Kwanzaa, first created in the 1960s by college professor Mualana Karenga, is a holiday designed to unite, empower, and celebrate the African American community. Karenga was inspired by African harvest festivals when creating Kwanzaa. Its name comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which translated in English to “first fruits”. If this all sounds interesting to you, you will be delighted to discover there is a lot more to learn about this holiday. And in this post, we will take a deeper look at the history of Kwanzaa and how it’s being celebrated in 2022.
Many people choose to celebrate both of these holidays during the holiday season. Karenga described it as a holiday that was not religious, but cultural. This means that people of all different faiths and ancient traditions—Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and more—can partake in the celebration of Kwanzaa.
This holiday is centered on seven distinct principles: umoja (unity), ujima (working together collaboratively), ujamaa (cooperating with others financially), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Along with seven principles, there are seven symbols for Kwanzaa: mazao (crops), mkeka (mat), kinara (candleholder), muhindi (corn), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), zawadi (gifts), and mishumaa saba (seven candles). These seven symbols are often arranged and displayed on a table. With the symbolic candle display, you will find three red candles symbolizing struggle, three green candles symbolizing hope for the future, and one black candle that represents people of African descent. People celebrating Kwanzaa often decorate their home in these red, green, and black colors.
People often exchange gifts with friends and family members in celebration of Kwanzaa. Gifts are traditionally given on the last day of Kwanzaa and are often homemade. Making gifts allows people to give loved ones thoughtful presents or unique personalized gifts while avoiding over-commercialization. Not every gift has to be homemade; if you are celebrating Kwanzaa, you can buy gifts for adults and gifts for kids like clothing, music, and a gift basket (even better if they are purchased from a black-owned business).
Many holidays come with the tradition of decorating and that includes Kwanzaa. In a previous point, we mentioned people celebrating this holiday will use the colors red, green, and black to decorate their homes. One classic Kwanzaa decor piece is the mkeka (the woven mat) displayed with an ear of corn, fruit, and kinara. These pieces all represent something important: the ear of corn symbolizes hope for the future and fertility; the fruit represents joy and collaborative work efforts coming to fruition, and a unity cup represents community. The cup is also a tool used during a beautiful and important ritual. On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the cup is filled with water, juice, or wine, and everyone takes a sip from the cup. This is done to signify togetherness and celebrate ancestors.
You would be hard-pressed to find any holiday that didn’t involve delicious food. Kwanzaa, of course, is no exception. People often celebrate this holiday by sharing a variety of dishes including black-eyed peas, jerk chicken, and Jollof rice, but we are only scratching the surface; there are many mouth-watering dishes served throughout the duration of the holiday. A few more examples include collard greens, catfish, accras (Caribbean fritters), and gumbo. Yummy desserts are also a big part of Kwanzaa celebrations. If you are looking for traditional Kwanzaa desserts, try sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, and coconut-lime pudding cake.
Kwanzaa is a holiday with several important principles and symbols, one of which is community. If you have never celebrated Kwanzaa before, but are interested in doing so this year, connect with local communities, friends, and households that are celebrating this holiday. You will likely find various businesses celebrating the holiday and Kwanzaa events taking place throughout your local community. Use this time to support a black-owned business, read new information, and reflect. Kwanzaa is a happy holiday like any other, but it is also a time to reflect on one’s heritage.
Like many other holidays, Kwanzaa involves several rituals and traditions. Every day, the lighting of the kinara (the red, green, and black candles) takes place. On the first day, the black candle is lit, symbolizing the people celebrating Kwanzaa. The red candle is lit on the second day to symbolize struggle and on the third day, the green candle is lit to symbolize abundance and hope for the future. The candle lighting alternates throughout the course of seven days until all seven candles are lit. Lighting the candles is often used as a time to reflect and discuss the importance of each symbolic candle.
Another important ritual is the daily karamu (feast). The shared meals offer an opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones, strengthen bonds, and celebrate the harvest with delicious dishes. There is no set menu, but as we mentioned in an earlier point, many dishes are prepared that highlight the African diaspora.
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