When I was little, my mom’s friend celebrated a strange holiday called Kwanzaa. Of course, Kwanzaa’s not strange — it’s actually beautiful and full of meaning — but it was still something I was completely unfamiliar with.
That didn’t stop me from being fascinated with the holiday and how my mom’s friend celebrated it. She was a Yoruba priestess, and during Kwanzaa her home was beautifully decorated with shrines, candles, symbols, and other things that I found enchanting.
Nothing captured my imagination more than the kinara, a Kwanzaa candelabra that looked suspiciously like the menorah that my mother obligatorily included in our Christmas decorations.
I’m kind of obsessed with cultural archetypes — patterns or themes that recur across different cultures — and what deeper truths they reveal about us as humans. As a little girl, even though I didn’t know much about religion or culture, I knew that there had to be a connection between Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
Turns out, I was completely right. Kwanzaa, which is celebrated from December 26 through January 1, is an interesting holiday that’s pretty similar to Hanukkah. And it’s a holiday that black Jews can celebrate right along with Hanukkah, which is really cool. Here are seven more things all Jews should know about Kwanzaa!
1. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, not a religious one
Kwanzaa is a celebration of African culture, and it’s not connected to any particular religion. So whether you’re a person of African descent who is Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Hindu… you can celebrate Kwanzaa!
2. Both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are about bringing light into the world
For eight days, Jews light the menorah to celebrate resisting foreign oppressors who stole Jewish land in Israel. And for seven nights, people of African descent who celebrate Kwanzaa light the kinara to remember that even though we are a stolen people living on stolen land, we can still provide light and healing to the world. The kinara itself represents the “stalk” or roots of the African-American community, meaning our African ancestors. Each of the seven candles of the kinara represent different principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Three of the seven candles are red, which represents the struggle we faced during slavery, colonization, and our modern-day oppression; three of the candles are green, representing the land and our hopeful future; and one of the candles is black, representing all people of African descent. Coincidentally, these are also the colors of the pan-African flag — which got a shout-out in my favorite movie of all time — Black Panther!
3. Kwanzaa food is out of this world
The word “Kwanzaa” is derived from a Swahili phrase “Matunda ya Kwanza” which means “first fruits” harvest. Obviously, a harvest festival for people of African descent is going to come with some food that really hits. Think collard greens in coconut milk, the all-mighty and versatile yam (you can boil it, mash it, mix it with saltfish, make it into dessert…), curry goat, joll of rice, hearty gumbo, corn bread, fried plantains, and peanut soup. I could go on forever, but the list of dishes you can cook for Kwanzaa is literally endless — because the African diaspora is so wide-ranging.
4. Kwanzaa and Hanukkah are both about resisting oppression and assimilation
While Hanukkah has been in existence for over 2,000 years, Kwanzaa is young — it’s less than 50 years old! Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African studies professor at California State University, created the holiday afterthe deadly Watts Riots of 1965 (also called the Watts Rebellion), which left the black community in South Los Angeles feeling lost and even more disenfranchised. Karenga created Kwanzaa because he felt that as a people, African Americans needed a cultural event to empower us — to show us that we have a vibrant culture and rich traditions. Kwanzaa is about recognizing our inherent worth as African Americans, and we do that by connecting to African culture. Similarly, in a Christmas-obsessed world, celebrating Hanukkah brazenly can feel like a big “fuck you” to everyone who doesn’t value Judaism or who thinks Christianity is the default. It’s also a great time to get together with friends and family, honoring the survival of the Jewish people and continuing the fight against assimilation and oppression.
5. U.S. Presidents traditionally deliver a Happy Kwanzaa message — yes, even Donald Trump.
U.S. Presidents typically wish American Jews a Happy Hanukkah, and they do the same for Kwanzaa. And as much as I would like him to keep black folk’s names outta his mouth, Donald Trump even told us to have fun lighting the kinara.
6. Gifts are exchanged on Kwanzaa, but they should be homemade
Kwanzaa isn’t like Christmas, which often feels like being pulled into a capitalism orgy. Kwanzaa gifts — called zawadi — are supposed to be homemade and heartfelt. They can tie into the principles of the day, and reflect certain elements of African heritage. This move was intentional on Karenga’s part, to avoid the consumerism that saturates Christmas.
7. If you liked the Rugrats Hanukkah special, then you’ll love the Proud Family’s Kwanzaa episode.
Growing up, The Proud Family was an iconic animated show for black kids. It taught us our history (remember Dr. Carver, the fictional evil great-grandson of George Washington Carver, who created those peanut people? Classic) and we saw our family reflected in the characters. The Kwanzaa episode is really well-done, and you should definitely check it out.
Happy Hanukkah, and happy Kwanzaa!