‘The best is yet to come’: Here’s how you can celebrate Kwanzaa this year

Joyous Kwanzaa!
8 min. read
The audience reaches above symbolizing sunlight, one ingredient in making a seed grow. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Thedora Jackson remembers when Kwanzaa was a mostly subtly celebrated holiday in Denver.

The executive director of the Kwanzaa Committee of Denver said Black community leaders, such as Dr. Sharon Bailey and Cleo Parker Robinson, would host celebrations at their homes, providing an intimate space for the neighborhood. But that changed in the '90s when Opalanga Pugh, a Denverite and cultural storyteller, started the Kwanzaa Committee and brought the festivities to the public and, specifically, the Five Points neighborhood.

"Kwanzaa has always been so special in our community," Robinson said. "I don't know that everyone really is aware of how long we've been celebrating in our community...We began really with Opalanga Pugh who was absolutely carrying the tradition from the very beginning. She actually started Kwanzaa in Alaska."

Some 30 odd years later, Kwanzaa is still publicly celebrated in Denver and starting on the 22nd, Denverites can head to Five Points, learn more about the holiday and have a joyous Kwanzaa

"It's a tradition now," Jackson said. "Dr. Maulana Karenga created [Kwanzaa] back in the '60s. He wanted a way to bring the community back together again. It's about togetherness. People in this community [Five Points] have stuck together, and the history goes on and on. It's like a flowing river."

Thedora Jackson, executive director of the Kwanzaa Committee of Denver. The 2016 Kwanzaa Elders Luncheon at Zion Senior Center in Northeast Park Hill. Dec. 28, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Here's a quick history lesson on Kwanzaa:

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the week-long celebration of African-American culture, community and family in the U.S. Kwanzaa is always celebrated from December 26 to January 1. After the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Karenga, the current chair of Africana studies at California State University-Long Beach, created the holiday as a way to promote Black unity and celebrate African-American history.

Karenga combined different aspects of African harvest celebrations to form the holiday. Each night a candle is lit in a Kinara that represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba. Those are:

Umoja (Unity)

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Ujamaa (Cooperative economics)

Nia (Purpose)

Kuumba (Creativity)

Imani (Faith)

Now, back to Denver programming.

"[Kwanzaa] is a year-round celebration," Robinson said. "We recognize it during the holidays, but it is about seven principles and those principles can be applied throughout the whole year."

While the actual holiday starts on the 26th, Jackson said the committee will be installing a Kinara at the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library on Dec. 23. A Kinara is the seven-branched candle holder used for the holiday.

Jackson said the Five Points Kinara is about 12-by-12 feet and was designed by Pugh and built by Irvin Wheeler, who "cursed about it every day because it was too much work and he wasn't getting paid."

Those who celebrate and those that are curious are welcome to come to the event to salute the Kinara. The Kwanzaa salutation is "Habari Gani," which means "What's the news?" or "How are you doing?"

On the first day of Kwanzaa, Umoja, which is Sunday, December 26, there will be a parade starting at Blair Caldwell and ending at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theater. The celebration of Umoja at the theater has been an annual tradition for about 25 years.

"We always started at our theater on the first night with Umoja," Robinson said. "And what was great was we had a lot of new and younger artists that we didn't know were part of our community... We discovered young drummers and dancers and poets and spoken word artists. But the community part of sharing food and good vision for the new year was always, always wonderful."

Jackson said some of the events this year are tentative due to COVID restrictions but Denverites can always expect the parade and subsequent celebration.

The celebration at the theater also includes an ode to local leaders and lessons on the principles of Kwanzaa.

Your Souls Movement's Kalere Hines dances onstage. The first night of Kwanzaa at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre, Dec. 26, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Jackson said there's a theme for Kwanzaa this year in Denver: "The best is yet to come."

Kwanzaa events were canceled in 2020, and this year, finding safe spaces to gather has been difficult. Jackson said that's why the theme is so relevant: Through togetherness, the best is definitely yet to come.

"The original reason for us to gather was togetherness and to appreciate our Blackness and our culture and where we came from," Jackson said. "We need roots. We need to know where we came from and where we're going. If you don't know where you came from, you can't possibly know where you're going. So we need that background. We need that solidarity. We need to know our values. It's 55 years of celebration, but the best is yet to come."

Here are some events corresponding with the seven days of Kwanzaa. Have a joyous Kwanzaa!

December 26 - Umoja (Unity)

Kwanzaa Parade - 6 p.m.
Starting from the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library at 2401 Welton Ave., join the parade heading toward the Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre at 119 Park Avenue West. There will be a performance by the Platinum Divas.

First Night Celebration at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance center - 7 p.m.
Hosted by Brother Jeff Fard and the Kwanzaa Committee of Denver, celebrate the first night of Kwanzaa with local entertainment and a lesson on Kwanzaa principles.

December 27 - Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Celebrate Kwanzaa with Denver Public Library - 1 p.m.
Experience Kujichagulia via Zoom with DPL and special guests Friends of Joda and Graphic Novelist R. Alan Brooks. Friends of Joda will provide an introduction to Kwanzaa. Professor and graphic novelist R. Alan Brooks, will talk about some of his experience writing and drawing comic books, and how self-determination, or Kujichagulia, can help us all accomplish our creative goals.

Kujichagulia at Brother Jeff's Cultural Center - 6 p.m.

Celebrate the second day of Kwanzaa at Brother Jeff's Cultural Center at 2836 Welton St.

December 28 - Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Celebrate Kwanzaa with Denver Public Library - 1 p.m.
Experience Ujima via Zoom with DPL and special Guests Friends of Joda and Pam Jiner from Girltrek Denver, a public health nonprofit that encourages African-American women to use walking as a practical first step to inspire healthy living, families, and communities. Friends of Joda will introduce Ujima and Jiner will discuss her work with Girltrek Denver and how the organization has inspired community and individual change agents across Colorado.

December 29 - Ujamaa (Cooperative economics)

Celebrate Kwanzaa with Denver Public Library - 1 p.m.
Experience Ujamaa via Zoom with DPL and special Guests Friends of Joda and co-founders of Trini Rican Vegan, Josh and Cecilia. The pair moved to Denver in 2013 and have been using their brand to share recipes and cooking videos of vegan Caribbean food. Friends of Joda will introduce Ujamaa and Trini Rican will demo Caribbean vegan and plant-based holiday recipes using ingredients that can be easily obtained here in the United States.

December 30 - Nia (Purpose)

Senior Luncheon at the Zion Senior Center - 10:30 a.m.
An annual Kwanzaa luncheon that will honor seniors at the Zion Center at 5151 E 33rd Avenue. The luncheon is open to the public and will include speakers, gifts and entertainment. Masks are required.

Celebrate Kwanzaa with Denver Public Library - 1 p.m.
Experience Nia via Zoom with DPL and special Guests Friends of Joda and Educator and Wellness Advocate, JaLisa Williams. Friends of Joda will introduce Nia and Williams will guide the group through a mindfulness exercise to tap into individual purpose.

December 31 - Kuumba (Creativity)

The Big Dance at the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being - 5 p.m. (Tentative)
Kuumba is the day for creativity and also the Karamu feast. Be dressed to impress and head to the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being at 3401 Eudora St for a Masquerade Ball. Masks are required. There will be a prize for the best outfit. Face masks and beads will be available for a $5 donation. There will be live entertainment, including a routine from the Platinum Divas. A gumbo and rice dinner will be served.

January 1 - Imani (Faith)

Imani is a day of rest and reflection. Jackson said it's the most important day because you can set your intentions for the rest of the year. So, kick back and enjoy time with yourself and your family!

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date of the Kinara installation. Due to scheduling difficulties, it will take place on December 23. 

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