What Is Kwanzaa?

Symbols of Kwanzaa.
Symbols of Kwanzaa.

What Is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is an African American festival that celebrates life and black culture. It is most commonly celebrated by people of West African descent in order to promote their shared heritage. This non-religious celebration takes place between December 26 and January 1. Kwanzaa is said to promote a sense of shared community among those who celebrate it.

History Of Kwanzaa

The celebration of Kwanzaa was first introduced in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana studies. He created this holiday so that people in the black community could celebrate their lives and their history, rather than the history of the dominant culture. The celebration is rooted in African harvest celebrations. In fact, its name comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits.” This phrase is in reference to the first fruits of the harvest season.

Where Is Kwanzaa Celebrated?

When Kwanzaa was first practiced, it was mainly celebrated in the United States. This week-long festival has gained popularity and is now celebrated by people of African descent around the world. Outside of the US, it is most popular in Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Great Britain, and France.

In the US, approximately 4.7 million people take part in Kwanzaa festivities. Worldwide estimates are varied and range from 30 million to 2 million.

Principles And Symbols Of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa celebrations are based on 7 principles. These are:

Umoja or Unity

Those who celebrate Kwanzaa should live their lives in a way that promotes unity of family, community, race, and nation.

Kujichagulia or Self-Determination

This festival encourages self-representation. This means that one should speak for, act for, create for, define, and name oneself.

Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility

This principle continues with the theme of unity. It reminds Kwanzaa followers to work together to maintain a community. This means that one should not ignore the problems that people within the community may be experiencing.

Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics

In addition to maintaining and taking care of the community, Kwanzaa suggests cooperative economics. This means to build an economic system that is independent of the dominant economy. Businesses, stores, and shops that work together to support each other, and profit from each other.

Nia or Purpose

This principle reinforces the idea of unity, suggesting that the black community works together to achieve its previous greatness.

Kuumba or Creativity

Being creative is key to the principles of Kwanzaa. Kuumba, in particular, suggests being as creative as possible in order to make the world better for future generations.

Imani or Faith

Imani promotes having faith in community people, leaders, parents, and teachers.

Kwanzaa festivities also involve seven symbols. The central symbol is the Mkeka (mat). Practitioners use this mat to place other key symbols, such as kinara (candle holder), mishumaa saba (seven candles), mazao (the crop), vibunzi (ear of corn), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), zawadi (gifts).

Rituals And Customs Of Kwanzaa

Each of the previously mentioned symbols is used in Kwanzaa rituals. The seven candles, for example, represent each of the seven principles. One is lit every day of the week-long celebration, beginning with the black center candle. The other candles are green and red.

The unity cup is used on day 6. Each person drinks from the cup during the dinner. Afterwards, the eldest person in attendance fills the cup with either water, juice, or wine and points the cup in each of the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). After asking for a blessing from gods and ancestors, the cup is poured out onto the ground.

Gifts are also exchanged during this celebration, particularly hand-made items. This is to promote creativity (one of the principles) and avoid the materialism of shopping. By accepting a gift, one promises to fulfill the host’s expectations concerning the rights and duties of the family.

Significance In Society

Kwanzaa has continued to gain popularity throughout the world with many political leaders now recognizing the tradition and expressing well-wishes to those who celebrate. These festivities have helped to expand the idea of family and unite an ethnic group that was historically torn apart due to slavery. Additionally, it has given a voice to a culture that has experienced oppression all over the world.


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