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5 Things to Know About Kwanzaa

5 Things to Know About Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a celebration that embraces heritage, culture and the arts

Kwanzaa is an annual celebration that honors African heritage in African-American culture. It begins the day after Christmas and ends on New Year’s Day.

Here are five things to know about the festival and how people celebrate it.

1. Kwanzaa is fairly new

Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach set out to create Kwanzaa in 1966. As a result, he created the holiday to unite the African-American community and help them connect to its roots.

In short, the name “Kwanzaa” translates “first fruits” in Swahili. In addition, it’s a nod to the traditional harvest festivals celebrated in Southern Africa that coincide with the southern solstice.

2. Like Hanukkah, a candle is lit each day of Kwanzaa

On each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, families gather together as a child lights a candle on the traditional Kinara (candleholder). Subsequently, the family talks about the corresponding principle for that night. In other words, called the Nguzo Saba (which means “seven principles” in Swahili), the set of values intends to reinforce the strength of the African-American community.

The seven principles are:

  • Umoja, or unity within the family, community, and race;
  • Kujichagulia, which is self-determination to speak out for one’s self;
  • Ujima, which stands for the work of solving problems as a community;
  • Ujamaa, or the ability to build and maintain profitable businesses as a community;
  • Nia, which signifies a sense of purpose and restoration in the community;
  • Kuumba, or creativity to make the community even better and more beautiful;
  • and Imani, which is the belief in and support of the leaders and members of the community.

3. The holiday highlights seven principles

The number seven plays an important role in Kwanzaa tradition. To clarify, besides the seven nights of celebration and seven fundamental principles (as well as seven letters in the name “Kwanzaa”), there are seven symbols that families place around their homes on the first of the symbols—a mat, or Mkeka, to remind them of the values of the celebration.

As mentioned, the Kinara, or candleholder, plays a pivotal role in each night’s celebration. The Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles, herald in the guiding principles. Mazao symbolizes crops, and Mahindi stands for corn. The Kikombe cha Umoja is the traditional unity cup used to give thanks during the week. Most importantly, family members give each other Zawadi, or gifts, to celebrate the spirit of family and community.

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Kwanzaa is the celebration of African culture, including African food, music and visual art.

4. Celebrations are deeply rooted in the arts

Food, art, and music are fundamental in African and African-American culture. Kwanzaa celebrations, while unique and personalized to each family, often include traditional African songs and dances, as well as poetry readings and storytelling.

Therefore, children paint and create art that reflects the meaning of family. For example, families gather around traditional African drums to sing songs and dance. In addition, there is always a traditional African feast, or Karamu, on Dec. 31st to cap off the week of celebration and give thanks to ancestors and community leaders.

5. Families resist commercialization

Unlike traditional winter holidays, Kwanzaa seeks to avoid commercialization. Consequently, gifts are often homemade and have an emotional or cultural tie. For instance, if a gift is purchased, it’s usually to support a business owned by a member of the community.

In short, the celebration seeks to put thankfulness and community at its center. Moreover, from the seven principles and symbols to the intentionality of humble, thoughtful gifts, it’s a way for the African-American community to reflect on its heritage and rejoice in its present-day bond.

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