In the three-plus decades since Kwanzaa was first officially celebrated in Colorado Springs, the seven-day cultural holiday has grown from one with an attendance that could fit in a living room to an event that draws hundreds to community hubs in the city.
This year’s official celebration of African-American culture, heritage and community begins Monday at In-Balance Wellness Studio, with a 6 p.m. opening ceremony and the lighting of the central Umoja candle.
Each candle in the seven-pronged kinara candle holder represents one of the celebration’s foundational truths, collectively known as the Nguzo Saba — a Swahili term meaning “seven principles” — said Anthony Young, a Springs’ psychologist who co-founded the city’s Kwanzaa celebration in 1989.
“Each day of Kwanzaa, a candle is lit to symbolize one of those seven principles,” Young said. “These seven principles are the values that have allowed the people of African descent to create the world’s first civilization and since then have allowed us to survive the horrors of the kidnapping and enslavement of African people and to beat the odds, despite the social conditions of America.
“We celebrate our strengths and our creativity in those seven values,” said Young, who now organizes the local festival through the nonprofit Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.
The three red candles of the kinara represent the “ancient, beautiful struggle for good.” Three green candles signify “hope, promise and a future that comes from that struggle.” A single black candle at the arrangement’s center represents unity.
“It represents our people. It represents unity. Because without unity, there is no strength,” Young said.
To that end, he said, there are no “keynote addresses” happening at the Kwanzaa celebration.
“Everyone who attends the Kwanzaa celebration will have an opportunity to share a reflection, a thought, or a brief biographical sketch … of someone’s life or an experience that exemplifies the principle of Kwanzaa that’s being celebrated that particular day,” Young said.
Activist, author and African studies professor Maulana Karenga founded Kwanzaa in 1966 in Los Angeles. The creator and still-director of that city’s gathering modeled the holiday on traditional African harvest festivals, and envisioned it as a way African American families could reconnect to their heritage and community. In the decades since the first gathering, the holiday has grown into an international one marked by cultural celebrations worldwide.
“We’re Black all year round, not just during these seven days, but this is a way to bring the community together to reconfirm the positive historical, cultural aspects of who we are,” Young said.
He emphasized that while the holiday might touch on aspects of faith, it’s a secular celebration.
“Some people have even said it’s a Black Christmas or it’s a Muslim celebration of some sort, and that’s just craziness,” he said. “Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration. It doesn’t matter what your faith tradition is. You can always celebrate your culture no matter what.”