With gospel songs, prayer, Swahili chants and poems, members of the African-American community in El Paso united to celebrate the first day of Kwanzaa on Wednesday.
About 50 people dressed in colorful African clothing and jewelry gathered at the McCall Neighborhood Center, 3231 Wyoming, to open the weeklong celebration.
Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 in honor of ancient African harvest celebration that took place at the end of one year and the beginning of the
The celebration lasts seven days and emphasizes the importance of family and an understanding of the continental African culture.
"The first night is very important because it sets the standards with the other organizations to prepare," said Anna Howell, a McCall Neighborhood Center board member. "The goal for the first night is to let the audience know that we are here to set the pace because we are talking about unity in the community, unity in our homes, in our churches and we want everyone to pull together."
The word "Kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means first fruits.
Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies at California State University in Long Beach, came
up with a way to celebrate the ancient tradition in 1966 during the Black Liberation movement in an effort to preserve and revitalize African culture.
Leona Ford Washington, founder of the McCall center, was responsible for encouraging the African-American community in El Paso to take part in it and pass on the tradition, Howell said.
Melinda Hickmon said it was her children's curiosity that brought her to the celebration at the neighborhood center Wednesday.
"It's been a family tradition since they've been small," Hickmon said. "And actually, this the first year they actually wanted to come. It's an African-American celebration, and you don't have a whole lot of those here in El Paso. So we came here with our family and friends. And I mainly focus on teaching my children what the principles are about. Right now, they are young and they may not fully understand it, but it will come in time."
According to officials from the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which is considered the birthplace of the celebration, it is meant to reinforce seven values: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, creativity, purpose and faith.
Unlike Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is not a day of religious observance, and it has not been recognized as a holiday by any state or the federal government.
It has been recognized as a cultural holiday by the millions of participants who celebrate it, said Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the African American Cultural Center.
Although it has not been around for a long time, it has spread throughout the nation and to other countries through word of mouth.
"Dr. Karenga, the scholar and activist, created the holiday in Los Angeles and spoke to organizations and schools throughout the communities," Tembo said. "Then the members of other organizations brought it to other areas. At the time, there were a lot of continental Africans in the country, and they brought it back to their home countries and it spread that way."
During the commemoration, participants light a candle each day and observe a principle each day.
Three red candles represent the struggles of the people, three green candles represent hope, and one black candle represents the people.
On the first day, the black candle is lit to represent unity within the community.
The final day of the celebration is a time of reflection, and each participant assesses his or her commitment to each of the principles.
Promises to become a better person also are made.
There is also a gift exchange, which usually takes place on Dec. 31, but the date can vary.
Unlike at Christmas, only two gifts -- a book and an African-American heritage piece, which can be a cultural art piece or artifact -- are given to children.
The children are given the gifts as a reward for following through with commitments or promises they made at the beginning of the year.
The book reinforces the importance of education, and the heritage symbol reinforces the child's culture.
"Kwanzaa reinforces what it means to be an African in the world," Tembo said. "It speaks our cultural truth in a multicultural world."
Although it is primarily a celebration of the African culture, Howell said, anyone can participate.
Alex Hinojosa may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6137.
More information" -- The McCall Neighborhood Center will continue to celebrate Kwanzaa at 7 p.m. through Tuesday at 3231 Wyoming. -- For more information, call the McCall Neighborhood Center at 566-2407.
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