Some people keep decorative lights up well beyond the holidays, trying to extend the twinkling magic of the season. Art teacher and child advocate Gwendolyn Ellis goes one step further. The Maplewood mother of five adult children never puts away her kinara, the candelabra that's central to any observance of Kwanzaa.

In fact, Ellis' mantel displays all the symbols of this African American celebration that begins Dec. 26 and runs through New Year's Day. She wants to see them every day.

"Kwanzaa is not just a seven-day event that you then put away," she said. "The principles like self-determination, creativity and cooperative economics are things we should practice year-round."

Prof. Maulana Karenga of the University of California, Long Beach, founded Kwanzaa in 1966, a year after the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted in flames for six nights following a violent traffic stop involving a white policeman and a Black driver.

Now a global phenomenon observed in the Americas as well as in Africa and elsewhere, Kwanzaa is taking on sharper meaning in the Twin Cities this year in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. To be sure, because of the raging pandemic, observances will not culminate in the customary large-scale New Year's Day feast with spoken-word artists, singers, drummers and explosive dancers.

But it will be marked nonetheless.

"The principles of Kwanzaa help with dealing with the trauma, craziness and meanness that's going on," said storyteller and retired teacher Beverly Cottman, who, with husband, Bill Cottman, will be lighting candles daily in their Minneapolis home. "I like the principle of self-determination. We will be who we are even though there are external forces causing us to think differently or putting obstacles in our way."

International inspiration

Inspired by Pan-African harvest festivals and other sources, Karenga named the syncretic celebration for the Swahili expression for "first fruits." Kwanzaa is organized around seven principles (the Nguzo Saba), each with its own day of observance.

The cardinal tenets are, in order, unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani).

"These are universal values, not just for African Americans," said educator and retired school social worker Katie Sample, of Apple Valley.

A revered community elder who has a University of Minnesota reading series named in her honor, Sample has been celebrating Kwanzaa since the early 1980s.

"I was working in the schools and became aware of the overrepresentation of African American boys in programs for behavior disorders," she said. "I started appreciating the concept of celebrating Afrocentric culture to help mitigate the whole situation."

Sample founded the African American Academy for Accelerated Learning in 1988, an educational and enrichment program that included the principles of Kwanzaa as part of the curriculum.

"We did vignettes on the principles and even had values that we recited and taught the children," Sample recalled. "And we encouraged the parents to have it in their home. To this day, I still hear of people who, like me, observe it all year."

Educational push

In fact, educators, both formal and informal, have been central to the spread of Kwanzaa in the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis public school teacher Titilayo Bediako recalled that when she first introduced the idea of Kwanzaa observances to her preteen Minneapolis students in the 1990s, it drew quizzical looks.

"We were having problems with boys, and some of the white educators were saying we would never be able to pull it off," Bediako recalled.

But she hatched a plan to get buy-in from her fifth- and sixth-graders.

"You can't just say you're going to get boys that age to dance," Bediako said. "So, I found a brother who was manly to be on drums, and then we got these African dancers to come in and our celebrations were multicultural because the Lyndale School was equally divided — one-third of African, Asian and European descent."

What started out as 25 students in her class performing for other classes grew to become a schoolwide and, later, a districtwide Kwanzaa celebration held at the Historic State Theatre. In fact, Bediako recalled that after Sharon Sayles-Belton, Minneapolis' first female and first Black mayor, was defeated by R.T. Rybak, there was serious discussion about the propriety of having the new mayor at the event or even having Black kids come downtown.

"There was fear that our kids would scare off the white suburban theatergoers," Bediako said. "Minneapolis belongs to all its citizens. So we put R.T. in a dashiki, and taught him some Swahili words. It was something that helped community at a moment of hurt."

Through her organization, the We Win Institute, Bediako also has participated in Kwanzaa celebrations at St. Paul's Ordway Center.

Community connections

Other big public celebrations also have taken place at St. Paul's Network for the Development of Children of African Descent (NdCAD) and the Midtown Global Market.

That's where drummer "Baba" Jesse Buckner, founder of the Heart and Soul Drum Academy, led a percussion corps last year.

"Playing drums, dancing and socializing connects communities all over the country and the world," Buckner said. "You can't stand still if you're there. The spirit, the joy, the light, all of that is going to get into you."

Except for the pandemic.

"I want to get a grant to throw the mother of all Kwanzaa celebrations when this is over," Buckner said. "This has been a trying time in all of our lives, but I believe it's for a purpose. In bad times, like a funeral or after a fight, families come together. When this is over, prepare yourself. We're coming back in living color."

While people can't come together in person, the We Win Institute will host a virtual Kwanzaa.

"All of this warms my heart because we have more resources at our disposal now and can still do things together even when we're apart," Cottman said. "And when this thing [pandemic] is over, we can come together, harambee, and get things done."

For Cottman, Kwanzaa is a holistic celebration.

"I find the joy and light in the fact that even as messed up as things are and even though folks are suffering mightily, you don't have to be in despair," Cottman said. "This celebration means that we find ways to alleviate people's pain. Even in a small way, celebrating Kwanzaa can help someone heal."