Holidays around the world are culturally embedded artifacts that are often rooted in cultural values and traditions. Some holidays, such as Passover (first celebrated in 12 BC), Holi (mentioned in 7th century Sanskrit poems), and Halloween (evolved from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain 2,000 years ago) have been celebrated for thousands of years. Other holidays like Bastille Day (first celebrated in 1789), International Human Rights Day (established in 1948), and International Day of Friendship (proclaimed by the UN in 2011) have a shorter history. However, the age of a holiday does not define nor diminish its importance. What makes a holiday important is the purpose and meaning it has to its celebrants and their culture(s). Holidays, which were thoughtfully and intentionally created as a way to bring a renewed sense of unity to a culture and/or community, are truly valuable and unique celebrations. One such holiday is Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa, also spelled Kwanza, was founded by Dr. (Ron) Maulana Karenga, after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. At the time, Dr. Karenga was a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Concerned about the impact of the Watts Riots, he searched for ways to bring African Americans together as a community. In 1966, he and Hakim Jamal founded the US Organization, which promoted African American cultural unity. Hoping to root Black Americans in African culture, Dr. Karenga promoted activities such as learning Swahili and practicing traditional African traditions. He also researched African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations and combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations (such as Ashanti and Zulu) in order to form the basis of Kwanzaa. (History, 2009) In 1966, the culmination of his ideas and ideals led to the first Kwanzaa festival, which was the first specifically African American holiday.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration that starts on December 26th and ends on January 1st. Dr. Karenga’s chose that the week coincides with Christmas and New Year’s for a specific reason. Dr. Karenga stated that, “his goals was to, ‘give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.’" (Wikipedia, 2020) Kwanzaa celebrates African American and pan-African cultures and values and serves to contrast the modern commercialism of Christmas. According to Dr. Karenga, “As an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community, Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.” (Karenga, 2019)
The word "kwanza" is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits” in Kiswahili (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania). So, Kwanzaa is a ritual to welcome the first harvests to the home. Kwanzaa is rich with cultural symbols and artifacts. Symbols of African culture include vibunzi (ears of corn), mkeka (place mats), and mazao (crops, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables).
Families celebrates Kwanzaa in their own ways. Common celebrations include singing and dancing, playing African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and eating a large traditional meal. Kwanzaa celebrates Nguzo Saba (“seven principles” in Swahili). These important principles are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). On each of the seven nights, families gather and a child lights one of the candles on the kinara (candleholder). Then, the principle that coincides with that specific candle is discussed. Then, the other candles are relit to give off light and vision. The candle-lighting ceremony each evening provides the opportunity to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa.
The mishumaa saba (seven candles) are red, black, and green. The symbolic colors of the mishumaa saba, which also represent African gods, come from the bendara (red, black, and green flag) that was created by Marcus Garvey. The black candle symbolizes umoja (unity), the basis of success, and is lit on December 26th. The three green candles, which represent nia, ujima, and imani, are placed to the right of the Umoja candle. The three red candles, represent kujichagulia, ujamaa, and kuumba, are placed to the left of it. The kikombe cha umoja (unity cup) is used to perform the tambiko (libation) ritual during the Karamu (African feast) on December 31st, the sixth day of Kwanzaa. During the Karamu feast, the kikombe cha umoja is shared with all attendees promote unity, ancestors are honored, blessings are said, offerings are given, and everyone says “Amen”.
On the seventh day, when imani is celebrated, zawadi (gifts) that support and encourage growth, self-determination, achievement, and success are given to immediate family members. Handmade gifts are encouraged “to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the chaos of shopping and conspicuous consumption during the December holiday season.” (History, 2009) Gift-giving and gift-receiving are important rituals themselves. “Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift; it obliges the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift cements social relationships, allowing the receiver to share the duties and the rights of a family member. Accepting a gift makes the receiver part of the family and promotes Umoja.” (History, 2009)
Kwanzaa is an important culture-specific holiday that promotes cultural pride, values, community and family. Though Kwanzaa is rooted in African culture, people from all cultural backgrounds are encouraged to celebrate the culture and achievements of the African American and pan-African community. Sending happy Kwanzaa wishes to someone who celebrates is a nice way to connect and show respect for their culture and heritage. You can wish celebrants a happy holiday by saying “Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri” (“Happy Kwanzaa”).
Written by: Emily Kawasaki
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- Karenaga, Dr. Maulana. “Https://www.Maulanakarenga.org/.” Official Website: Dr. Maulana Karenaga, 2020. https://www.maulanakarenga.org/.
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- “US Organization.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, May 3, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Organization#Creation_of_Kwanzaa_(1966).
- Weiss, Maggie. “Kwanzaa Wishes - What To Write.” American Greetings. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.americangreetings.com/inspiration/what-to-write/kwanzaa-wishes#:~:text=In%20fact%2C%20the%20name%20Kwanzaa