Kwanzaa is a reminder to African-Americans and pan-Africans that we still have a connection to the culture that we were denied due to the enslavement of our ancestors. It is an encouragement to reflect on that culture and continue to build on it by living intentionally.
You may have heard or seen the name of this holiday, but not everyone knows exactly what it is. Here, I share the right questions to ask and the answers to those questions so that you can begin to learn about it.
My family started celebrating Kwanzaa when I was a toddler at the request of my uncle. According to my Aunti, I was the smallest and the only kid that was interested in participating every day, because the big kids had better things to do. Luckily, though, they all stayed and participated until the daily celebration was over. My aunt kept the celebration of Kwanzaa going for us at home and eventually branched out to coordinating a daily celebration at our church and churches around town.
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Time passed and the community stopped celebrating, and as us kids got older and acquired jobs that didn’t allow us to stay down home for two weeks around Christmas time, we stopped celebrating altogether. However, the love for Kwanzaa had been planted, and I still get excited about it. I’ve always wanted to celebrate Kwanzaa with Little Boo, and now that he’s three, I know he will better understand it. So this year, WE CELEBRATE!
My aunt gifted me a kinara & kikomba cha umoja (terms explained below) and I gathered some of the other table setting items for a Kwanzaa celebration and made a video to show you a creative version of the display. Of course, everything would be sitting upright and on a table instead of lying down as in this flat lay, but I believe it shows you the display well.
Here are the basics about Kwanzaa that you need to know if you plan on celebrating with your friends and family:
What is Kwanzaa?
A celebration of culture for African-Americans and pan-Africans worldwide. It was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga and first celebrated in 1966. The purpose of Kwanzaa is to celebrate black culture and African ancestry while looking forward to a bright future through personal and collective work and growth. It is modeled after “first fruits” or harvest festivals that are celebrated across different African countries and cultures in which communities came together to celebrate and show gratitude for their lives and their communities, and all of the good in their lives.
When is Kwanzaa?
December 26 – January 1, annually.
What are the principles of Kwanzaa?
Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles)
- Day 1 – Umoja (Unity)
- Day 2 – Kujichagulia (Self-Determiniation)
- Day 3 – Ujima (Collective Work & Responsibility)
- Day 4 – Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
- Day 5 – Nia (Purpose)
- Day 6 – Kuumba (Creativity)
- Day 7 – Imani (Faith)
What language is used for Kwanzaa terms?
Kwanzaa is the Swahili word for “first,” and in context of the America-started holiday, it stands for “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” All of the words the define the principles, name the symbols, and that are part of the ceremonies are words from the Swahili language.
What are the symbols of Kwanzaa?
- Mkeke – straw mat, represents the foundation.
- Kinara – candle holder
- Mishumma saba – 7 candles, one for each day of celebration / each principle.
- Black for the people
- Red for the struggle
- Green for the future and the hope that comes from the struggle and for the land
- Mazao – crops – fruits, vegetable, and nuts
- Muhindi – ears of corn, which represent the number children in the family (one ear of corn per child in the family). If no children are in the family, 2 ears of corn are set out to represent children in the community.
- Kikombe cha umoja – unity cup
- Tambiko – libations (drinks)
- Tamshi la tambiko – libation statement
- Zawadi – gifts, preferably books, educational toys, or artwork – something that educates and enriches.
- Bendera – the flag
- Nguzo saba poster – poster that shares the 7 principles.
- Books – to represent ongoing learning & education, and to serve as gifts
Other helpful terms:
- Habari gani – “what’s happening,” “what’s the news.” It is the daily greeting, and the response is the principle of the day.
- Harambe – “unity” or “let’s all pull together.” It is shouted in unison
How do you celebrate Kwanzaa?
- Set the Table: The video above shows how to set the table and this post explains the significance of the items placed on the table
- Meeting: meet each day for the seven days.
- Greeting: greet each other with the term “Habari gani” (and the principle of the day.
- Candle lighting ceremony: light a candle each day, starting with the black candle on the first day, then alternating between red and green, starting from the furthest on the outside and working your way in. On the final day, all of the candles will be lit.
- Daily closing – Harambee! Everyone shouts harambee together while pulling your fist towards your chest.
- Karamu feast: On the 6th day of Kwanzaa (December 31), a feast is held to dine, entertain, and celebrate Kwanzaa overall. It is encouraged to do so with African themed items, such as printed fabrics and traditional African dishes. The feast ends with a call to more unity.
- Gifts: books are the preferred gift, and gifts are typically given only to children. Some people give one gift each night, and some people only give a gift on the final night.
What are some main takeaways from Kwanzaa that we can incorporate in our lives every day?
- Kwanzaa is a reminder to be lifelong learners – the tradition of gifting children books, encouraging each other to continue to learn through the daily principles such as self-determination & collective work & responsibility
- Build up our community and build up ourselves. The principles are named to remind us of this – unity, self-determination, purpose, cooperative economics… there are all reminders to better ourselves and to be an active member helping to better the community.
- Kwanzaa also reminds us to nurture our gifts and talents so that they can be beneficial for our own good and for the good of our community.
Learn more about Kwanzaa
Visit the official Kwanzaa website to learn more about the holiday. There are also several books that have been written about Kwanzaa.