You’ve heard of Kwanzaa?
I hadn’t until I moved to Philadelphia. Even then, what I thought I knew has turned out to be mistaken. So, what better opportunity might there be to learn about this rapidly growing American-founded holiday than to write a blog post?
I loved what I discovered and I hope you will too.
- The Official Kwanzaa Website and
- The History, Principles and Symbols of Kwanzaa by Signe Knutson, writing for the Interexchange.org blog. Interexchange is an international exchange program not specifically tied to schools, now in their 50th year. Check it out here.
Here’s what I now know.
Kwanzaa is new
First of all, as far as holidays go, Kwanzaa is quite new. Its beginnings go back to 1966 and the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, now a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach and an author and scholar-activist with now over 50 years’ experience, saw the need to preserve, revitalize, and promote African-American culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, Kwanzaa has survived its founder who spent a few years in prison in the early ’70s for assault.)
From its beginnings, Kwanzaa — whose name is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza which means first fruits, or harvest — has been aimed at unity, inclusion, and community.
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday; it’s a celebration
Kwanzaa is open to everyone, of all faiths. It is not meant as an alternative to Christmas.
Celebrations include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, drumming, and feasting.
They also light candles which to my eye, look a lot like the menorah we pull out at
Christmas time Hanukkah in a nod to Woody’s Jewish identity.
The black one in the center is lit on the first night, then on each of the following nights, an additional candle is lit, alternating sides. The three official colors — green, red, and black –are taken from the work of Marcus Garvey and symbolize the fertile land, the blood shed in their fight for justice, and the color of their skin.
Kwanzaa lasts seven days
Kwanzaa lasts a full week, from December 26 to January 1. Seven Days. In fact, seven seems to be significant in the Kwanzaa celebration, just as I found it to be significant when I was in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs know their ancestry back seven generations and, well, here’s an excerpt from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe on that.
The Significance of Seven
Beyond their seven days, they have seven principles. Each evening conversation focuses on one of them, in the following order:
Kwanzaa has seven core principles:
- Umoja: Unity. To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia: Self-Determination. To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, 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 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 heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa also has seven core symbols, as follows:
Mkeka: Place Mat. Just as the crops stand on the mkeka, the present day stands on the past. The mkeka symbolizes the historical and traditional foundation for people to stand on and build their lives.
Muhindi: Ears of Corn. The stalk of corn represents fertility and the idea that through children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life. One ear, called a vibunzi, is placed on the mat for every child in the family.
Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles. Candles are ceremonial objects that serve to symbolically re-create the sun’s power, as well as to provide light. There are three red candles, three green candles, and one black candle that are placed on the kinara.
Kinara: The Candleholder. The kinara represents our ancestry, and the original stalk from which we came.
Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup. On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the libation ritual is performed to honor the ancestors. Every family member and guest will take a drink together as a sign of unity and remembrance.
Zawadi: Gifts. On the seventh day of Kwanzaa, gifts are given to encourage growth, achievement, and success. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity.
And it is, of necessity, a time to recommit ourselves to our highest ideals, in a word, to the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense. (Click here for the Odu Ifa meditation)
Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? Am I all I ought to be?
Questions we might all ponder.
Kwanzaa has an official greeting
There is an official greeting during Kwanzaa week, which is how I got started writing this post in the first place. Somehow “Happy Kwanzaa” seemed inelegant. The greeting is
[hah – BAR – ee GAH – nee]
which is Swahili for “What’s the news?” The proper response is to name the principle for that particular day of the Kwanzaa week (see the list above).
On that note, I bid you habari gani.