Kwanzaa celebrates community, family, culture

Dec. 25, 2011 at 6:25 a.m.
Updated Dec. 26, 2011 at 6:26 a.m.


Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community and African American culture that is celebrated annually from December 26 through January 1.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement by Maulana Karenga, an activist and professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

After the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Karenga searched for ways to bring African-Americans together as a community.

During the course of founding US, a cultural organization, Karenga began researching African first fruit harvest celebrations.

This prompted him to combine aspects of several different harvest celebrations including those of the Ashanti, Yoruba and Zulu to form the basis of Matunda ya Kwanza, which means "first fruits" in Swahili.

Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday not a religious one. People of all religious faiths and races are welcome to celebrate it.


The principles, called the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili) are a set of African cultural ideals created by Karenga which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans.

Unity: Umoja (oo-MO-jah):Strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah): Define and speak for oneself

Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo-GEE-mah): Build and maintain a community together

Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah): Build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Purpose: Nia (nee-YAH): Build and develop the community in order to restore African-Americans to their traditional greatness.

Creativity: Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah): To do always as much as possible in order to leave the community more beautiful and beneficial than it was inherited.

Faith: Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Believe in our community, parents, teachers and leaders and the righteousness and victory of the struggle.


The traditionally established way of celebrating Kwanzaa is as follows:

1. Asemble the Kwanzaa set: a table covered with African cloth, and a mkeka (mat) and a kinara (candle holder) filled with the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles).

2. Secondly, place the mazao (crops) and the kikombe cha umoja (the Unity cup) on the mkeka (mat). The cup is used to pour tambiko (libation) to the ancestors in remembrance and honor of those who paved the path down which we walk.

3. Next, place African art objects and books on the life and culture of African people on or next to the mat to symbolize our commitment to heritage and learning.

4. On each of the seven nights, family members will gather and a child will light one of the seven candles and discuss one of the seven principles

5. The seven candles represent the seven principles. The black candle, which should be lit first, represents the first principle Umoja and is placed in the center of the kinara.

6. The red candles represent the principles of Kujichagulia, Ujamaa and Kuumba and are placed to the left of the black candle.

7. The green candles represent the principles of Ujima, Nia and Imani and are placed to the right of the black candle.

8. The remaining candles are lit afterwards from left to right on the following days, indicating that people come first followed by the struggle and the hope that comes from the struggle.

9. Celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large African feast held on December 31 called a Karamu.


While the African American Cultural Center estimates that 30 million celebrate the holiday annually, Keith Mayes, an assistant professor of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota, estimates the total of celebrants to be between 500,000 to 2 million, a small percentage of the 38,929,319 million people who identified as black according to 2010 Census data.

"The idea of Kwanzaa is a beautiful practice, but it's going away," said Rhett Rushing, a folklorist at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.

"The communities I see are not celebrating Kwanzaa at all. People don't time to sit down as a family and light one candle," said Rushing.

Celebration of the holiday is not limited to the United States.

Blacks in Canada, France, Great Britain, Jamaica and Brazil also celebrate the holiday.

"I really believe it's much bigger than Pan-African heritage," said Rushing. "We're all African. I don't care who you are or what you look like."

Meanwhile, in the United States, cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.


The first U.S. postage stamp commemorating Kwanzaa, issued in 1997

The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service on Oct. 22, 1997, with artwork by Synthia Saint James.

A second Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Daniel Minter, was issued in 2004.

Rushing said like many other holidays, he foresees the celebration for Kwanzaa going online.

"People are going to celebrate in different ways," said Rushing. "I bet you a nickel people will soon be able to go online and light a virtual candle."


The greetings during Kwanzaa are in Swahili. The main greeting is "Habari gani (What's the news)?" and the answer is each of the principles for each of the days of Kwanzaa, i.e., "Umoja", on the first day, "Kujichagulia," on the second day and so on.

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