Kwanzaa table at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African culture and community, commemorated each winter by millions of Black Americans and people in the African diaspora worldwide,

Many celebrate by lighting a kinara, the candelabra that holds the seven candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The holiday runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

If you don’t already have a kinara, there are a couple of spots in Philly you can hit, said Maisha Ongoza — but not as many as there once were.

Ongoza chairs the Kwanzaa Cooperative, a collective that participates in celebrations around the region and provides education about the holiday. The decreased options for finding a kinara are indicative of the hits Black businesses have taken through the pandemic, she said: “We’ve really been hemorrhaging our cultural shops.”


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The holiday, which was founded amid the ferment of the Black Power movement, has a strong history in Philadelphia.

Ongoza has been celebrating since the third-ever iteration, she said, as part of the Philly chapter of US Organization, the cultural unity group Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga helped establish in 1965.

Where can I get a kinara in Philly?

You can look for kinaras at pop-ups around the city, Ongoza said — “Last weekend it was like four or five holiday events at different churches” — plus she named a couple of brick-and- mortar stores.

The African Cultural Arts Forum and Hakim’s Bookstore are each selling kinaras, Billy Penn confirmed. Both institutions have Black nationalist roots and legacy, and they’re across from one another on 52nd Street in West Philly.

In years past, Mount Airy’s Sandaga offered the holiday fixture, proprietor Alassane Gueye confirmed to Billy Penn, but now he “can’t even get [his] hands on them.”

What does the kinara symbolize?

Kwanzaa is premised on the Nguzo Saba, or seven values of African culture, as derived by Karenga and US Organization members in the mid-60s. Recently deceased Philadelphia legend James Mtume was part of the first celebration in 1966.

The kinara holds seven candles, each standing for a different value. The base itself represents the ancestors of African people. Visually, the message is clear: the values emerge from the legacy left by foreparents.

“In Kwanzaa, that’s biological foreparents and it’s social ones we’re talking about,” said Ongoza. “African people are the foreparents of humanity because humanity started in Africa.”

There are only two hard and fast rules about the lighting of the kinara, according to Ongoza: the order of the candles being lit, and that the lighter is of African descent.

From a handful of families to a global movement

While kinaras are mass produced today, that’s not how it was in the holiday’s early years.

When Ongoza started celebrating in 1969, there wasn’t an option to buy one. So she and her husband turned to one of Kwanzaa’s principles, Kuumba (creativity).

“We were the first one of the first families in the city to celebrate it,” she recalled. “So he brought in a tree trunk, a nice little chunk, and drilled seven holes in it, and we put our candles in it.” That first kinara is still her favorite, because “it shows you how we have grown since then.”

Ongoza delights each year in receiving pictures from people in the African diaspora celebrating Kwanzaa the world over, in places like Ecuador, Austria, and Australia.

The holiday’s global adoption gives her hope for its future. When fielding requests from educators, organizers, and others, Ongoza noted that the Kwanzaa Collective tries to always say “yes” to home-based celebrations.

Why? Because that is the root of the holiday, Ongoza said. “We value anytime a family asks us to be involved and participate. Because if it wasn’t for that, Kwanzaa wouldn’t have ever grown.”

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Jordan Levy

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...