Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration. It was established in 1966 during the Civil Rights era by Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, a scholar and social activist. The word “Kwanzaa” is a Swahili word that means “first fruits.” The celebration is based on African harvest rituals as well as beliefs and values of traditional African customs. It has no ties to any religion.
The annual celebration begins on December 26th and lasts for seven days. The number seven is significant. There are seven letters in the word Kwanzaa. Also, there are seven principles of Kwanzaa that focus on strengthening black families and communities. The seven principles are
1. Unity—We help each other.
2. Self-determination—We decide things for ourselves.
3. Collective work and responsibility—We work together to make life better.
4. Cooperative economics—We build and support our own businesses.
5. Purpose—We have reason for living.
6. Creativity—We use our minds and hands to make things.
7. Faith—We believe in ourselves, our ancestors, and our future.
Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration of heritage. It is a time for learning and understanding one’s past and creating common purposes and goals for the future. It is also a time of joy and sharing. During this weeklong celebration, families get together and celebrate one principle each day.
Colors and symbols are a large part of the celebration. Red, black, and green are the main holiday colors. Red represents courage and blood. Black stands for the color of the skin. Green represents faith, the land, and harvest.
On December 26th, the head of the household gathers and arranges the symbols of Kwanza. First he or she spreads a straw mat on a low table or on the floor. Then the kinara, a candleholder, is placed in the center of the mat. Seven candles (three red, one black, and three green) are placed in the holder. Ears of corn, one for each child in the family, are placed on the sides of the mat. Gifts, a unity cup (reinforcing the value of unity in the family and community), and a basket of fruit are also placed on the mat.
The head of the household says “Habari Gani,” which means “What’s the news?” The other family members respond by saying the name of the principle of the day. Next the “Harambee,” a gesture meaning “let’s pull together” is done seven times. The right arm is raised with the hand open and the hand is closed while pulling the arm down.
Each person then tells of their understanding and commitment to the principle of the day. Stories are shared and families discuss how to live the principles each day of the year.
A feast called Karamu takes place on the sixth night, December 31. At this time, gifts are opened. The gifts are reminders of what has been learned during the week, as family members have focused on their history as a people and have made commitments for the new year.