For years, Keesha Dixon celebrated Christmas with fervor. She had five Christmas trees. Lights strung everywhere. Empty boxes wrapped as...

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For years, Keesha Dixon celebrated Christmas with fervor.

She had five Christmas trees. Lights strung everywhere. Empty boxes wrapped as presents under the trees.

“I told my husband, ‘Enough. We’re not doing this anymore,’ ” says Dixon, 53, executive director of the Asante Children’s Theatre in Indianapolis. “I realized I had gone too far.”

Dixon wanted something that would keep the spiritual enrichments of the season around all year — without the commercialization.

She found the answer in Kwanzaa, a nonsectarian holiday celebrating family, community and African culture.

She replaced her trees with a Kwanzaa display on a piece of colorful African fabric, draped over her living-room hope chest. On top of the cloth, she placed a wooden candelabra her husband made to hold seven candles — three red, three green and one black. She added an ear of miniature corn, family photos and a unity cup, which is used for a libation ritual.

The seven candles represent the seven Kwanzaa principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. A candle is lit each day or night during Kwanzaa, which annually runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and the principle it represents is discussed with family members and friends who gather for a celebration.

“My display stays up 365 [days],” Dixon says. “Every time I pass it, I am reminded of the principles each candle stands for. I want to stay focused on those principles.”

A principled start

Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, in part to preserve and promote African-American culture. Now a worldwide celebration, Kwanzaa allows for wide interpretations of its meaning. To some, it has religious overtones. To others, it’s a celebration of their African genealogy.

The purpose of the seven guiding principles is to keep couples, families, tribes and nations cemented together.

“Look at the principles,” Dixon says. “I celebrate and honor my African heritage with Kwanzaa, but those are not just African principles. They are human principles. That’s what makes it so cool. Anybody can celebrate these values.

“With Kwanzaa you have a whole new window to look at our lives and why we are here. It tells you not to be self-centered.”

Mashariki Jywanza, an Indianapolis teacher who also maintains a year-round Kwanzaa display, emphasizes the African-pride aspects of Kwanzaa.

“It’s a cultural celebration for me,” she says.

Jywanza got her Kwanzaa cloth in Ghana. She got her East African first name, which means “one who is the person in whom the sun rises,” at her first Kwanzaa celebration.

The red, green and black candles are considered liberation colors, she says, and appear in Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag.

In addition to the candles, Jywanza has five ears of corn on her display — one for each of her five children, ages 20 to 38. Families who don’t have children can use one ear of corn to represent the potential, she says.

She and her husband, Kamasu, “have found Kwanzaa’s principles are basic to keep our children out of trouble, thinking about families and the whole community.”

Celebration spreads

According to a marketing survey conducted by the National Retail Foundation in 2003, Kwanzaa is celebrated by 1.6 percent of all Americans, or about 4.7 million.

Dixon theorizes that the idea of America as a melting pot keeps some African-American families from celebrating Kwanzaa.

“The generation behind me say, ‘We’re Americans.’ They don’t want to set themselves apart. I see this all over, the losing sight of our traditions. Elders will tell you if any tradition is not kept alive, it will disappear. You have to live through decades of life to understand why that’s important.”

Dixon also admits that when she first heard about Kwanzaa in Chicago when she was 11, she “didn’t get it.”

“I thought, ‘Huh? Are they trying to replace Christmas?’ I didn’t know what Kwanzaa was until I had hit my 20s and knew it enhanced lifestyles and affirmed life values.

“Kwanzaa did not replace Christmas. Kwanzaa grounded me. It made me appreciate Christmas and the birth of Christ more.”