[The following column was originally published in 2015. Kwanzaa begins on Dec. 26]
The holidays in December are plentiful, and there are many different intersections of practice among Pagans today. Winter Solstice, Yule, and Saturnalia are three of the more commonly referenced in the modern Pagan community at this time. Yet there are other holidays that continue to find their way into the practices of Pagan homes. While some people continue to celebrate Christmas and some observe Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is one of the December holidays that is not often discussed in Pagan circles.Celebrated over seven days, Kwanzaa is a Pan-African, cultural holiday that celebrates a set of seven principles. The word Kwanzaa was derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which is said to mean “first fruits” in Swahili. The “first harvest” has been celebrated in many African cultures throughout history.
The holiday called Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga. Dr. Karenga was a professor of Black studies at California State University – Long Beach. It is said that Kwanzaa was created as a way to support people of African descent in their attempts to connect to the roots of their culture.
Dr. Karenga’s life has not been without controversy and, for some, this has discouraged participation in the increasingly popular celebration of Kwanzaa. However, others choose not to associate the holiday with him at all and instead make their connections to harvest, faith, family and culture the forefront of their participation.
According to the Official Kwanzaa Website:
First, Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture. It is, therefore, an expression of recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the ’60’s and in the specific context of The Organization Us, the founding organization of Kwanzaa and the authoritative keeper of its tradition.
Secondly, Kwanzaa was created to serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people. It was designed to be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose and direction as a people and a world community.
Thirdly, Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles.)
The seven principles include: (1) Umoja or Unity; (2)Kujichagulia or Self-Determination; (3) Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility; (4) Ujamaaor Cooperative Economics; (5) Nia or Purpose; (6) Kuumba or Creativity; and (7) Imani or Faith.
Kwanzaa begins on Dec 26 and ends on Jan 1. There is a customary meal on Dec 31 during which families celebrate togetherness. The final day is for reflection and the honoring of the ancestors. Three questions (Kawaida) are to be asked on the day of reflection: “Who am I?” “Am I really who I say I am?” “Am I all I ought to be?”
A Kinara, a candle holder for seven candles, is one of the most notable symbols of Kwanzaa. Because the seven candles are lit for each principle, the Kinara is one of most important pieces of the observance.
As many people of all religions grapple with the mesh of secular holidays, religious holidays, cultural celebrations and familial traditions, Kwanzaa should not be forgotten within the realm of December holidays.
Even as the popularity of Kwanzaa grows, mainstream culture does not embrace it as a part of the December festive celebrations and observances. Yet many African-Americans, including Modern Pagans and Polytheists, observe this cultural holiday. In further exploring this intersection, I reached out to several other practitioners that celebrate Kwanzaa to understand their views and experiences.
As an African-American, a priestess of the Goddess and a Wiccan, late December is a busy time for me; it is a time when I am celebrating the Winter Solstice, Christmas and Kwanzaa. I adopted Wicca as my religion in my mid-thirties and the Winter Solstice became one of my Holy Days. However as an African American and cultural Christian, Christmas and Kwanzaa have been part of my culture for much longer and I still celebrate them just as my culturally Jewish, yet Wiccan/Pagan, friends still celebrate Chanukah. Therefore I was rather surprised by the question of whether or not African-American Pagans celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a celebration of the harvest and what could be more Pagan than a Harvest Celebration?
Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday not a religious one. It was never meant to displace or replace Christmas or any other holiday, therefore people of any religion are free to celebrate or observe it. It begins at 12:01 AM on December 26th and ends on January 1st so that it does not compete with Christmas or Yule/Solstice. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 and interest continues to grow.
Byron Tyler Coles
I celebrate Kwanzaa as a Biracial African-American as to reclaim a social and communal identity that I feel has been lost. As a pan-African celebration, Kwanzaa allows me to reflect upon the shared struggles of the African-diaspora. But more importantly, it allows to me give thanks for the many blessings that we have received and to hope and set intention for a brighter future.
Within my spiritual practices as a Pagan I hold an extremely special place for the honoring of my Ancestors, particular those who are directly related to me, grandmother-grandfather, great grandmother – great grandfather, and so forth. Whereas Kwanzaa is a fairly secular holiday, I place heavy spiritual meaning behind the pouring of libations as to give thanks for my ancestors continued guidance and wisdom. I also find myself pondering about what life will be like for generations to come, especially in these historical moments within the United States.
While Kwanzaa is both a time to reflect back on our labor and to give thanks for our current blessings, I light the Mishumma Saba as to set intention that the world will one day operate on the principles of Unity, Cooperative Economics, and Faith.
I celebrated Kwanzaa more when I was a young girl, and as a university student. I chose to celebrate as a way to connect with my black culture and other members of my community, and in doing so the principles of Kwanzaa helped shape much of my growth into adulthood. Now, as I start my own family, a biracial mother with a biracial child, it is crucial that she understands her heritage, and the cultures that are a part of who she is. As she grows I want her to understand the importance of Kwanzaa from a cultural and historical perspective, and also have the choice to incorporate it’s values into her life.
I started officially celebrating Kwanzaa in 2013, making a homemade Kinara and going through the process of beginning to learn the seven principles. Within my personal journey, Kwanzaa filled a void in my practice that was not complete with solstice/Yule or secular Christmas celebrations alone. Cultural celebration, ancestral ties and identity are a large part of spiritual connectivity, which is why Kwanzaa remains important in my own life.
One of my motivations, besides my own cultural enrichment and connectivity, was the hopes that I would be able to support my children in understanding the beauty and richness of their ancestral culture. If all we are fed are social messages telling us we are bad, it takes intentional learning and exploration to counteract that. Purposeful cultural enrichment has the ability to enhance a connection to self and to a place in the world.
As a non-religious cultural observance, Kwanzaa can compliment many variations of Pagan practice by including ancestral reverence and honoring the harvest, while also allowing spiritual choice. It is also one of the few holidays created by and for those of African descent to reclaim and restore cultural heritage, understanding, pride and awareness.
So if you see one of your African-American Pagan friends with a Kinara lit in their home in the month of December, it is perfectly fine to wish them a Blessed Kwanzaa.
More on Kwanzaa:
Sweet Honey in the Rock sings a wonderful, powerful song about the principles of Kwanzaa.
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