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    Kwanzaa celebrations mark cultural values

    For the fourth night of Kwanzaa, Carla Muhammad (left) and Phyllis Muhammad marked the holiday at Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 in Dorchester. Kwanzaa runs from Dec. 26 through Jan.1.
    Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
    For the fourth night of Kwanzaa, Carla Muhammad (left) and Phyllis Muhammad marked the holiday at Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 in Dorchester. Kwanzaa runs from Dec. 26 through Jan.1.

    First and foremost, Kwanzaa “is not a replacement for Christmas,” said Sadiki Kambon of Roxbury.

    “We tell parents . . . ‘why are you taking your rent, mortgage, and food money to buy toys that within a week they won’t even be using?’ ” said Kambon, 68. “On the sixth night [of Kwanzaa] we exchange gifts, but not 56-inch wide flat screen TVs that make you go into debt.”

    Sunday marks the fifth day of Kwanzaa, a weeklong African-American holiday that is still not widely understood more than four decades after it was created by a California professor.


    “There are a lot of myths out there about Kwanzaa,” said Kambon, a longtime activist and Kwanzaa organizer and director of the Black Community Information Center, a volunteer-run organization based in Dorchester.

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    Kambon, who has served as chairman of Boston’s Kwanzaa committee for 34 years, said the holiday, which starts Dec. 26 and continues through Jan. 1, has come a long way, and he believes this year’s Boston celebration could be the biggest yet.

    “Very small beginnings,” said Kambon. “When we started, it was brand new.”

    What began as a small grassroots gathering in Dudley Square has evolved into a week of festivities hosted by 21 community organizations in different locations across the city.

    This year’s theme is “Embracing Our Afrika At Home And Abroad.”


    On Saturday night in the Grove Hall section of the city, families filled a mosque on Washington Street to celebrate Kwanzaa’s fourth night.

    A table had traditional items including ears of corn; the kinara, a candleholder; and a black, red, and green cloth with maps of Africa.

    Visitors to Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 described the holiday as a cultural, not religious observance, rooted in education on traditional values.

    “It’s good to reflect on our tradition, coming up off the motherland,” said Ralph Muhammad.

    Children are at the center of the Kwanzaa spirit, he said, because they learn moral values and ancestral history.


    The lessons that come with the seven principles of Kwanzaa are especially important to Eric Norman, a father who travelled to Boston from Baltimore to visit family for the holiday.

    “Each principle comes with something to think about, how you live your life,” he said as he held his 4-year-old daughter.

    Bertram S. Alleyne II, 75, said the principles of Kwanzaa passed on to children today are the same that his grandfathers, followers of Marcus Garvey, taught him before the holiday even began.

    Alleyne played a hand drum in the entry of the mosque, welcoming people Saturday night.

    “It’s all about the culture and knowing the culture, because . . . that is what you are,” he said.

    The drums are a part of that historic culture, Alleyne said, recalling when his grandfather told him how instruments were used to spread messages across villages in the West Indies.

    Kwanzaa was envisioned by California State University professor Maulana Karenga as a celebration of African culture in 1966, and has grown into an international phenomenon. Its name is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits.”

    The traditional colors of Kwanzaa, green, black and red, have significance: “the green represents the land you need to have a nation, black represents the skin color of our people, the red represents the blood that we lost fighting for our freedom.”

    Each day of Kwanzaa honors one of seven principles from African culture.

    The first day is Umoja (Unity); followed by Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).

    On Sunday evening a celebration will be held at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester, with drumming and dancing.

    And of course, the traditional Kwanzaa candle lighting ceremony will take place.

    “It’s like an instructional ceremony, and we repeat it every year, so younger generations can pick up on it and someday carry the torch,” said Sophia Haynes-Cardwell.

    On Sunday and Monday, Mixed Magic Theatre presents “A Kwanzaa Song” at the Hibernian Hall ballroom in Roxbury. The play, written by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, is scheduled to be performed in Boston for the first time Sunday afternoon.

    Kwanzaa shows young people how they are connected “to the whole history of the world,” said Pitts-Wiley.

    Other Kwanzaa events will be held at Roxbury Community College and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. For more information, visit the Black Community Information Center website at

    Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at