On Kwanzaa

(Image Credit: Rochester City Newspaper)

Now that I’ve finished my exams and my Winter Break has officially begun, I can begin to actually celebrate the holidays!

There’s one holiday in particular that I’ve heard mentioned countless times during this season but that I really have no knowledge about: Kwanzaa. And I’m genuinely interested in, well, what it is, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to educate both myself and you about this holiday.

Kwanzaa is a pan-African holiday, and there’s a good chance you knew that. So, being an African tradition, it must be thousands of years old, established after some great miracle occurred- kind of like Hannukah or Christmas, right?

Well, no. Kwanzaa was created in America. In the 1960s. But don’t let it loose any credibility because of that.

I guess you could say that Kwanzaa’s roots are old- the name comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” meaning “first fruits” in Swahili. Some of the holiday’s elements are modeled after these “first fruits” celebrations, which occurred among kingdoms all over Africa at times of harvest. But what’s with the extra ‘a’? At the first ceremony of Kwanzaa, seven children wanted to hold the six letters of “Kwanza,” and in the spirit of community, an extra ‘a’ was added to accommodate that last kid.

Developed by Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s, Kwanzaa was meant to celebrate the roots from which African Americans came, along with togetherness, worship, and recommitment.

Kwanzaa enforces the “Nguzo Saba”- the Seven Principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). These are values that the creators of Kwanzaa felt represented what it means to have African roots.

Each of the Seven Principles is represented by a candle (seven of which are called Mishumaa Saba). These candles are arranged on a candle holder called a Kinara. The candles are colored black (representing the African people), red (representing struggle), and green (representing hope).

The Kinara and the Mishumaa Saba are two of seven basic symbols, the rest being Mazao (the crops) symbolizing hard work and the harvest, Mkeka (the mat) symbolizing the foundation of history, Muhindi (the corn) symbolizing children and the future, Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup) symbolizing unity, Zawadi (the gifts) symbolizing the labor and love of parents.

All of the various symbols are placed on the Mkeka during the daily evening ceremony, when one of the candles (representing one of the Seven Principles) on the Kinara is lit. One member of the family asks, “Habari gani?”, a greeting meant to ask which value will be celebrated this evening. The other family members reply with one of the Seven Principles (i.e. “Umoja” on the first day), and the candle is lit.

Gifts, if families choose to give them, are given to children and must always include a book and a symbol of African heritage, aligning with the traditions of learning and history. And then, like most holidays, an evening of Kwanzaa ends with eating and family time.

If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about Kwanzaa’s history and traditions, visit this website or watch this video.

Thus ends my lesson on the colorful, symbolic holiday created to celebrate the spirit and culture of Africans. So, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or some other obscure day of observance I know nothing about, happy holidays.

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