Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture

Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held in the United States and in other nations of the West African diaspora in the Americas. The celebration honors African heritage in African-American culture, and is observed from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a feast and gift-giving.

Even though Kwanzaa has become a powerful tool for African-American pride and celebration, its roots can only be traced back to the late ‘60s. The celebration began as the vision of Dr. Maulana Ndabezith Karenga, an influential figure during the Black Liberation struggle and Black Power movements that dominated the late ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Dr. Karenga is an activist, author and creator of the pan-African and African-American holiday known as Kwanzaa. As a well-educated man, having several doctorates and currently an African-American professor of Africana studies at California State, Karenga realized there was no holiday to celebrate the African-American culture, motivating him to create Kwanzaa.

Dr. Karenga founded Kwanzaa for a particular purpose, stating his goals for the holiday in 1966 as, “To give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday, and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

As the Kwanzaa celebration began to take hold throughout the nation in the 1980’s, Denver took an exceptionally strong liking to the holiday, and has boasted for the last 20 years, one of the most well executed Kwanzaa celebrations in the country. With community leaders such as Brother Jeff, Thedora Jackson and Isetta Crawford Rawls at the helm, the Denver Kwanzaa celebration continues to gain traction every year under their stewardship.

Current Kwanzaa committee president and committee member since its inception, Thedora Jackson, attributes their success to their perseverance and dedication.

“We’ve been working at it for a long time,” Jackson said regarding how they have done so well in a city with Denver’s demographics. “(The late) Opalanga Pugh brought it publically so people could come from all over the state and celebrate with a lot of other like-minded people. It’s amazing we’ve been working on for it well over 20 years now.”

Denver’s Kwanzaa celebration stays true to the original format and intent of Dr. Karenga’s design with a week-long celebration beginning the day after Christmas and highlighting a different principle that represents the best of Africans and the best of humanity. Each day of the week-long celebration, a ceremony at a different location in the Five Points area, consisting of social time to reconnect and enjoy the holiday spirit, as well as, more focused moments to embrace the principle of the day and discuss how it can be further implemented into the community.

Kwanzaa, the first pan-African holiday, is inspired by African “first fruit” traditions, and the name is derived from the name for the Swahili first fruit celebration, “matunda ya kwanza.” The rituals of the holiday promote African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage” that Karenga described as “a communitarian African philosophy”

The Seven Essential Principles of Kwanzaa are:

Umoja (unity)—To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Kujichagulia (self-determination)—To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (collective work and responsibility)—To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (cooperative economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia (purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani (faith)—To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

These valuable principles are in Swahili, a language composed of several East-African languages to promote cohesion in the area. This particular language was chosen to further emphasize the feeling of a grand community of Black people across the planet, who will continue to thrive with the implementation of these fruitful principles.

The Kwanzaa committee has aptly titled this year’s theme, “Kwanzaa in the 21st Century,” as they want to reinforce the notion that these timeless principles remain important as Kwanza crosses over the 50-year mark in its important history. Another benefit of Kwanzaa is to create stronger bonds between the multiple generations within the community, and this year, just like every year, more elders will be added into the Circle of Wisdom on the first night of Kwanzaa.

This induction is an essential ritualto the purpose of Kwanzaa and holds a special place for Thedora Jackson. “The Circle was established to bring forth the idea that elders in the community are totally important,” Jackson said. “They are the knowledgeable people in the village. Everything we know – we learned from them. Those are the shoulders we all stand on.”

Not only will that first night include a beautiful induction ceremony, it will also include a parade, a meal and a social gathering to kick off the week of celebration. Participants in the parade, which includes drumming,Benderas, and a police escort, are asked to arrive at the Blair Caldwell library around 5 p.m. to gather until 6 p.m. The parade will travel to Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Studio where the rest of the festivities of the night will take place.
The public is invited to participate and support this historic occasion to celebrate the 51st year of Kwanzaa, and 20 plus years of the celebration in the Mile
High City.

Editor’s note:  To participate, volunteer, or for more information on the schedule of events and location, call Executive Director Kwanzaa Committee of DenverThedora Jackson at 303-371-4793 or email

Kwanzaa Symbols
Kwanzaa has a number of key symbols that are used as artifacts to teach, remind and inspire us in the application of Kwanzaa principles.  The basic symbols used to celebrate Kwanzaa are:
Mazao (mah-
zah’-o) are the Crops which represent African harvest and acknowledgement of productive labor.

Mkeka (m-kay’-kah) is the Kwanzaa Mat which represents a foundation of our tradition and history.
Kinara (kee-
nah’-rah) is the Candle Holder which represents continental Africans as our roots.
Muhindi (moo-
heen’-dee) is the Corn which represents our children and our future.

Mishumaa Saba (mee-shoo-mah’-ah sah’-bah) is the group of Seven Candles which represents the Kwanzaa seven principles (Nguzo Saba).
Kikombe cha Umoja (kee-
kom’-bay chah oo-mo’-jah) is the Unity Cup which represents the principle of unity as the basis of all Kwanzaa principles.

Zawadi (zah-wah’-dee) are the Gifts which represent the commitments made and kept.
Bendera (
bayn-day’-rah) is the Flag which is a supplemental symbol that represents the people (black color), the struggle (red color) and the future and hope (green color).
Nguzo Saba (en-goo’-
zosah’-bah) Poster is the printed display of The Seven Principles and is a supplemental symbol.