KWANZAA tends to get lumped together with Hanukkah and Christmas as “the winter holidays,” but it is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one. You can celebrate Kwanzaa whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, or if you belong to other religions. Since Kwanzaa is a pan-African and African-American holiday, some people incorrectly assume it originated in Africa. In actuality, it has American roots—though people in Africa celebrate it today as well. The year-end event was created a year after the Watts Riots as a way to honour African heritage and bring Black families and communities together. Maulana Karenga, born Ronald McKinley Everett in Parsonsburg, Maryland, founded the holiday in 1966 during the civil rights movement. Then just 25 years old, Karenga was a Black nationalist and activist intent on liberating African Americans from racial oppression, in part by building pride and unity around their cultural origins. Karenga went on to earn two PhDs and is currently chair of the department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach.
Although celebrated in winter, Kwanzaa is patterned after harvest festivals traditionally celebrated by many African cultures and tribes. The word “Kwanzaa” comes from “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Like other harvest festivals, Kwanzaa includes a feast called Karamu on day six of the holiday. Seven is an important, even mystical, number in many cultures and traditions. In fact, according to Karenga himself, the additional “A” in “Kwanzaa,” which comes from the Swahili kwanza, was added so that the name would have the symbolic seven letters! Seven was a central number for the Rosicrucians and ancient Egyptians; there are seven deadly sins in Catholicism; there are seven days in a week. Seven also features prominently in Kwanzaa. Not only does the holiday last for seven days, December 26 through January 1, but there are also seven symbols, including seven candles to be lit, and seven principles.
The seven basic symbols of Kwanzaa are: mazao (the crops), mkeka (the mat), kinara (the candle holder), muhindi (the corn), mishumaa saba (the seven candles), kikombe cha umaja (the unity cup), and zawadi (the gifts). Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa has a specific principle rooted in the sacred teachings of Asante and Zulu harvest celebrations. Participants are meant to talk about, celebrate, and reflect upon: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (Imani). Seven candles are lit during the seven days of Kwanzaa, representing the seven key principles of the holiday. The ceremonial lighting of candles is a rite of focus and remembrance in many traditions around the world. They are placed in a candle-holder called a kinara. There are three green candles, three red, and one black.
The black candle—representing the people, collectively—is lit each day, then an additional candle that coincides with that day’s specific principle. The green candles and green parts of the Kwanzaa flag stand for hope and the future, two appropriate and universal themes for the end of the year. The red candles and the red in the Kwanzaa flag represent the struggle of the people. During the Karamu, or Karamu Ya Imani (feast of feasts), everyone present drinks from the unity cup. After everyone has a sip of water, juice, or wine from the cup, the oldest person at the celebration asks for a blessing from God or from the ancestors of those who are present. At large feasts, rather than family dinners, people may sip from their own small cups, but at the same time. This is also a time to honour the elders in the family. On the last day of the holiday, people exchange gifts. In line with the principle of creativity, Kwanzaa gifts are traditionally homemade. But families also buy creative gifts such as books, music, and art.
Meaningful gifts (zawadi), are given to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement, and success. The exchange of gifts with members of our immediate family, especially the children, is to promote or reward accomplishments and commitments kept. Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfil 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. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” “All progress is contingent upon struggle,” says Dr. Carter Jackson. “The abolition of slavery, the right to vote, and even the end of Jim Crow was not inevitable.
People actively resisted and fought against oppression for change to come. Hope is not a strategy on its own. I’m always encouraged for the future when I see people taking a stand for what is right and pushing to make it happen.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was easier to celebrate these principles with dance performances, parades and other in-person community events. But now, virtual zoom meetings are the norm as the substitute and lighting a candle for each principle during the week-long holiday and embracing the principles of Kwanzaa in the new year, is the way going forward. Celebrities who have been known to celebrate Kwanzaa every year include Barack Obama, Oprah, Maya Angelou, rapper Chuck D, Angelina Jolie, and artist Synthia Saint James (who designed the first Kwanzaa postage stamp). Do have a happy and safe Kwanzaa.