Lehigh Valley residents celebrate African heritage during Kwanzaa

Written by on December 29, 2021

Lehigh Valley residents celebrate African heritage during Kwanzaa

By Emma Illick-Frank
December 29, 2021

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – This week many in the Lehigh Valley and across the country are celebrating Kwanzaa. It is a non-religious, cultural holiday that commemorates African heritage. 

Maulana Karenga, a professor in California, started the holiday in 1966, drawing inspiration from African harvest festivals. He created Kwanzaa to provide an occasion for Black people to celebrate themselves and their history. The holiday’s formation was a response to racial tensions that exploded into the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles.

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Charlene Smalls is a pastor at Ripple Mennonite Church in Allentown. She said Kwanzaa helped bolster Black Americans in the wake of the violence.

“This holiday was created to give a sense of self-esteem and uplifting to Black people after these riots,” she said.

Smalls observed that today we live in a similarly tumultuous era of social upheaval and racial injustice. She sees Kwanzaa as a way to reignite hope among Black Americans, especially younger people.

“Regardless of the struggles that we go through,” she said, “we are strong people and we have a rich heritage.”

Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 with African-inspired foods, music, clothing and more. The kinara, Swahili for candle-holder, is lit on each of the seven days. 

“Each candle signifies a principle that we encourage one another to live by,” Smalls said. “The first candle would be the unity candle.”

The subsequent candles represent self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, and creativity. The faith candle is lit on the last day; afterward there is a celebration with family and friends where gifts are exchanged.

Smalls helps run the Lehigh Valley Facebook group Celebrating Kwanzaa. This week, the page features livestreams of candle lightings, tips for hosting your own celebration, and interviews with community elders.

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