How One Texan Community Celebrates the Principles of Kwanzaa All Year Round

At Houston’s SHAPE Community Center, the season that celebrates life’s bounty defines its mission.

December 21, 2021

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Photo by: Sue Barr/Getty

Sue Barr/Getty

The seven days of Kwanzaa, from December 26th to January 1st, are a festive time for those who celebrate, but the spirit of the season lasts long past the beginning of the new year. The lighting of a candle on each of the seven nights signifies the seven principles that the holiday was built upon — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The holiday dates back to 1966 when it was created by Maulana Karenga, an educator and political activist, as a way of honoring African-American culture. Derived from the Swahili phrase, "first fruits," Kwanzaa pays homage to the arrival of the harvest — simply meaning "that which makes life more bountiful" — and its principles are as relevant today as ever.

"We want to bring good into the world, it’s cut and dry," explains Deloyd Parker, co-founder and executive director of SHAPE Community Center in Houston. "How do we do that? By practicing these seven principles."

In Houston, Kwanzaa is celebrated with large ceremony at SHAPE each year, but it is much more than a seasonal observance. When 74-year-old Parker, a native of Port Arthur, Texas, co-founded SHAPE in 1969, he did so with the commitment to empower African-American families in the community through its many volunteer-based programs, including resources and activities for children, adults and elders. The center’s reach nears 10,000 locals today, and the seven principles of Kwanzaa are an integral part of its mission.

A visit to the center in Houston’s historic Third Ward reveals a building which boasts wall-to-wall photos and art reflecting decades of rich Black history and an open community space where a Kwanzaa table remains properly adorned all year. Parker shares the meaning behind each item thoughtfully placed on the table. "The seven candles, or the mishumaa saba, represent the principles, and they rest in a candleholder, or kinara," he explains. "As Kwanzaa celebrates the harvest, the table is decorated with fruit like pineapple, coconut, corn and yams." A unity cup, symbolizing togetherness, joins the bounty.

Photo by: Courtesy of SHAPE Community Center

Courtesy of SHAPE Community Center

Parker says during the lighting of the candles, a bit of water is poured out from the cup, as a way of honoring those who have passed on. Finally the table is dressed with a mkeka, a mat which represents the foundation which all things rest upon. "Relating back to the harvest, the mat should be cloth or straw — it should be constructed with a natural material." Parker insists the fun is putting your own creative energy into bedecking a Kwanzaa table.

While the meaning of Kwanzaa is ever-present at SHAPE, it is on December 26th when festivities officially begin, and Parker says, the celebration is a cultural one, not a religious one. "Christmas is Christmas, Kwanzaa is Kwanzaa," he stresses. "There is no need to compare the two — in fact, Kwanzaa should enhance what you do on Christmas Day."

For Houstonians who partake in celebrations at SHAPE, the start of each evening is marked with the resonant sound of percussion. Performers from KoumanKele, an African dance and drum ensemble, perform, while a makeshift village of local vendors and artisans offering arts, crafts and goods occupies the outdoor space. After dusk, a ceremony begins at the Kwanzaa table during which the candle is lit for the evening, and a guest speaker offers words of unity. One day out of the seven is reserved for introducing children to the holiday and teaching them the principles.

Photo by: Courtesy of SHAPE Community Center

Courtesy of SHAPE Community Center

Faith is the principle honored on the final night. All seven candles are lit and a feast inspired by the harvest is had. Parker says many families dine at home, filling tables with yams, papaya, okra, squash and cabbage, but there are also meals prepared at SHAPE’s onsite restaurant. Festivities conclude, but Kwanzaa is not over. "On the seventh night, we have completed the celebration, and it is time to get to work," says Parker. "It is time to live these principles and make sure Kwanzaa is part of our everyday existence."

The week-long holiday does indeed fall at the most wonderful time of the year, but Parker says the most important thing to know about Kwanzaa is that it is not the celebration, it is the practice. "It’s wonderful to celebrate those seven days," he says. "But it’s what you do the rest of the year that is more wonderful."

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