A Comprehensive Guide to Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is a popular African-American holiday that is celebrated in the United States. The term “Kwanzaa” is derived from a phrase in Swahili language, 'matunda ya kwanza‘, meaning ‘first fruits‘. The celebration of Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration yet a celebration focused around the culture of the African people. Kwanza is celebrated in Africa, as well, though an extra ’a’ at the end of Kwanzaa symbolizes the Americanized celebration versus the African one. In Africa, communities and villages come together for the first harvest of the year to celebrate and enjoy a successful harvest of crops. In America, African-Americans come together between the dates of December 26th through January 1st to embrace their African heritage. The Americanized version of Kwanzaa was developed by a man of the name Maulana Ron Karenga, in the year 1966 to celebrate the basic principles celebrated in the African Kwanza. There are seven basic principles of the holiday, these principles are known as 'Nguzo Saba’. These principles include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Each of these main principles represent a day of Kwanzaa. The main day of celebration of the Kwanzaa holiday takes place on December 31st where family and friends gather and prepare a feat of African food, ending with the exchange of gifts.
Kwanzaa is often overlooked in the month of December, with Christians celebrating Christmas and the Jewish community celebrating Hanukkah, yet there are millions of Americans that observe the holiday of Kwanzaa. Education about the African-American holiday is rare in programs teaching of Christmas and Hanukkah and because of this, not many Americans know much about the holiday. While traditional African culture may not be widely practiced in America today, Kwanzaa is also a way to remember great African-American heroes and celebrate the black national movements of the 1960s. Seeing as it is not a religious holiday, many African-American Christians celebrate Christmas in addition to Kwanzaa in the month of December. Though there are far greater amounts of people in American society celebrating Christian and Jewish holidays, There are around 18 million people in America that celebrate Kwanzaa every year. It is important for America to remember the diversity of cultures that has made the country as it is today and spreading the knowledge of the less known holiday Kwanzaa is one way to begin. The history, principles, symbols and celebrations of Kwanzaa are important to the understanding of African-American life in the United States of America.
Kwanzaa was first celebrated on December 26th 1966 after Maulana Karenga and other U.S. Organizations developed the concept of the holiday. The initial concept of Kwanzaa was created to give African-American’s an alterative to the holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah, since these practices were not part of rational African heritage. There are no religious ideals behind Kwanzaa and those with Christian or Jewish backgrounds can celebrate Kwanzaa without abandoning their religious beliefs. The name of the holiday was taken from the traditional celebrations in Africa that represented community togetherness and the celebration of thankfulness for a healthy harvest . There are seven basic principles of which the holiday is based upon. Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates a different principle. There are various symbols of Kwanzaa which were designed to reflect the principles of Kwanzaa as well as the country of Africa. The first years of Kwanzaa were especially popular because of the black movements in the United States during this time period. In recent years, Kwanzaa has lost some of the popularity of the 1970’s yet there are still nearly 18 million Americans that celebrate and remember the struggles of the African people and their culture by embracing their principles.
The holiday of Kwanzaa is no different from any other holiday celebrated in the United States. There are primary and seconday symbols and decorations that reflect the principles and ideals behind Kwanzaa. The first symbol that comes into use in Kwanzaa celebrations is known as the ‘Mkeka’. The Mkeka is a mat made of straw. On the first day of celebration, known as the day of Umoja, the other symbols of Kwanzaa are placed upon the Mkeka. This mat and the act of other materials resting upon it symbolize a healthy foundation and tradition. The Mkeka shows that it is important to have tradition as a beginning to life. The Kinara is another popular symbol of Kwanza. A Kinara is a candle holder that holds the traditional seven candles of Kwanzaa, known as Mshumaa. The candle holder represents stalks of corn, symbolizing the cycle of life. Each candle or Mshumaa, represents one day of Kwanzaa. This practice is similar to that of the Hanukkah Menorah. Next, there is Muhindi, Munhindi is an ear of corn. Each house has at least one ear of corn for Kwanzaa, as it represents offspring from the concept of corn stalks held within the Kinara, The amount of ears of corn will differ as there is one to represent each offspring the household has produced. Those without children keep an ear of corn to celebrate potential offspring. Finally, there is the ‘Kikombe Cha Umoja’ or ‘The Unity Cup’. The Unity Cup is used in celebration of the first principle of Kwanzaa. Each member of the family drinks from the cup and as they drink or pour the liquid, each member reminisces and gives thanks to their ancestors for their struggles and achievements. During Kwanzaa festivities a ‘Bendera Ya Taifa’, the flag of Black nationalism is always displayed.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa, or ’Nguzo Saba’, were organized and each principle was given its own day of focus during the week of Kwanzaa. Each year the Kwanzaa celebration begins with the celebration of the principle “Umoja” which stands for unity. The additional six days of Kwanzaa are followed by a day of self-determination (Kujichagulia in Swahilli), collective work and responsibility (Ujima in Swahili), cooperative economics (Ujamaa in Swahili), purpose (Nia in Swahili), creativity (Kuumba in Swahili) and the final day of Kwanzaa closes with a celebration of the importance of faith (Imani). Kwanzaa has no specific religious affiliation therefore the day of ‘Imani’ is a day of personal faith, spirituality and faith of the people and community. Symbols are used throughout the week of Kwanzaa to remind participants of these principles. A flag of Black Nationalism is a constant symbol that is displayed year round often times, to keep these principles in mind beyond the holiday. The flag displays colors of red, black and green. These colors symbolize the principles of African people. Red is displayed to remind African-Americans of the blood of their ancestors and the principles they died for, while black is used to represent all of the principles found in Black and African-American culture and green is displayed to remember the African land and the principles of life and the growth of new concepts. This flag is also known as the Pan-African flag which first came into use during the Declaration of Rights of Negro People of the World in August of 1920. Many African-Americans consider this flag to be the ultimate representation of the principles of both unity and pride which is the base of all Kwanzaa principles.
The celebration of Kwanzaa in America begins on the day of December 26th each year while a form of Kwanzaa is celebrated in Africa during the communities first harvest of each year. The first celebration of the African-American holiday begins with a day focused on Unity. It is custom for a straw mat called the Mkeka to be placed upon a table that is covered with either a black, green or red table cloth. These colors are taken from the African-American pride flag. Next, a Kinara (candle holder), is placed upon the straw mat and filled with seven candles. There are three red candles, three green candles and one black candle that represent the principles displayed in the colors of the Pan-African flag, the black candle is placed at the highest point of the Kinara. The black candle is lit on the first day of Kwanzaa and the others are lit as the additional days of Kwanzaa are celebrated. Bowls of fruit, ears of corn and a Unity Cup are all placed around the Kinara. Each day as the candles of the Kinara are lit, each member of the family drinks from the Unity Cup while reminding themselves of their ancestors and the principles they believed in. As they drink from The Unity Cup, they say “Harambee”, a Swahili word meaning 'Let’s all pull together'. Seeing as Kwanzaa has only been celebrated since the 1960s , there are a variety of different ways that each day of Kwanzaa can be celebrated. There are no right or wrong ways to go about it, as it is mostly a spiritual holiday. While all days can be celebrated differently, the last day of Kwanzaa is usually celebrated with a gathering of family and friends to partake in a feast and gift exchange. This celebration is known as ‘Karamu’. ‘Karamu’ consists of traditional African foods and members of the feasts greet each other with African phrases such as, “Habari Gani” meaning “what’s the news?”, a traditional Swahili term used as a greeting. Gifts are known as ‘Zawadi’ and are given in celebration to signify the reward of a successful harvest in Africa. Kwanzaa is closed with the parting of family and friends and the parting expression of ’Kwaheri’ meaning good wishes for the year ahead.
Many people are not aware of the basic ideals involved in Kwanzaa. Hanukkah and Christmas are often the only mentioned holidays in schools and many American children have no idea that Kwanzaa even exists. To embrace acceptance of cultural diversity it is important to educate all Americans on practices and reasons behind celebrations that are different than their own. The following references are resources for information and activities educating both children and adults on the principles and traditions of Kwanzaa.