Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday observed every year from December 26 to January 1. The holiday, which is not just observed within the African-American community but also the diaspora, celebrates African heritage and culture in both communities. As millions of people celebrate Kwanzaa around the world, here’s what you need to know about the pan-African holiday:
When was it created?
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Africana Studies professor at California State University, Dr. Maulana Karenga, to unite and empower the African-African community following the deadly Watts Rebellion. To date, it remains a nonreligious celebration of family and social values.
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What is the meaning of Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is taken from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits of the harvest”. According to Medium, Karenga drew inspiration from a popular Zulu harvest festival, Umkhosi Wokweshwama, which is celebrated annually around December. He added the extra “a” to “kwanza” to represent each of the seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, according to history.com.
Why the number seven?
Kwanzaa centers around seven principles and seven symbols. One principle is allocated to each of the seven days of the festivities. The principles include:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
- 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.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- 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.
- 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’s seven symbols are mazao (crops), mkeka (mat), kinara (candleholder), muhindi (corn), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), zawadi (gifts) and mishumaa saba (seven candles).
The mat or mkeka is laid out at the beginning of the holiday on a table. The candle holder, also known as the kinara, is then set up on the mat alongside the corn, crops and unity cup. Each night, families light the kinara with the seven candles. The seven candles — three red, three green and one black in the middle — all represent the seven principles. The black candle represents the African people, the red their struggle and the green the future. All seven candles are replaced with new ones on each of the seven days. Some families during Kwanzaa dress up or decorate their homes in red, black and green.
Kwanzaa gifts are often homemade
This is to avoid over-commercialization, according to history.com. Traditional, gifts center on learning, thus, books about African heritage and culture are ideal. Those who buy books, art accessories or music are encouraged to get those items from Black-owned businesses or shops.
Anyone is welcomed to celebrate Kwanzaa
Though Kwanzaa is rooted in African culture, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds are welcomed to join in the celebration. As Karenga once explained, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality. “Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’i and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc,” he wrote. Many people do celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas at the same time though others see Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas.
There is a special feast on New Year’s Eve
An African feast known as Karamu takes place on December 31, and comes with steps such as “a kukaribisha (welcoming), kuumba (remembering), kushangilla (rejoicing), tamshi la tambiko (libation statement), kutoa majina (calling of names), the karamu feast and tamshi la tutaonana (farewell statement),” according to a report by CNN.
U.S. Postal Service recognizes Kwanzaa, and has issued Kwanzaa stamps since 1997. The 2020 Kwanzaa stamp depicts the profile of a reflective woman with a kinara, or candleholder, with seven lit candles in front of her. “The stamp, which was hand-sketched and digitally colored, evokes a sense of inner peace with its cool tones and vibrant design elements to give a festive feel to the celebration of Kwanzaa,” the U.S. Postal Service said.