The seven days are each rooted in seven different principles that emphasize family, culture, and community.

By Caroline Biggs
October 30, 2020
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multi-generational family celebrating Kwanzaa
Credit: Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Held every December, Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration honoring African American heritage. "Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday started by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 to connect African people living in the diaspora to values and principles rooted in traditional African epistemology," explains Dr. Linda H. Humes, founder of Yaffa Cultural Arts and host of the American Museum of Natural History's annual Kwanzaa celebration for the past twenty years. "It is celebrated every year from December 26 to January 1."

And while the holiday was created to honor the rich cultural legacy and contributions of African Americans, Jessica "Culture Queen" Smith Hebron, founder of Culture Kingdom Kids and interim executive director of the Prince George's African American Museum and Cultural Center in Maryland, says it's important for all people to respect and acknowledge Kwanzaa as an important African American tradition. "Like other African American traditions, including Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Black Love Day, and Juneteenth, Kwanzaa helps us to have a deeper appreciation for the diversity of our heritage."

Interested in learning more about Kwanzaa? Here's what Hebron says you should know about the holiday.

Kwanzaa is based on seven principles.

Kwanzaa celebrations span seven days that are each rooted in seven different principles, known as Nguzo Saba in Swahili, that emphasize family, culture, and community. The first day, Umoja, honors unity; the second, Kujichagulia, is about self-determination; the third, Ujima highlights collective work and responsibility, the fourth, Ujamaa, stresses cooperative economics (such as supporting Black-owned businesses); the fifth, Nia, prioritizes purpose; the sixth day, Kuumba, celebrates creativity; while the seventh and final day, Imani, signifies faith. "While each of these principles are celebrated during Kwanzaa, they're meant to be practiced all year long," Hebron says.

The tablescape is key.

Hebron says a designated Kwanzaa table is the centerpiece of a home during the celebrations—and it must be decorated with specific traditional Kwanzaa symbols to be complete. "It's customary to dress the table in African fabric purchased from a Black-owned store," she explains. "A woven mat, known as a mkeka, is then laid out to represent the foundation of the holiday, and a wooden candle holder (kinara) with seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), goes on top of it." Along with a kinara, she says that a Kwanzaa table should also include a unity cup (kikombe cha Umoja) for pouring libations to honor ancestors, a plant, a Pan-African flag (Bendera), fresh fruit (mazao), ears of corn (muhindi), and family photos or mementos that pay homage to African American culture, such as art and books. "Handmade gifts, known as zawadi, are also added to the table throughout the holiday, which are opened on the last day of Kwanzaa (Imani)."

The candles in a kinara are important.

Hebron says the colors of the candles in a kinara are crucial, as well as the order you place them in. "A specific candle is lit every night to observe the Kwanzaa principle of each day," she explains. "The candles reflect the colors of the Pan-African flag: The three red candles go on the left to represent the blood of our ancestors, the single black (in the center) represents Black people, and the three green candles on the right signify the Motherland which is the continent of Africa." The black candle is lit on the first night and then, alternating red and green, candles are lit starting from the outside and moving inwards.

Kwanzaa pays homage to African harvest celebrations.

Kwanzaa is a Kis-Swahili word that literally translates to "first fruits of harvest" and is timed around the traditional harvest holidays celebrated throughout the continent of Africa. As a result, Hebron says fresh fruit (mazao), such as bananas, mangoes, and pineapples, are also essential at a Kwanzaa table. "The more fruit the better," she says. Hebron says it's also important to add ears of corn (muhindi) to the table, to represent children in the family. "Use one ear of corn for each child in the family," she explains. "If there are no children in the family, then you can use one for each family member or ones to represent other children in the community."

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday.

Although Kwanzaa might not be a religious holiday, Hebron says it's certainly a spiritual one. "Kwanzaa is based on universal principles that all African Americans and people of African descent can identify and commit to despite their religious background," she explains. "It was created for African Americans by African Americans because of the need for us to have a holiday that celebrates our cultural heritage, however it is extremely important for all people to recognize, respect, and be educated about the holiday."

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