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Celebrating Kwanzaa

Celebrating Kwanzaa
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Each year from December 26 – January 1, many African-Americans celebrate the holiday tradition known as Kwanzaa. This seven-day ritual is a time to honor African-American family, culture, and traditions. Some choose to celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, while others celebrate only Kwanzaa. It is important to note that Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor is it celebrated in Africa. It is an American holiday created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, based on African principles. Dr. Karenga is currently professor and chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits of the harvest”. The Kwanzaa tradition is rooted in the African first fruits harvest celebration. The custom rewards community members for working together to ensure a healthy harvest. As such, everyone shared in the fruits of their collective labor.

The Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa centers around seven principles, aimed at strengthening the African-American family and community. Each day represents a different principle, they are:

Day 1: December 26

Umoja (oo–MO–jah) — Unity

Day 2: December 27

Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah) — Self-determination 

Day 3: December 28

Ujima (oo–GEE–mah) Collective Work and Responsibility 

Day 4: December 29

Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah)Cooperative Economics

Day 5: December 30

Nia (nee–YAH) — Purpose

Day 6: December 31

Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah) —Creativity 

Day 6: January 1

Imani (ee–MAH–nee) — Faith

Although the seven principles are emphasized during Kwanzaa, committed participants should strive to practice these ideologies year-round.

Celebrations and Traditions

Like many holiday traditions, Kwanzaa is about celebrating family. Where it differs is there’s a greater emphasis on reflecting on the past, while planning for future generations.

Kwanzaa is built on seven main symbols. The Mazao (the crops) symbolizes the African harvest and the fruits of collective labor. Mkeka (the mat) is the foundation on which African traditions and history is built. The Kinara (the candle holder) represents the African ancestors. Muhindi (the corn) symbolizes the children, who are the future of the community. Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles) represents the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles) — the principles African-Americans are encouraged to live by. Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup) is symbolic of the principle and practice of unity. Zawadi (the gifts) symbolizes parental labor and love and the commitments made and kept by the children.

In addition to the seven main symbols, two additional ones are used. The first is the black, red, and green Bendera (the flag) — black (for people); red (for the struggle); and green (for the future). The second is a Nguzo Saba poster of the seven principles.

To celebrate Kwanzaa, participants follow a set procedure. A place in the home is chosen to display the symbols. A table is draped in a piece of African cloth. The mkeka is placed first, with the other symbols placed on or near it. The kinara is placed on the mat and then the mishumaa sabas are placed in the kinara.

There should be one black, three red, and three green candles. The black candle, Umoja, is placed in the center. The red candles represent Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba. They are placed to the left of the black candle. On the right, the green candles are placed. They represent Ujima, Nia and Imani. On the first day, the black candle is lit. Each day thereafter, the remaining candles are lit, one at a time, starting from left to right.

Mazao and ears of corn are also placed on the mat, along with the unity cup. The ears of corn represent the children— male and female. At least two ears must be used, even if the family does not have any children, because the corn really represents the future of the community. For families with kids, one ear of corn is for each child is usually placed on the mat. Finally, African art, books and other cultural items are placed on the mkeka. This symbolize the participants commitment to African heritage and learning.

During Kwanzaa, participants greet each other in Swahili each day with the phrase, “Habari gani?” The literal translation is “What’s the news?” but the Americanized translation is “How are you?” The answer each day is the principle for that particular day. Celebrants also have daily discussions of what the principle for that day means to them. At the conclusion of the discussion, everyone shots “Harambee!” — which means, “Let’s all pull together”. On day one, Harambee is shouted once, then the number is increased by one each day.

Participants decorate their house in the Bendera flag colors, and use traditional African items like baskets, art, and symbols. The children in the family receive gifts, one of which must be a book and the other an African symbol. During Kwanzaa, families often wear festive African-styled clothing. Women often wear traditional head wraps known as a gele. Singing, dancing, and drumming may also be a part of the daily festivities.

On December 31, a special feast, the karamu, is held. This gathering of family and friends includes traditionally prepared meals and the giving of gifts, usually handmade. This is in keeping with the spirit of Kuumba (creativity). The gifts are opened on January 1. The festivities also include a speech by an elder and a candle-lighting ceremony. Performances such as skits, songs, dances, etc. are also a part of the festivities.

If you would like more information on celebrating Kwanzaa, please check out these resources:

The Official Kwanzaa website (Dr. Karenga)

Kwanzaa history and short video (History Channel)

Scholastic (great resources for explaining the holiday to kids)

How to tie a gele (headwrap) video

Kwanzaa dishes/recipes:

The Food Network


Better Homes & Gardens

The Cooking Channel

Celebration videos:

This is a great community Kwanzaa celebration video.




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