Celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a holiday that most in the African American community know about, but aren’t very well-versed on. It’s an important holiday to me because it represents everything I stand for as an African American woman. A celebration of community, family and friends that brings us closer to our roots.

What Is Kwanzaa?

A week long celebration that is celebrated in the United States and in other nations of the West African diaspora in the Americas. The traditional colors are red, black and green. The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest”. It was created in 1966 by Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Everett) and is the first African-American made holiday. Most known for the candle-lighting ceremony, this is a time where each evening, the opportunity is provided to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa.

The Seven Principles

Kwanzaa has seven principles which are celebrated each day, over the course of a week (December 26 – January 1). They are as follows**:

  • Umoja (Unity): Success begins with Unity. This is symbolic of how we should strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): You create your own destiny, to be responsible for self.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together. This symbolizes helping our brothers’ and sisters’, by making their problems our problems and solving them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To restore our traditional greatness. This symbolizes building and developing our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To use creativity and imagination, making our communities more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our educators, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

How Can I Celebrate?

It’s completely up to you! The founder originally wished for it to be celebrated instead of Christmas and Hanukkah, as he felt these holidays were simply symbols of the dominant cultures in America. However, this has recently changed to be more of a cultural holiday, to be inclusive of all African Americans, regardless of what religion they associate with.

Each day, as the seven principles of Kwanzaa are practiced, a candle is also lit, with the last day preserved for exchanging gifts.

It is meant for homes to be decorated with a green table cloth over the central table in the room, with the Mkeka (a straw or woven mat which symbolizes the historical foundation of African ancestry). The table is then decorated with the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, as follows*:

  • Kinara – a candle-holder with seven prongs
  • Kikombe cha Umoja – a cup that represents family and community unity
  • Mazao – fruit (or crops) which are placed in a bowl to represent the community’s productivity
  • Mishumaa Saba – These are the seven candles representing the seven core principles of Kwanzaa. Three red candles on the left to represent the struggle, three green candles to represent hope and one black candle, placed in the center to represent the African American people or those who draw their heritage from Africa. Each candle is lit daily, starting with the black candle, the candles can then be lit from left to right (or however you would like) each day of Kwanzaa.
  • Muhindi – Ears of corn, one for each child. If there are no children, two are placed to represent the children of the community
  • Zaradi – various gifts for the children

Kwanzaa flags (Bendera) and posters are usually placed around the home to emphasize the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Beginning on December 26, people who celebrate greet others by saying ‘Habari Gani” which means “What is the news?”. If someone greets you, here is the ‘proper’ way to respond each day of Kwanzaa:

  • December 26: “Umoja” = Unity
  • December 27: “Kujichagulia” = Self-determination
  • December 28: “Ujima” = Collective work and responsibility
  • December 29: “Ujamaa” = Cooperative economics
  • December 20: “Nia” = Purpose
  • December 31: “Kuumba” = Creativity
  • January 1: “Imani” = Faith

Those who are not African American or of African descent can participate in greetings by using the traditional greeting “Joyous Kwanzaa”.

During Kwanzaa, you can also choose to celebrate in a variety of different ways, from drumming and dancing to musical selections, reflecting, reading the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness and more. On New Year’s Eve is the day that a Kwanzaa feast is usually held. This should be held in the same room where the table has been decorated. Traditionally, this involves welcoming, remembering, reassessment and re-commitment while rejoicing (very similar to typical African-American family gatherings).

Most importantly, it’s best to make Kwanzaa your own. If you have children, this is a great way to introduce them back to their true African roots, which is the main reason why Kwanzaa was created. I personally have a strong connection to Kwanzaa as I believe it is extremely important to realize our roots and where we derive from. Especially as a mother, it’s important for me to impart this knowledge in them, a tradition that I hope they will carry on for generations to come.

Happy Kwanzaa!