Why Kwanzaa Is Lit Like 7 Red, Black and Green Candles


The author’s son, Garvey, celebrating Kwanzaa 2017 (courtesy of Moji Alawode-El); photo illustration by GMG/The Root

Each year, there are new essays or snide conversations about how black people don’t celebrate Kwanzaa. But I’m here to tell you that some of us do. Some of us have been doing it for decades. Yeah, I’m that unicorn.

My grandmother and mom at Christmas in Cincinnati in 1956 (courtesy of Moji Alawode-El)

My mother is from Cincinnati and she grew up with Christmas, but when she had children in the 1970s, she chose not to celebrate. She’s told me that it was because she didn’t want to lie to us about Santa. Which is true, but also a glib reduction of what I think her true purpose was.

It’s always been important to her that we have unshakable pride in our blackness. Knowing that that pride may not be echoed in daily life in this country, I like to imagine that she carefully chose to control the things she could. We all have African names and went to African-centered school or after-school programs whenever possible. We never had white dolls to prefer, we never had white Santa to thank.

When I was a child, Kwanzaa was a pretty tough sell. We were already weird enough, as a family of dreadlocked vegetarians in Harlem. At school, I was often the only person in my class who could discuss Kwanzaa, so an annual report on how it works was not unheard of. Christmas always looked so shiny and enviable. The other kids could look forward to extravagant gifts for little work. I had to be prepared to discuss black history for seven whole days. And my mother’s gifting generally leans toward functional rather than extravagant, so we got books, homemade toys or clothing we actually needed.


When I was younger, Kwanzaa at home was a tiny, serious affair with maybe one or two other families at the daily ceremonies. But as our community has expanded the way in which we celebrate, it has evolved in a way that’s actually become more fun. There are bigger parties, it’s become more relaxed and, as my siblings and I have gotten older, it involves a stronger sense that this is important.

What was once an intimate home-based affair has transformed into a lively seven-day festival where different families in our community add their own flavor and hosting style to the day they choose. One auntie often has her Kwanzaa parties catered, and I used to leave one uncle’s parties very, very toasty. Seriously, y’all, Kwanzaa can be lit!

The author, her mom and sister celebrating Kwanzaa in 1995 (courtesy of Moji Alawode-El)

I’m currently a newish mother to a toddler and think, as my mother did, about what values I want to raise him with. Emboldened white supremacist factions and President Orange Menace leave me feeling anxious about the ways that I can protect my son and be sure that he has the weapons he needs to thrive.


This year seems like a ripe time to be extra conscious about what I expose my young son to, and what I want to center in our family life. Extravagant gifts are great, but I can also appreciate the value of the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles of Kwanzaa) and use this week to reflect on and affirm black people, black accomplishments, black excellence and black joy.

Who can’t get behind that? Each day is dedicated to one of the principles, and our daily Kwanzaa ceremony invites all to reflect on and talk about how that principle has shown up for them, and for our collective ancestors. For a kid, “cooperative economics” may have been having a savings account; for an adult, it can be patronizing black businesses or starting my own.

The author’s brother, Akhi (center), surrounded by family and friends in 2003 (John Pinderhughes)

And I’m not saying that black people don’t have a place in the Christmas tradition, or that celebrating Christmas means that you’re not “woke.” Our people have family traditions that are treasured and resilient, and I have total respect for that. Plus, being a non-Christmas person, I’ve often had Christmas at the family home of whomever I was dating, and they were always joyous occasions, full of black love.


Anyway, I didn’t set out to write a Kwanzaa-vs.-Christmas essay. It’s not even necessary; anyone who wants to can celebrate both.

When I was born, Kwanzaa was a 10 year old holiday and not particularly popular. The newness and non-denominational-ness of Kwanzaa allows space for Kuumba (creativity) in building your family traditions and ease in changing your traditions to suit the world you’re living in and the world you want to create.


This year, when thinking about my Kwanzaa table, I wanted it to be something simple and toddler-friendly. I decided to create a felt kinara (candleholder), candles and flames and affix them to our living room wall so that my 2-year-old wouldn’t knock everything down and gnaw on the candles. He did manage to pull down and eat my construction paper test model, but when I looked at the final felt Kwanzaa table on my wall, I felt satisfied and a sense of pride that I hadn’t expected.

I realized that this was me adulting, making measured decisions about how to raise my son, using the tools my mother gave me. There is still a lot of work for me to do to instill a love for Kwanzaa in him, but I feel genuinely excited and hopeful about creating those traditions together.

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