbly.

Decorating the Pan-African flag is a popular activity for Kwanzaa celebrations. The flag was created as a symbol of Black freedom and liberation in the U.S. and has since evolved into a symbol of Black pride. While the core colors—black, red, and green (as seen on the Kinara)—are preserved, children often decorate the flag with stickers and various designs or create their own interpretation of the Pan-African flag. Houses, places of worship, and wherever else one celebrates are decorated with the flag and other symbols of Black culture, such as kente cloth and sacred fruits which represent heritage or ancestry. In recent years, many families have also begun decorating their homes with contemporary Black art—think Basquiat, Kara Walker, and Jacob Lawrence. These artists are known to depict images of Black pride and struggles of the African American race through abstract art.

The evolution of Kwanzaa can be seen in the dances performed during the celebrations. While Kwanzaa was originally meant to be celebrated with traditional African music, it has since grown to include more modern African American-dominated music styles, including rap and hip-hop. Some more traditional families, however, choose to stick to the traditional African music, believing that modern music doesn’t fully encapsulate the struggles that African Americans have faced and still face. Other families believe that the world is evolving; that these new genres are a way of expressing this pain; and that the pain often heard in traditional African music has turned into anger, something these artists communicate. Still other families believe in a mix, celebrating heritage, origin, and evolution of Black pride in music (such as Beyoncé!).

On the penultimate night of Kwanzaa, gifts are exchanged between immediate family members. Unlike Christmas gifts, which could be anything, these gifts should relate to the themes of Kwanzaa: heritage, culture, and family. The first gift should be a book or a story signifying a major moment in African history or a major aspect of African culture. The second gift is slightly more ambiguous: a handcrafted gift celebrating family. This can be anything from a handmade toy to an article of clothing to a family memory book. The core idea of the gifts is that they are not expensive and that they celebrate what Kwanzaa is all about.

To close off Kwanzaa on January 1, a massive feast is held. Originally, this meal was meant to serve traditional African food—from Swahili food (Kenyan, Tanzanian, Ugandan) to Ethiopian to West African—but it has since, like many other Kwanzaa traditions, evolved into any African or African American food—comfort food for Black Americans. The meals can be as intricate as a 12-dish Ethiopian meal, combined with baked Kraft Macaroni and Cheese on the side. Many people regard this as the best part of the event, when families gather around a table, worshipping ancestors, recognizing African heritage, and celebrating newer, less traditional aspects of their culture.

Those who celebrate Kwanzaa have often described the holiday as life-changing and soul-healing. The appeal of Kwanzaa lies in the familial bonds as well as its emphasis on community and positivity. It’s meant to be a vibrant celebration, full of love, energy, and culture mixed throughout. It’s a recognition of Black culture and pride, the obstacles Black Americans have overcome, and the path forward as individuals and as a whole.

This year, as expected, there will be no large city gatherings or parades for Kwanzaa. There will, however, be local celebrations, in which dancers, speakers, and artists perform over Zoom. Additionally, there will be plenty of social media competitions for everything, from the most uniquely designed Pan-African flag to the most decorated Kinara to the best hand-crafted African jewelry. If anything, Kwanzaa celebrators are coming together this holiday more than any other year. Even during the pandemic, you can be sure that the spirit of Kwanzaa will not be lost.

Joyous Kwanzaa, everyone!