Palm Bay, Florida (Florida Today) -- In Gwendolyn Harris' home, a seven-branch kinara surrounded by pieces of fruit will become the centerpiece tonight as Harris joins her children to light candles and then bask in the glow of a long-storied history of a culture scattered across the globe.
The tradition of lighting the candelabra is part of Kwanzaa, a festive holiday swirling in the thematic colors of red, black and green to celebrate African-American culture. The tradition is something the Palm Bay resident has followed for a decade since becoming drawn to the deeply rooted meaning behind the secular commemoration from a friend in Kansas.
"It was the principles of Kwanzaa that really attracted me," said Harris, a librarian who organized a Kwanzaa display that remains at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Melbourne until Jan. 1.
"All of the things the principles stood for: unity, community, and trying to get the culture to adopt those principles and incorporate them in their lives, it spoke to me. I volunteer, I try to be a customer to black-owned businesses. It's good. My family is excited, and I even Skype my son in Kansas so he can participate."
This year, there will be several celebrations along the Space Coast, as Kwanzaa makes a resurgence of sorts after years of waning interest. There are no official statistics on how many people celebrate Kwanzaa. The Root.com, an African-American website, conducted an online poll of its readers in 2011 and found that35 percent of said they observed the holiday. Others like Harris, are keeping the ideals of Kwanzaa alive.
Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies at California State University, created Kwanzaa nearly five decades ago to give blacks and those with ancestral links to Africa an ethnic commemoration of family and their own histories at a time when black culture was not widely celebrated - or understood - in America..
Kwanzaa means "first fruits," in Swahili and was modeled after ancient harvest festivals held in Africa and comes complete with its own set of inclusive, non-religious rituals, from candle-lighting to pouring libations. Each day carries a theme, from Umoja, or unity in Swahili, self-determination, purpose and faith.
The seven-day holiday, with its messages of community and unity, has ebbed and flowed as a cultural, secular celebration alongside Christmas, although it remains popular in urban areas. Some of the opposition to the holiday has come from some surprising quarters, said Dorothy McCalla, an organizer of several upcoming Kwanzaa events.
"You find some folks in the church who believe that if you celebrate Kwanzaa, you have to give up something. But no, Kwanzaa doesn't replace Christmas, it's something that can be celebrated if you're Christian, Jewish, or wherever you're from," she said.
"The beauty of it is that it's a cultural celebration, whatever your culture is, it's supposed to connect us to our ancestral roots, wherever they are from," she said. For years McCalla and her husband would open their home to visitors to celebrate Kwanzaa. "One man came from as far away as south Florida. He would do a ceremony and pour out libations in honor of our ancestors," McCalla said.
Then last year, a group of about 10 people gathered to hold a candle-lighting and to watch a cultural display. Tonight, the celebration, in partnership with the South Brevard National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Club Esteem, will meet to light the Unity candle at the Delta Community Center in Melbourne. A vegetarian feast will be held on the last day of the holiday on New Year's Eve.
"This is our second year community celebration," McCalla said.
"We really want to put Kwanzaa on the map for Brevard."
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