Kwanzaa Clarification

An overview of the holiday you’ve likely heard of

Every year, from December 26th to January 1st, Kwanzaa commences. The cultural holiday spans seven days, each having its meaning and purpose in allowing African-Americans and Pan-Africans to celebrate and embrace their African heritage.  Many of you may not know about Kwanzaa since it’s a reasonably new holiday, founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga. Karenga was a black nationalist who wanted unity within his community after the Watts Rebellion, a six-day riot in South Central Los Angeles between the black community and police.

The actual name of the seven day holiday originates from the Swahili phrase: “matunda ya kwanza,” which translates to first fruits. The seven days consist of: Umoja, meaning unity,  Kujichagulia, translating to self-determination, Ujima, referring to responsibility, Ujamaa, focusing on cooperative economics, Nia, which is purpose, Kumba, centered around creativity, and Imani, which is all about faith. These days can also be referred to as the seven principles and emphasize self-actualization and community cooperation between those who celebrate. The seven days also have corresponding gifts with mazao (crops), mkeka (mat), kinara (candleholder), muhindi (corn), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), zawadi (gifts), and the mishumaa saba, which are seven candles arranged on the table, three red, three green, and one black. The three colors are also the theme of the holiday, so families tend to decorate their houses with those colors and dress in matching dashikis, or their respective African clothing. The black candle represents Umoja or unity, said to be the base of all success, so it’s lit on the first day of the celebration. The celebration of Kwanzaa also requires Karamu, a feast on the final day that includes African and African-American dishes, such as; jambalaya, gumbo, groundnut stew and stewed black eyed peas. All of the original names of the components of the holiday stem from Swahili, an originally East African language that has spread throughout Africa and the Middle East. Additionally, the traditions of the holiday are drawn from West and East African harvest festivals.

Kwanzaa has drawn its own culture too, with songs like “Happy Kwanzaa” by Teddy Pendergrass, “7 The Kwanzaa Song” by Kwanzaa Gospel Chorus, “Merry Christmas/Happy Kwanzaa” by Stevie Wonder and “Kwanzaa” by Headhunters. The holiday also has its own seven quintessential folktales matching with the seven principles and their messages. The story of “Anansi and his Sons” go with Umoja, “The Three Tests” match Kujichagulia, “The Great Drum”  with Ujima, “The Feast” with Ujamaa, “The Name of the Tree” with Nia, “Anansi Writes a Song” with Kuumba and “The Collared Cow” with Imani. Most of the modern cultural celebrations are still heavily inspired by Africa, such as the tribal dancing and drumming that commences at Kwanzaa.

Gifts are given for the holiday, with most being homemade, educational, or from black-owned businesses. Contrary to what you may believe, this holiday doesn’t replace Christmas for those who celebrate, as it’s more of a racial-cultural experience than religious or commercial. The celebration of Kwanzaa is also open to anyone who wishes to appreciate African culture, which surprises many, likely explaining why only 4% of Americans celebrate the holiday. I hope this article and other forms of information spreading about the deep-rooted and prideful holiday bring more people to celebrate.

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