What would you give to be a part of the first modern celebration of a major holiday? Can you imagine how thrilling it’d be to help popularize the customs and colors of the most recognized holidays? How much fun would it be to actually see someone choose orange and black to represent the festivities of Halloween? Imagine how meaningful it’d feel to see how the idea of Santa melded with Christmas. If that seems exciting then it might surprise you to find out that it’s quite possible.
Today we have an increasingly popular, and important, holiday in the form of Kwanzaa. People are still adding to the Kwanzaa traditions. Likewise, many of us are encountering the colors of the holiday for the first time. But to be part of Kwanzaa’s future we first need to understand the holiday’s past.
The History of Kwanzaa
Dr. Maulana Karenga created the holiday in 1966 as a response to the Watts Riots. As a professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, he was quite familiar with the ways shared belief could unify people. Dr. Karenga fused many important African celebrations together to create the new holiday. He finally decided to name it Kwanzaa as a play on “matunda ya kwanza”. This phrase means first fruits, or harvest, in Swahili. Appropriately enough the seven days of Kwanzaa end with a huge feast.
But what about all of the time between the beginning and the end of the celebration? Are there any unifying elements that instantly make us think about the meaning of Kwanzaa? In fact, we find three colors that are synonymous with the holiday.
The Seven Candles
Celebrants light seven candles during Kwanzaa. The candles are themselves synonymous with the powers of the sun. Remember that the celebrations are highly tied into ancient African harvest festivals. People who farm the land have connections to the sun which modern people often need to consciously work at.
When celebrants light candles they’re replicating the fiery power of the sun. Today we often think of the sun as little more than a source of light. And this is one of the big reasons why the ritual is so important. Lighting the candles reminds us that all life comes from the powerful rays of the sun. The changing seasons also bring rest to the world as trees and plants return parts of themselves to the earth. Meanwhile, when the warmer months return we see nature reborn as plants grow and baby animals take their first tentative steps. And all of this ultimately comes from the energy we receive from the sun.
When people light candles for Kwanzaa they’re reminded of a different time in the world. One where people needed to work in harmony with the sun and seasons to grow food. It also makes us remember that we still depend on farmers, crops, and of course the sun itself. The processes of the natural world might not be in most of our line of sight anymore. But farming and harvests are still an essential part of our lives.
However, there are other important points to remember about the candles. We find three different colors represented in the Mishumaa candles. Celebrants light three red candles, three green candles, and one black candle. All of these candles will in turn rest upon a structure called a kinara.
The kinara represents the people of the past. Just as stalks grow into life so does the past grow into the present. The kinara shows how all the things we cherish in the moment come from our own ancestors. We grow from a foundation set in the past. And we also receive nourishment and life from the sun above us.
But what about the colors represented in the Mishumaa candles? Do those colors have special meaning for Kwanzaa? The answer is yes. In fact, every color represented by the candles has a strong meaning for the holiday. In whole the black, red, and green all constitute the colors of Kwanzaa. Each is important enough to deserve some special attention. We should also remember that the colors are primarily used for the Mishumaa candles. But this should by no means imply that they’re only used for the candles. People often decorate their homes with the colors of Kwanzaa. Likewise, clothing choices tend to favor red, black, and green during the celebration.
The three red candles as a whole represent struggle. Additionally, each of them has extra meaning provided by the day the candle is lit. The red Kujichagulia candle represents the principle of self-determination. We can look at it as a statement about self-identity and plainly expressing our unique views.
The red Ujima candle represents the efforts we participate in as a collective group. Basically, we can think of it as representing the struggles and rewards found by working together as a community.
The red Ujamaa candle represents the more business-oriented part of our community. We can think of it as a representation of the small business and stores which make our community unique and special. For example, think of the cozy bookstore or coffee shop which makes you feel especially at home. That feeling, and the fact that people make a living through it, are associated with this red candle.
Taken as a whole, green symbolizes the land and our hopes for the future. As with the red candles, each green candle also has a specific meaning based on a principle of Kwanzaa. The green Nia candle symbolizes the concept of building up the community. It also holds special meaning when related to the African American community as a whole. The idea of building up the community suggests building to the greatness of past African civilizations.
The green Kuumba candle honors the principle of creativity. This should also be seen in the context of community, the land, and our future. It’s not just about creativity for its own sake. Instead, the candle honors the principle of creativity when applied to the community as a whole. Just as we hope to see seeds grow in the land, we hope to find creative ways to help people grow within our community.
The green Imani candle is lit to celebrate faith. It’s also notable that this is the final candle lit. At this point, every principle is on display. We can see just how much we need to do for a full and productive life. Likewise, it’s apparent just how much everyone else in our community needs to do. This all calls for a lot of trust and faith. That faith isn’t just in others. We also need to extend the idea of faith and trust to ourselves. We need to strive to be someone who can apply all of the other principles. This requires faith in ourselves and in those who support us.
And at last, we come to the single black Umoja candle, which is always lit before the other candles. The color black represents all people of African descent. However, it’s particularly applicable to African Americans. Many of the other candles and colors have dealt with community on a smaller scale. Here we see the idea expanded into an entire people. It symbolizes a unity of family, community, culture and race.
Bringing the Colors Together
Finally, it’s important to remember an earlier point. Kwanzaa is still a relatively new holiday. We’re still seeing Kwanzaa traditions grow and evolve as people put their own personal touches into it. Kwanzaa is all about community and culture. There are few better ways to honor the holiday than by bringing your own ideas into the community at large.
Imagine fun ways to incorporate the colors of Kwanzaa into your life. Think of how to celebrate individual principles by using those colors in your home. Kwanzaa is, in many ways, a reflection of our community. And that means we all have something unique to contribute.