To those that celebrate, the seven-day festival of Kwanzaa means taking time to spend with family, honoring African-American culture, and focusing on the “seven principles” that are central to the holiday.
What Kwanzaa isn’t, according to Germantown resident Michael Friend, is an alternative to Christmas.
“I think the fear for a lot of Christians is, ‘Don’t take my Christmas away,’” said Friend, who founded the Rockville-based African performing arts group Soul in Motion Players, Inc. and has celebrated the holiday for decades. “It’s not about religion at all – it’s about a value system. It gives us seven days to kind of reevaluate and realign and think about how we want to go into the next year.”
Launched by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, the holiday spans from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 each year, and celebrates African-American culture and history. In the Washington metropolitan area, a recent WTOP opinion poll found that about three percent of respondents celebrate Kwanzaa.
Participants typically light a candle each day of the festival to represent one of the holiday’s seven principles – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
On the final day of the festival, Jan. 1, families share a feast and exchange gifts. But in a departure from the commercial frenzy that often marks Christmas, Friend said, families are often encouraged to make handmade gifts to give to each other. Celebrations can range from small gatherings to festive parties with dancing and music.
Soul in Motion, Friend’s performing arts group, has participated in Kwanzaa celebrations across the Washington region, and this year, a drummer from the group played at a celebration at the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal church in Silver Spring.
Friend has also passed the holiday traditions along to his children, now 31, 24 and 16. On the first day of the celebration, his family holds a special ceremony to honor ancestors. They then gather each day of the festival to light a candle in a traditional candle holder, or kinara, and to discuss the principle that corresponds to the day – a practice Friend describes as developing a “road map” for the coming year.
“The whole practice of Kwanzaa is the idea of bringing the family around to take a few minutes away from the television or games to have a conversation about a specific principle,” Friend said. “That in itself automatically brings the family together.”
Do you celebrate Kwanzaa? What are your family's traditions? Tell us in the comments.