Unlike most other winter holidays, Kwanzaa is a celebration of community and culture, not religion.
The holiday also hasn’t been around for nearly as long as many of the popular religious winter festivals. It’s a fairly recent arrival to the suite of winter holidays celebrated in the U.S.
Dr. Maulana Karenga brought Kwanzaa into being in 1966. A professor and activist in the Black Power movement, Dr. Karenga created the holiday as a celebration of African American culture and community.
“Kwanzaa is a uniquely American creation,” said Highline history professor Rachael Bledsaw.
“The Black Power movement said not to be ashamed of their roots or heritage, and in fact to celebrate them,” Bledsaw said. “That was how Kwanzaa came to be: a collection of pan-African traditions that celebrate community, education, unity, creativity, and family.”
Every year, Kwanzaa takes place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to the celebration of a different ideal, from Umoja (unity) on the first night, to Imani (faith) on the last.
Patrice Bell, director of Guest Services and External Affairs at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), says the holiday was created to be a point of connection for Black Americans.
“Kwanzaa really started because African Americans didn’t know what African countries we come from,” Bell said.
“It’s fairly new — the man who created it is still alive — but it’s something that really resonates with Black Americans because there is sort of this longing for home,” she said. “You have to create your own culture, your own rituals. Kwanzaa is born out of that longing.
Bell said a common misconception is that Kwanzaa is an alternative to Christmas. In reality, she said, the two holidays live side by side.
“When Kwanzaa first began, a lot of people thought of it as a replacement for Christmas. It’s not a replacement, it’s a cultural celebration,” Bell said. “That’s one thing the founder made a point to change the narrative on to let people know it’s not an alternative to your own holiday, your own religion, it’s really cultural.”
NAAM itself is holding celebrations for both holidays this year.
The museum will be hosting both its annual Black Santa photoshoot and a celebration of Kuumba (creativity), the sixth day of Kwanzaa. Both events will take place virtually this year, with Black Santa being held from Dec. 18 to Dec. 20 and Kuumba on Dec. 31.
Though the celebration of Kwanzaa is entirely separate from Christmas and other holidays, it does share the winter holiday tradition of gift-giving.
But the gifts given on Kwanzaa typically aren’t the same ones you might find under the Christmas tree.
“Kwanzaa is something we really don’t want to commercialize. It’s all about community, it’s all about people,” Bell said. “When you give gifts, it’s really important we engage our children; books are the main things we give them, the gift of knowledge.”
“It’s really not about the gifts, it’s about the sentiment behind them,” she said.
As part of their Kwanzaa celebration, NAAM is planning to send out free books through its Knowledge is Power Book Giveaway program. The program gives books centered on Black lives and written by Black authors to K-12 age children in the local area.
However individual families may celebrate, whatever gifts they may give, Kwanzaa is a way for Black Americans to connect with their community and celebrate their culture, Bell said.
“It’s about really celebrating the culture of being part of the African heritage,” she said. “Kwanzaa is a piece of culture for Black Americans. Kwanzaa is for all of us.”