Watch CBSN Live

Kwanzaa Kicks Off

Kwanzaa, a seven-day African celebration of heritage and history that originated in America, kicked off Sunday nationwide, with celebrants putting aside Christmas trees and setting out straw placemats and candles instead.

"Kwanzaa is a family time to come together and reflect upon the many blessings and experiences that you have gone through throughout the year," said Makinde A. Gbolahan of Mobile, one of the organizers of the city's Kwanzaa observances.

Kwanzaa, which means "first fruit" in the East African language Swahili, is based on a traditional African festival of the first-crop harvest.

But the holiday itself is purely American, developed in 1966 by M. Ron Karenga, a California professor of Pan-African studies. It centers on seven principles, including unity, or umoja; self-determination, or kujichagulia; collective work and responsibility, or ujima; cooperative economics, or ujamaa; purpose, or nia; creativity, or kuumba; and faith, or imani. Each day is dedicated to one of the seven principles.

Decorations include the kinara, a seven-candle candle holder which serves as the central symbol of the holiday. Other items placed nearby include fruit, ears of corn and a communal unity cup.

"People think it's something to take the place of Christmas when it really isn't," said Ahmed Obafemi of the Malcolm X Center in Birmingham, who has observed the holiday for 28 years. "Christmas is about Christ. Kwanzaa is a cultural event as opposed to a religious one. It's the only holiday we can celebrate across religious and class lines."

Events are planned in several cities, including Birmingham and Mobile, to recognize the holiday and educate others about it.

The observance of Kwanzaa has spread in popularity over the years. Today, millions of people participate, said Obafemi. Some orthodox observers are concerned by what they see is the commercialization of the holiday, with companies offering Kwanzaa greeting cards.

Still, the holiday is often misunderstood, said Obafemi. "It developed as part of the movement for self-determination," he said. Many blacks wrongly thought their history began in slavery, not in Africa, he said.

"It is not a religious holiday, but it is a spiritual one that can be celebrated by people of any faith," said Birmingham poet Patricia Hancock Cooper. "It is designed to renew our spirit and to recommit ourselves to values we hold precious."