’Tis the season for celebrations and for those celebrating Kwanzaa, it’s only beginning. Dec. 26 marks the first day of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African American culture that culminates in a fest and gift-giving. In honor of each of the holiday’s seven days, this Pulse guide calls attention to seven facts about Kwanzaa.
Activist, author and African American studies professor Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966. His goal was to help African Americans connect with one another and their culture.
Kwanzaa runs from Dec. 26-Jan. 1.
About 2 million people in the U.S. observe Kwanzaa—and not all are of African descent. Millions around the world also observe the holiday, especially in West Africa. People who celebrate Kwanzaa often celebrate Christmas as well.
The Seven Principles
Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a different principle.
The first, Umoja (unity), focuses on striving for and maintaining unity in the family, community, nation and race. Kujichagulia (self-determination) calls for African Americans to define, name, create and speak for themselves. The third principle of Ujima (collective work and responsibility) concentrates on building and maintaining a community and helping one another with problems. Ujamaa (cooperative economics) is dedicated to building and maintaining businesses and profiting from them together. Nia (purpose) asks celebrants to make their collective vocations the building and developing of their community in an effort to restore their people to traditional greatness. Kuumba (creativity) is about leaving the community better than the condition they found it in. Imani (faith) focuses on believing in the African American community and the righteousness and victory of its struggle.
During Kwanzaa, symbolic decorations typically include a Kinara (candle holder), Mushumaa Saba (seven candles), mazao (crops) and Muhindi (corn). A Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) is used to celebrate, remember and give thanks to African American ancestors. Fresh fruits, often worn on women’s kaftans, symbolize African idealism. Corn is a primary symbol for dining and celebrants will often have an ear per child in the family. People give Zawadi (gifts). The symbols are often placed on a Mkeka (mat). Sometimes, a Bendera, a flag with three horizontal stripes of black, red and green, will be displayed along with a Nguzo Saba poster of the seven principles.
It is proper to wish someone who is celebrating a “Joyous Kwanzaa.” “Habari gani?” (What’s the news?) is another. The reply is the principle of the day.
The Dinner Party Itinerary
Every night of Kwanzaa is a feast. Though some may be more formal than others depending on the family celebrating, they all start off with a welcome and a performance of music, dance or poetry. People reflect, reassess, recommit and rejoice in life and African American culture. During a tambiko ceremony, everyone takes a drink from the unity cup, which typically holds water, wine or juice. The eldest person of the party honors ancestors by reciting the tamshi la tambiko (libation statement), pouring some of the drink and asking for a blessing. The elder pours some more on the ground and everyone else at the table shouts “Amen.” The host or hostess then takes a sip and hands it back to the elder. A drum performance follows. Then it’s time to dig in. Any food goes but Ethiopian, Kenyan, Caribbean and Southern comfort food like fried chicken and sweet potato pie are especially common.