This is a real question I have asked myself. My intent is not to show disrespect, but to be honest about the low intellectual place I am starting from.
According to Wikipedia:
Kwanzaa (/ˈkwɑːn.zə/) is an annual celebration of African-American culture that is held from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually held on the 6th day. It was created by Maulana Karenga, based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa, including West and Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966.
This description is not nearly the full story, of course. Kwanzaa is a unique, specifically African-American holiday. It is meant to remind Black Americans of their heritage.
Dr. Maulana Karenga is the creator of the holiday. He is currently a professor at CSU Long Beach in the department of Africana Studies. One of the many distinctions listed in his biography is the "Creator of the African American and pan-African holiday Kwanzaa, a celebration of family, community, and culture, 1966."
In 1966, there was a deadly riot in the neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles. 34 people were killed and around 1,000 were injured. It was then that Karenga founded a non-profit, the Us Organization, to rebuild the neighborhood and promote Black unity.
Karenga's plan from the start was to create a secular, pan-African alternative to what he believed Christmas had become. Kwanzaa was meant to be a rejection of the commercialism of Christmas and the image of the white Christ. The holiday was not immediately embraced by the Black community. Many Black people were simply unaware of its existence, and many were Christian or Muslim and did not appreciate the secular aspect of the holiday. Karanga's Us Organization dissolved due to infighting and mismanagement, and in 1971 Karenga was sent to prison for torturing two women he thought tried to poison him. Karenga and two other men kidnapped the women, stripped them, whipped them, beat them with batons, and finally burned them with irons in an attempt to elicit a confession from them about the alleged poisoning.
Through the 1970s and 80s, despite Karenga's personal fall, the popularity of Kwanzaa grew. It was not seen as a replacement for Christmas in most homes, but an adjunct to it. In 1983, Ebony magazine said, "almost all Black Americans are placing special emphasis on roots and family togetherness in what some social commentators are calling the New Soul Christmas." Up to 12 million Americans celebrated the holiday at its peak.
The holiday began to decline in popularity in the 2010s, as Black history and culture was taught to younger generations and more connections to the past were made elsewhere. In 2019, USA Today reported that 2.9% of people celebrating a winter holiday would be enjoying a Kwanzaa celebration.
Kwanzaa also suffers a PR problem as many people believe it's a "made-up holiday" due to its relatively recent inception.
Symbols of Kwanzaa
The symbols of Kwanzaa includes crops (mzao) which represents the historical roots of African-Americans in agriculture and also the reward for collective labor. The mat (mkeka) lays the foundation for self- actualization. The candle holder (kinara) reminds believers in the ancestral origins in one of 55 African countries. Corn/maize (muhindi) signifies children and the hope associated in the younger generation. Gifts (Zawadi) represent commitments of the parents for the children. The unity cup (Kkimbe cha Umoja) is used to pour libations to the ancestors. Finally, the seven candles (mishumaa saba) remind participants of the severl pinciples and the colors in flags of African liberation movements -- 3 red, 1 black, and 3 green.
The Kinara and the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa
The Kinara is "the candleholder thingy." I found a fascinating song explaining the holiday and repeating the seven principles. The seven principles of Kwanzaa, the Nguzo Saba, are represented in the candles of the Kinara. Each day, a meditation is to be completed on these principles during a nightly candle lighting ritual. The red candles represent the blood of the ancestors, green celebrate earth, life, and future promise. The black center candle stands for the Black people.
The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture defines the principles of Kwanzaa as the following:
Umoja (Unity) is to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, race, and nation.
Kujichagulia (Self-determination) is to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective work and responsibility) is to build and maintain the community together. To make the community's problems OUR problems, and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative economics) is to build and maintain stores, shops, and all business to own and profit together.
Nia (Purpose) is to make the collective vocation the building and developing of the community in order to restore people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity) is to always do everything possible to leave the community more beautiful and beneficial than when it was inherited.
And Imani (Faith), is to believe in Black people and the righteousness and victory of their struggle.
Greeting of the season. Kiswahili is the language of Kwanzaa, and this phrase means "How are you/What's the news with you?"
December 31st is the big party of the season. A banquet is held with music and dancing. Gifts are typically given to all the children, and the principles of collective work to uplift the community are reflected upon.
I listened to a 2018 Spotify-created Kwanzaa playlist while writing this post. Bebe Winans's version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was as beautiful as any Christmas carol I've ever heard, but there didn't appear to be more than two Kwanzaa-specific songs on the list. This is not to say I didn't enjoy it. On the contrary, the tracks by Digable Planets and Fela Kuti in particular. The tagline was "Celebrating the preservation of Black culture with tracks representing the 7 principles of Kwanzaa."