History

Holidays: Kwanzaa – A Celebration of African Heritage – December 26 through January 1

Shalom, everyone! The holiday of Kwanzaa is a seven-day festival observed each year in the African-American and many African Diaspora communities around the world from December 26th through January 1st on the Gregorian calendar. The non-sectarian holiday, created by African-American activist Maulana Karenga, celebrates African heritage in the African-American and African Diaspora cultures. Kwanzaa was first celebrated on December 26, 1966 through January 1, 1967.

Background

Maulana Karenga, formerly known as Ronald McKinley Everett, created the holiday of Kwanzaa as an alternative celebration to the Eurocentric Christmas holiday season. Karenga, a secular humanist, derived the name “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Swahili, an East African, was chosen as the foundational language of the holiday because it is the most widely spoken African language on the African continent. This was done in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, even though most African-Americans and African Diaspora communities are of West African ancestry. The holiday is also a harvest festival. Though most African Diaspora communities reside in the Northern Hemisphere where harvest festivals are usually celebrated during the Spring, Summer or Fall months (April through October), in southern Africa due to their position in the Southern Hemisphere, harvest festivals do occur in during the months of December and January, where these months are actually summer months.

Kwanzaa celebrates the “Nguzu Saba” or “Seven Principles” of African Heritage. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:

  • Day 1 (December 26): Umoja (Unity) – “To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.”
  • Day 2 (December 27): Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) – “To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.”
  • Day 3 (December 28): Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – “To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.”
  • Day 4 (December 29): Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) – “To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.”
  • Day 5 (December 30): Nia (Purpose) – “To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”
  • Day 6 (December 31): Kuumba (Creativity) – “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”
  • Day 7 (January 1): Imani (Faith) – “To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”

Kwanzaa has seven primary celebratory symbols as follows:

  • Mkeka: A mat, usually made of bamboo, upon which all other symbols are placed.
  • Kinara: A seven-branch candelabra or candle holder, usually made of wood.
  • Mishumaa Saba: Seven candles, one lit on each day of the festival. Of these seven candles, three are red in color, one is black and three are green, all representative of the red, black and green Pan-African flag.
  • Mazao: Crops from the harvest. In African-American and African Diaspora communities, these crops include ground provisions (yams, potatoes, etc.), fruit and vegetables.
  • Muhindi: Dried ears of corn. One ear of corn is placed on the Mkeka for each child present at a family or local community Kwanzaa celebration.
  • Kikombe cha Umoja: The Unity Cup which is used to pour libations and to commemorate and give thanks (shukrani) for our African ancestors.
  • Zawadi: Gifts made by hand to be exchanged among family, friends and the community in general.

Other symbols of Kwanzaa may include the red, black and green (RBG) Pan-African flag, African artwork, books, and textiles, for example, kente cloth.

Holiday Observances

The holiday greeting for Kwanzaa is “Heri Za Kwanzaa” or “Joyous Kwanzaa.” The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is “Habari Gani” which is Swahili for “How are you?” or “What’s new?” In African-American and African Diaspora families and communities, households and communities are typically decorated with African art and kente cloth. Families and communities participate in Kwanzaa celebrations wearing African clothing, usually kente cloth. The seven symbols of Kwanzaa are placed in a home or community center as a centerpiece around which all who celebrate may gather. The Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) are placed in the Kinara: The black candle is placed in the center, the three red candles are placed in the Kinara in the branches on the left and the three green candles are placed in the Kinara in the branches on the right.

On each night of Kwanzaa, celebrations begin with the lighting of the Mishumaa Saba in the Kinara. On each night, the black candle is lit first. On the first night, December 26, only one candle is lit, the black candle in the center of the Kinara. The black candle represents the principle of “Umoja” or “Unity,” the core principle of African heritage. On the second night, December 27, two candles are lit – the black candle and the first red candle closest to the black candle. The first red candle represents the principle of “Kujichagulia” or “Self-Determination.” On the third night, December 28, three candles are lit, the black candle, the first red candle, and the first green candle closest to the black candle. The first green candle represents the principle of “Ujima” or “Collective Work and Responsibility.” 

On the fourth night of Kwanzaa, December 29, four candles are lit, the black candle, the first and second red candles, and the first green candle. The second red candle represents the principle of “Ujamaa” or “Cooperative Economics.” On the fifth night, December 30, five candles are lit, the black candle, the first and second red candles, and the first and second green candles. The second green candle represents the principle of “Nia” or “Purpose.” On the sixth night, six candles are lit, the black candle, all three red candles, and the first and second green candles. The third red candle represents the principle of “Kuumba” or “Creativity.” On the seventh and final night, all candles are lit, the black candle, all three red candles, and all three green candles. The last green candle represents the principle of “Imani” or “faith.”

Kwanzaa celebrations may also include drumming and other musical selections, African dance, song, poetry, pouring of libations from the “Kikombe cha Umoja” (“Unity Cup”), thanksgiving for the ancestors, discussion of each of the Nguzu Saba (“Seven Principles”) on its respective night, storytelling, gift-giving, and a festive meal (karamu).


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