As Christmas comes to a close on December 25, the celebration of Kwanzaa begins on December 26 and ends on New Year’s Day. This season of unity and patrimony brings African-American communities together for five days of colorful tradition and reflection. To commemorate this holiday, we delve into the intricate history and meaning behind Kwanzaa.
The first celebration of Kwanzaa was 50 years ago in 1966. The celebration was started by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who is an author, activist, and professor of Africana studies, as a way of uniting and empowering the African-American community after the Watts riots.
The week-long celebration honors African heritage within the African-American culture. Dr. Karenga called the celebration a “cultural revolution” giving identity, purpose, and direction. Over time the Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, along with clarification the holiday was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday traditions. Many African-American celebrate Kwanzaa in addition to observing traditional Christmas celebrations.
The holiday is modeled after the African harvest festivals of Swahili matunda ya kwanza meaning first fruits. Celebratory symbols for Kwanzaa include mat or (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed: a candle holder (Kinara), seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), crops (mazao) corn (Muhindi), a unity cup (Kikombe cha Umoja) for commemorating and giving thanks (shukrani) to ancestors, and gifts (Zawadi). Other representation commonly found for the celebration is a Nguzo Saba poster, a Pan-African flag, and African artworks and books. This symbols represent the values and concepts of the African culture and contributions to community building.
Households are decorated with art, fresh fruits, colorful kente cloth, and traditionally women would wear kaftans. Kwanzaa ceremonies include drums and musical selections, and participation of children to give respect and gratitude to ancestors.
While this time of the year is filled with wishing one another “Happy Holidays!” or “Merry Christmas!”, Kwanzaa is a bit different, using phrases like ‘Joyous Kwanzaa’ in general, with a more specific greeting for each day.
The greeting is to reinforce awareness of the seven principles or Nguzo Saba (n-GU-zo SAH-bah). One would ask Habari gani (hah – BAR – ee GAH – nee), meaning “What is the news?” The answer is each of the principles, or core values, for each of the days of Kwanzaa:
- Umoja (oo-MO-jah), unity. To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-GOO-lee-ah), self-determination. To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (oo-JEE-mah), 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 (oo-jah-MAH-ah), cooperative economics. To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (NEE-ah), purpose. To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah), 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 (ee-MAH-nee), faith. To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
The seven days of Kwanzaa signify a time of reflection on community values, and Kwanzaa remains an important tradition in many African-American communities.Many African-Americans choose to celebrate Kwanzaa to teach their children and to enlighten others of the significance of the African community’s contributions to humanity. Those choosing to celebrate use the concepts found in several African-American writings addressing life and history, including Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.
Joyous Kwanzaa to all who are observing this holiday and may each day bring news of togetherness and faith.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is the resident etiquette expert for CBS Austin’s We Are Austin, regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, The New York Times, and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, named to Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2015 and recipient of the British Airways International Trade, Investment & Expansion Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.