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An Overview of Kwanzaa

An article defining and explaining Kwanzaa, the African-American holiday of culture.
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Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor is it meant to replace Christmas. It was created by Dr. Maulana "Ron" Karenga, a professor of Black Studies, in 1966. At this time of great social change for African Americans, Karenga sought to design a celebration that would honor the values of ancient African cultures and inspire African Americans who were working for progress.

Kwanzaa is based on the year-end harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years. The name comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits of the harvest." Karenga chose a phrase from Swahili because the language is used by various peoples throughout Africa.

The Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba)

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa honors a different principle. These principles are believed to have been key to building strong, productive families and communities in Africa. During Kwanzaa, celebrants greet each other with "Habari gani," or "What's the news?" The principles of Kwanzaa form the answers.

The Principles of Kwanzaa
Principle Pronunciation Meaning Action
umoja (oo-MOH-ja) unity building a community that holds together
kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) self-determination speaking for yourself and making choices that benefit the community
ujima (oo-JEE-mah) collective work and responsibility helping others within the community
ujamaa (oo-JAH-ma) cooperative economics supporting businesses that care about the community
nia (nee-AH) a sense of purpose setting goals that benefit the community
kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) creativity making the community better and more beautiful
imani (ee-MAH-nee) faith believing that a better world can be created for communities now and in the future

Colorful Celebrations

Families gather for the great feast of karamu on December 31. Karamu may be held at a home, community center, or church. Celebrants enjoy traditional African dishes as well as those featuring ingredients Africans brought to the United States, such as sesame seeds (benne), peanuts (groundnuts), sweet potatoes, collard greens, and spicy sauces.

Especially at karamu, Kwanzaa is celebrated with red, black, and green. These three colors were important symbols in ancient Africa that gained new recognition through the efforts of Marcus Garvey's Black Nationalist movement. Green is for the fertile land of Africa; black is for the color of the people; and red is the for the blood that is shed in the struggle for freedom.

The Seven Symbols

Celebrants decorate with red, black, and green as well as African-style textiles and art. At the heart of Kwanzaa imagery, however, are the seven symbols.

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa
SymbolMeaningAction
kikombe cha umoja the unity cup Celebrants drink from this cup in honor of their African ancestors. Before drinking, each person says "harambee," or "let's pull together."
kinarathe candleholder, which holds seven candlesIt said to symbolize stalks of corn that branch off to form new stalks, much as the human family is created.
mazao fruits, nuts, and vegetables These remind celebrants of the harvest fruits that nourished the people of Africa.
mishumaa saba the seven candles that represent the seven principles A different candle is lit each day. Three candles on the left are green; three on the right are red; and in the middle is a black candle.
mkeka mat The symbols of Kwanzaa are arranged on the mkeka, which may be made of straw or African cloth. It symbolizes the foundation upon which communities are built.
vibunzi (plural, muhindi) ear of corn Traditionally, one ear of corn is placed on the mkeka for each child present.
zawadi gifts Traditionally, educational and cultural gifts are given to children on January 1, the last day of Kwanzaa.

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