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An African American Celebration

Beginning on December 26 and lasting for 7 days, Kwanzaa is an African American holiday. It reinforces community, family and good social values through seven principles.

Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday in terms of most celebrations held at this time of year, but it is celebrated by millions and is a fast growing holiday. It first started in 1966, when Dr. Maulana Karenga thought up the idea. He was concerned at the loss of identity of The African American people, and wanted a celebration of their cultural heritage and roots. It is far more than just a celebration, though. It is a way of bringing the community together, teaching younger members to be proud of whom they are and reaffirm the commitment to family and community.

It begins on December 26 and lasts for seven days, ending on January 1. For each day there is a different principle, or theme, to think about and discuss. The ideas and origin of the Kwanzaa celebrations come from an ancient African tradition of celebrating the first fruits. The word Kawanza comes from Swahili, a widely spoken African language. The names of the seven principles and the Kwanzaa greetings are all in Swahili. This is because it does not reflect one particular African nation or group, and so can be used by all.

The Seven Principles

Each day a different principle is celebrated and thought about.

  • Ujimah (oo-MO-jah) or unity. It is to remind people to come together as a family, community, nation and race.
  • Kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-GOO-lee-ah) or self-determination. To have a separate identity, and to let others know about it.
  • Ujima (oo-JEE-mah) or cooperation and working together. Helping to build a community and solve problems together.
  • Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) or supporting one another. To build businesses and places of work especially to support others in the community
  • Nia (NEE-yah) or purpose. To rebuild the community ties and maintain them.
  • Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) or creativity. To improve the community and make it a better and more beautiful place.
  • Imani (ee-MAH-nee) or faith in the leaders and the community.

The pronunciation is in brackets, with emphasis being placed on the sound in capital letters. You will learn about why the words have different colors, as you read on.

The Symbols

This holiday has many symbols. There is a candleholder that holds seven candles. The center candle is black, to symbolize the face of the African people. On the left of the black candle are three red candles, and on the right are three green ones. The red symbolizes the blood of the African people and the green is for the land and the hope of new life.

The candleholder (kinara) should be placed on a table. First, the table should be covered with a piece of African cloth, preferably with the black, red and green colors. Then a straw mat (mkeka) is placed on the table. The candleholder is then placed on the mat. For every child an ear of corn (muhindi) is also placed on the mat. Even if there are no children in the family, there should be two ears of corn. This is because in African culture every adult is meant to be a social parent to all the children in the community. There is also a cup known as the cup of unity (kikombe cha umoja).

The Celebration

Each day the family gathers to discuss the principle of the day. They can gather in their home, or several families may gather together in one home, or a large meeting hall. Traditionally the youngest person lights the candle. On the first day the black candle is lit, and the first principle is discussed (umoja). Everyone can talk about what it means to them, how they try to practice it, and how other people practice it and how it helps the entire community. Then there can be a discussion on how they can continue to practice it throughout the year, and activities based on the principle of the day. After the discussion is complete, the candle is put out. On the next day the black candle is lit again, and then a candle for the next principle, Kujichagulia. If you look back at the list of principles, you will see this one is written n red, so a red candle is lit. The next day the black candle, the red one and a green one are lit, and so on, until on the seventh day all seven candles are lit.

There is a feast, usually held on December 31. It is called the Karumu. At the feast there is dancing, story telling a talk about Kwanzaa and plenty of fun. At the feast everyone drinks from the Cup of Unity. Gifts may also be exchanged. Although gifts are not necessary to the celebration, they are often given, mainly to children. They should include a book and heritage symbol. The most treasured gifts are the homemade crafts. The food that is eaten at the feast should be authentic African recipes, no hot dogs and hamburgers!

Although Kwanzaa is only celebrated for seven days, its principles are carried on throughout the year. The seven days are to remind everyone of how they should live their lives throughout the coming year.

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