Kwanzaa: A Special Way to Usher in the New Year

It is Kwanzaa time!

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held from December 26th to January 1st in the United States to honor African culture and heritage.

Kwanzaa symbolKwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the chairman of Black Studies at California State University Long Beach. In the wake of the LA Watts riots, Dr. Karenga created the celebration in an effort to bring African Americans together as a community, and to reconnect with their African heritage.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ which means the ‘first fruits of the harvest,’ and it is a nod to the traditional harvest feasts, which are celebrated in Africa during December and January in honor of the summer solstice.

The week-long celebration is filled with song, dance, African drums, storytelling, poetry, and candle lighting ceremonies.

On each of the seven nights, a candle is lit which represents one of the seven principles called the Nquzo Saba. In addition to the principles, the festivities also honor seven basic symbols, which reflect the values of African culture.

The week’s festivities culminate in a feast and gift-giving, normally held on New Year’s Eve, December 31st.

Around the world, many cultural exhibitions honor Kwanzaa, including an annual celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The 7 Principles of Kwanzaa

Happy kwanzaa in red background

The 7 principles embrace the key African values and philosophies, or what Karenga describes as ‘the best of African thought and practice.’

  1. Unity (Umoja): To achieve unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  2. Self-Determination (Kujichagulia): To define ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  3. Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima): To build our community and solve our problems together.
  4. Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa): To build our own stores, shops, and other businesses and profit from them together.
  5. Purpose (Nia): To develop our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  6. Creativity (Kuumba): To do as much as possible to ensure that we leave our community in a more beautiful state than we inherited it.
  7. Faith (Imani): To believe wholeheartedly in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

And the 7 Symbols

happy kwanzaa in red and blue backgroundKwanzaa’s 7 symbols are:

  1. Crops (Mazao): Crops of fruits, nuts, and vegetables are the living symbol of the African harvest as well as the large African families that created the crops.
  2. Placemat (Mkeka): Made from straw or cloth, the placemat is a symbol of African history, culture, and traditions.
  3. Corn (Vibunzi): The stalk of corn signifies fertility and children who represent the future by carrying the cultural values and traditions forward. During the week-long festivities, an ear of corn is placed on the placemat for each child in the family. Even if there are no children in the home, two ears of corn are still set on the placemat to symbolize the idea that every adult is responsible for the safety and welfare of the community’s children.
  4. Seven Candles (Mishumaa Saba): Candles symbolize light and the power of the sun. There are a total of 7 candles: 3 red, 3 green, and 1 black. The black candle represents unity and the African American people; it is lit the first day (on December 26th). The 3 green candles symbolize hope and stand for purpose, collective work and responsibility, and faith. The 3 red candles symbolize struggle and stand for cooperative economics, self-determination, and creativity.
  5. Candleholder (Kinara): The candleholder is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and is the symbol of ancestry. It is often made from natural materials like fallen branches or wood.
  6. Unity Cup (Kikombe Cha Umoja): The unity cup is used to perform the libation ritual during the Karamu feast on the 6th day of Kwanzaa. The cup is passed to family members and guests. The eldest person at the table pours the drink (water, juice, or wine) in the direction of the four winds: north, south, east and west. He asks the gods/ancestors to partake in the festivities and to bless anyone who is not present.
  7. Gifts (Zawadi): On the seventh day, gifts are exchanged between family and guests. The gifts are normally artistic or educational, and handmade presents are encouraged. Gift-giving symbolizes the importance of social relationships and the idea that the gift receiver will now enjoy all the rights and responsibilities of a family member.

How to Celebrate Kwanzaa

Jollo Rice and Dr. Rosane OliveiraOne way to enjoy this beautiful celebration is to create a Kwanzaa feast.

Held on December 31st, you can enjoy this traditional meal by following some of the customs such as:

  • Decorating your home with Kwanzaa symbols
  • Lighting the Kinara, which celebrates the 7 principles
  • Playing African drums and music
  • Reading about African history

To make the feast extra special, whip up a batch of Jollof Rice, a delicious plant-based version of a classic West African dish filled with tomatoes, onions, and spice.

Enjoy this special dish and holiday!