Does Anyone Celebrate Kwanzaa? Is Kwanzaa a Real Holiday?


There are several winter holidays celebrated in the US, most notably Christmas with 92 percent of the population participating. One that you may or may not have heard of is Kwanzaa. Since it’s a relatively new holiday, some have asked ‘is Kwanzaa a real holiday?’

Kwanzaa by common definition is a real holiday, though minor since it is not federally observed. Celebrated by less than 2 percent of the US population where it originated in 1966, it has distinct colors of green, black, and red; and is meant to commemorate Black Americans’ ties to Africa.

As a former public school teacher in the US, I noticed Kwanzaa becoming more explicitly taught in Winter and holiday curriculums over the past decade or so. I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about Kwanzaa and it’s most common customs that make it for some, ‘a real holiday’.

Is Kwanzaa A Real Holiday?

To wonder if Kwanzaa is a real holiday means one needs to know what makes a holiday real, real being a true event. So let’s consider both of those issues in this section.

A holiday is real if recognized by religion, government, or enough people to make it popularly observed. While there are just 12 federal holidays, Catholics celebrate hundreds of feast days each year. Likewise, Kwanzaa is a real holiday to the 6 million or so people celebrating it yearly.

holiday comes from ‘Holy Day’ and is meant as ‘a day exempt from work’ to acknowledge something special or commemorate an event

Merriam-Webster

There’s a saying, ‘it’ll take an act of Congress’, that implies just how arduous a process is. Getting anything accomplished by the US Congress is a feat, not done easily or swiftly. However, according to Specialist on the Congress report, it’s taken many years for just the current 12 federal holidays days to be granted their special distinction.

For many, being a federal holiday is what sets apart any day to be considered ‘a real holiday.’ Therefore by this standard, Kwanzaa is not a real holiday.

Yet, for the almost 2 percent of the US population who celebrate Kwanzaa (according to NRF), Kwanzaa is indeed a real holiday. For them, the seven days from December 26th to January 1st are extra special because of Kwanzaa.

What sets the 8 Days of Kwanzaa apart from other days in December, making it a real holiday for the people who observe it?

They include fresh fruits and vegetables symbolizing African harvest; colorful clothes of black, red, and green; and other references to African arts and customs.

Another thing about Kwanzaa is that it’s actually a non-religious holiday. Whereas other holidays in December like Christmas, the most popular, and Hanukkah of the Jewish culture, are religiously connected, anyone can celebrate Kwanzaa. Though some have incorrectly considered it an alternative to Christmas, those who commonly celebrate Kwanzaa say it’s not the case. 

Kwanzaa also uses decorative candles, seven in fact (similar to Hanukkah) with each candle representing a different trait like unity and determination. Kwanzaa festivals often include art, dances, poetry, and other references to various African customs.

https://youtu.be/rjBqq5SKpmc
There is some controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Kwanzaa as a real holiday.

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What Percent of the US Celebrates Kwanzaa?

According to NRF, just under 2% of people in the US celebrate Kwanzaa yearly. Even though it’s not nearly as large as those celebrating Christmas (92 percent), it’s still quite a bit, amounting to 6 million or so people. Coincidentally, this is also the same number of Jewish people in the US.

There are indicators that Kwanzaa celebrations are extending outside the US too in places such as Canada, in more recent years. However, to be clear, Kwanzaa is not celebrated traditionally in any African countries.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) pays attention to these kinds of numbers so that they can represent demand in what’s carried at stores for the holidays. Given this number, certain products are likely to be available in December such as decorations in red, green, and black, including candles, to account for people celebrating Kwanzaa. As well, advertisements in late December are prone to target the 2% population celebrating Kwanzaa.

Who Celebrates Kwanzaa?

Millions of Black Americans celebrate Kwanzaa in America, at last polling by NRF, 6 million to be precise. But it’s not limited to this one subset of the population, either. Teachers in school have routinely included Kwanzaa in holiday curriculum over the past decades, making it more commonly aware.

Thus, anyone can make connections to the tenets of the holiday of Kwanzaa, if they so choose, since the qualities apply as virtuous or worthwhile to most people. The 7 principles of Kwanzaa are Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).

Kwanzaa lasts for one week with every single day representing a separate principle. During this holiday a special candle holder contains the candles called a ‘kinara’, much like a menorah for Hanukkah. Thus, someone who celebrates Hanukkah might feel easily connected to Kwanzaa since there is some commonality to the two holiday customs.

Like with Hanukkah, a Kwanzaa candle is lit each night. However, a distinction is that the black one is lit first, and then followed by alternating green and red the rest of the holiday in Kwanzaa (the Hanukkah candles are most commonly blue or white but can actually vary). Also, their lighting is done starting from the outer candles and going inwards, which is similar to the menorah lighting in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

What Is Kwanzaa and How Did It Originate?

Kwanzaa is a social and cultural holiday in the U.S. It is normally observed by the African-Americans starting from 26th December and it extends for seven days. In the sixties, Kwanzaa wasn’t celebrated as this is the time it originated and was ‘invented’ by Dr. Maulana Karenga. 

Even though Maulana Karenga has a sordid past, being convicted of crimes against several women and having served in prison, many still celebrate Kwanzaa separate from Karenga’s role.

It is said that Kwanzaa was created as a celebration to acknowledge Black Americans connection to African roots, particularly in a time when many were feeling unrest and oppressed (during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s). Therefore, it’s traced back to the agricultural traditions of several eastern African countries like Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, and takes an opportunity to appreciate a great harvest. 

Tip: When wishing someone a greeting at Kwanzaa, you just simply say ‘Happy Kwanzaa!’ or ‘Joyous Kwanzaa!’

Is Kwanzaa a Religious Celebration?

Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration like Hanukkah and Christmas. However, it is mainly a communal and social holiday that was created to make a connection of ancestral roots for Black Americans, though it’s considered acceptable to be celebrated by all people.

Though it was initially considered specific for those of African descent, Kwanzaa has now been popularized in a way to include all people. Just as many now embrace St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, not just Irish and Mexican-Americans, organizers of Kwanzaa events want everyone to participate.

What Are Some Foods that Are Symbolic to Have During Kwanzaa?

Celebrity TV Chef, Sandra Lee, made an infamous cake for Kwanzaa in 2010 which featured a store-bought Angel food cake and corn nuts.

Two foods that are symbolic to have during Kwanzaa are collard greens symbolizing fortune and black-eyed peas for good luck, things representing ‘harvest’ time. Other common foods featured in the menus are those that are traditional to African countries like African creole, Cajun catfish, jerk chicken, or Groundnut stews (Source: Better Homes & Gardens). Foods with peanuts and yams are also popular at Kwanzaa.  

As well, desserts commonly feature the colors of Kwanzaa, red, green, and black. You can use food coloring to get the shades you want, or choose foods that have those colors naturally like berries.

When planning your menu, consider being adventurous too, trying things you might not have had before. That’s part of the fun of celebrations after all! You could also consider ordering specialty foods from African restaurants in your area to incorporate into your Kwanzaa festivities.

What Do You Wear for Kwanzaa?

It seems you can wear clothes of green, black, and red for Kwanzaa.

You don’t have to wear a specific kind of attire for Kwanzaa since there isn’t a dress code for it. But of course, incorporating the colors of Kwanzaa makes sense! Just like people celebrating Christmas commonly wear red, green, and gold or silver, you might want to add red, green, and black to your Kwanzaa holiday party. No one will be upset if you don’t, however!

It’s fine to wear traditional African clothes, too.

Wrapping Up Is Kwanzaa A Real Holiday

To wrap it up, what determines a real holiday is in many ways subjective. However, being designated a federal holiday makes it official. Since Kwanzaa is not a federal holiday, there are many who don’t recognize it as a real holiday.

Kwanzaa is not celebrated by nearly as many people who celebrate Christmas (9 out of 10 in the US, for example) or recognized by the general population as commonly as Hanukkah. However, to the 2 percent celebrating Kwanzaa annually, it is indeed a real holiday.

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Sources: University of Pennsylvania; OPM

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