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1. Kwanzaa is less than 60 years old.
Maulana Karenga, a Black nationalist who later became a college professor, created Kwanzaa as a way of uniting and empowering the African American community in the aftermath of the deadly Watts Rebellion. Having modeled his holiday on traditional African harvest festivals, he took the name “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” The extra “a” was added, Karenga has said, simply to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, each of whom wanted to represent a letter.
2. Many people celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas.
Though often thought of as an alternative to Christmas, many people actually celebrate both. “Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality,” Karenga writes. “Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’i and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc.” According to Karenga, non-Black people can also enjoy Kwanzaa, just as non-Mexicans commemorate Cinco de Mayo and non-Native Americans participate in powwows.
3. Kwanzaa centers around seven principles.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa, as determined by Karenga, are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Kwanzaa also has seven symbols–mazao (crops), mkeka (mat), kinara (candleholder), muhindi (corn), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), zawadi (gifts) and mishumaa saba (seven candles)–that are traditionally arranged on a table. Three of the seven candles are red, representing the struggle; three of the candles are green, representing the land and hope for the future; and one of the candles is Black, representing people of African descent. Some families who celebrate Kwanzaa dress up or decorate their homes in those colors.
4. Homemade and educational gifts are encouraged.
In order to avoid over-commercialization, gifts handed out to family members on the last day of Kwanzaa are often homemade. Alternatively, some participants buy books, music, art accessories or other culturally themed products, preferably from a Black-owned business.
5. U.S. presidents habitually wish the nation a happy Kwanzaa.
Despite not observing the holiday, former president Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, issued a statement in 2011 “to all those celebrating Kwanzaa.” “We know that there are still too many Americans going through enormous challenges and trying to make ends meet,” the president said. “But we also know that in the spirit of unity, or umoja, we can overcome those challenges together.” Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush released similar statements during their time in office. The holiday also has made inroads with the U.S. Postal Service, which has issued Kwanzaa stamps since 1997.
READ MORE: Kwanzaa History
5 Kwanzaa Traditions
Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday that celebrates African-American heritage, is the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach. Karenga created Kwanzaa as a way to help African-Americans remember their roots and also to foster unity during a time of incredible racial strife. It's been observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 every year since 1966.
Karenga, a controversial figure in the black power movement, openly opposed Christian beliefs and originally declared that Kwanzaa should be an anti-Christmas of sorts. By the late-1990s, though, he had backed off, saying "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." Today, about one in seven African-Americans celebrates Kwanzaa, and many of them do it in addition to Christmas [sources: Raskin, Scholer].
The name Kwanzaa is derived from matunda ya kwanza, a Swahili phrase for "first fruits," is based on traditional African harvest festivals, combining customs from a number of different cultures. Each of the seven days represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or nguzo saba. There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa, which celebrants display prominently in their homes throughout the holiday.
The colors of Kwanzaa are red, black and green -- the colors of the Pan-African flag, which symbolizes unity among African people all over the world. Black represents the people, red their blood and green the earth and the future.
Kwanzaa is, of course, a festive time it has all the feasting and celebrating you'd expect from a weeklong holiday, but it's also an occasion for reflection, conversation, contemplation and camaraderie. And although it's a relatively young holiday, it has its fair share of very specific, detailed traditions. So, if you don't know your vibunzi from your mishumaa saba, this is a good place to start!
We'll start off with the foundation of Kwanzaa: the seven principles.
Each day of Kwanzaa represents one of the seven principles, or nguzo saba. Taken together, the seven principles make up kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Kwanzaa celebrants are encouraged to discuss, meditate on and dedicate themselves to a different concept every day:
- Umoja (unity): commemorates togetherness not only in family, friend and community groups but in the world African population
- Kujichagulia (self-determination): honors the ability to define, create and speak for the self
- Ujima (collective work and responsibility): focuses on communal problem-solving and consensus-building
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics): spotlights sharing work and wealth and following non-exploitative business practices that benefit the whole community
- Nia (purpose): a commitment to upholding black history and heritage and regaining prominence as a culture
- Kuumba (creativity): explores the obligation to beautify the community for future generations
- Imani (faith): focuses on being positive and believing in the potential of the self and the community as a whole
During the evening candlelighting (which we'll talk about in more detail on the next page), everyone in the group explains what the day's principles means to them and how they tried to apply it that day. There might be an activity based on the principle, like a project, a musical performance or a poetry reading.
There's a specific greeting for each day, too. The answer to the question "Habari gani?" (Swahili for "what's the news?") is always the name of that day's principle. So, for example, on the third day the response would be "ujima."
When Kwanzaa started, the intention was -- as a part of the kujichagulia principle of self-determination -- to keep it separate from non-African holidays. But over the years, more and more African-American families have begun celebrating Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's.
There are hundreds of African languages, but Dr. Karenga chose to use Swahili for Kwanzaa terms because it's the most widely spoken language on the continent.
Along with the seven principles of Kwanzaa come the seven symbols. This grouping of symbolic items is placed on a mat in a central area of the home and is the focal point of any Kwanzaa celebration:
- Mkeka (mat): The mkeka is woven from a traditional African material, probably straw, kente (a silk and cotton blend) cloth or mud (cotton fabric dyed using mud) cloth.
- Mazao (crops): The fruits, vegetables and nuts laid on the mkeka symbolize work, the harvest and the nourishment of the tribe.
- Vibunzi (ear of corn): Corn represents fertility and community child-rearing. Each child in the family is represented by an ear of corn on the mkeka (if there's more than one ear, the group is called a mihindi). If there aren't any kids in the household, two ears of corn are still placed to show that everyone is responsible for the community's children.
- Mishumaa saba (candles): Candles are a major part of celebrations in almost every culture, and Kwanzaa is no exception. The mishumaa saba is a set of seven candles (three red, three green and one black) that are lit every night of Kwanzaa, each representing one of the seven principles. The black candle in the center (which symbolizes umoja) is lit by itself on the first night and together with a red or green candle every night thereafter.
- Kinara (candleholder): The kinara -- which symbolizes history and ancestry -- can be of any shape and made of any kind of material, but the candles must be laid out in a specific pattern: black in the center, green on the right and red on the left.
- Kikombe cha umoja (unity cup): The unity cup plays a major part in the karamu (feast or party) on the sixth night of Kwanzaa, which we'll talk about on the next page.
- Zawadi (gifts): Kwanzaa gifts, which we'll also discuss on a later page, are only for children, and they always have cultural and historical meaning.
There are two supplemental Kwanzaa symbols -- the Pan-African flag and a poster of the seven principles -- that can be displayed in the house but not necessarily on the mkeka.
There's plenty of food to go around on any given night of Kwanzaa, of course, but the main eating event -- and the most significant Kwanzaa celebration overall -- is the karamu feast, usually held on Dec. 31. The principle for the sixth day of Kwanzaa is kuumba (creativity), so it stands to reason that the karamu is a showcase for creativity of all kinds -- artistic, musical and poetic, as well as culinary.
Karamu feasts vary in formality, but a by-the-book event starts off with a welcoming statement (kukaribisha) and a music, dance or poetry performance. Then comes the kukumbuka, reflections offered by a man, woman and child. After that is a "reassessment and recommitment" ritual, a talk by a guest lecturer and then rejoicing (kushangilia).
The next step, the tambiko ceremony, is the central ritual of the Karamu feast. Everyone passes and drinks a libation (tambiko) from the kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Then the oldest person in the party honors the ancestors by reciting the tamshi la tambiko (libation statement) and pouring some of the drink -- usually water, juice or wine -- to the four winds before asking for a blessing. He then pours some on the ground, to a resounding "amen" from the group. The host or hostess then takes a sip and hands it back to the elder. Then there's a drum performance (ngoma), and it's time to eat!
As part of his original intent to separate Kwanzaa from Americanized events, Dr. Karenga wanted the holiday to be overflowing with traditional African cooking. But as Kwanzaa became more mainstream, African-American dishes inevitably started creeping into the mix. And there are people of African descent all over the world, so the food isn't limited to the African continent. Any given karamu, then, could include Ethiopian, Kenyan and South African fare, along with Caribbean cuisine and Southern comfort food like mac and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken and sweet potato pie.
Finally, the host or hostess gives a farewell speech (tamshi la tutaonana), and the well-fed guests head home.
Ngoma is the Swahili word for drum, and the term is also used to indicate dancing and social gatherings in Swahili-speaking areas.
Kwanzaa celebrants spend New Year's Day as so many people do around the world -- with a day of intense focus on meditation, self-analysis and renewal. Jan. 1 is the final day of Kwanzaa, known as the Day of Meditation (siku ya taamuli), and the principle for the day is imani (faith). Dr. Karenga noted that, in the tradition of the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Jan. 1 can also be called a Day of Remembrance or Day of Assessment.
As in the karamu feast the night before, there is an aspect of ancestor tribute to the Day of Meditation. Celebrants are primarily called to reflect on themselves, but a central concept of Kwanzaa is that you cannot know yourself without knowing where you came from. To understand the self, you have to pay homage to your heritage and understand your role in your community.
The main task for the Day of Meditation is to contemplate the three kawaida (tradition and reason) questions and answer them honestly:
The Odu Ifa meditation is recited as an aid to this self-reflection and contemplation:Let us not engage the world hurriedly. Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently. That which should be treated with mature judgment, Let us not deal with in a state of anger. When we arrive at a cool place, Let us rest fully Let us give continuous attention to the future and let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things. And this because of our (eventual) passing [source: Official Kwanzaa Web Site].
And with the end of the Day of Meditation comes the end of Kwanzaa. The hope is that the renewed sense of self, heritage and community will last throughout the coming year.
Back in 1966, Dr. Karenga was adamant in his desire that Kwanzaa not go down the overcommercialized path that so many holidays have followed. Kwanzaa is about more than gifts, and he didn't want the holiday's message to be watered down by insignificant presents being given all seven nights. And while time has worn down some of his dictates (about food, for example, and Kwanzaa not being celebrated along with Christmas), his vision for gifts has stayed clear and largely unchanged.
According to Dr. Karenga, children should be the only recipients of presents (known as zawadi) during Kwanzaa. Exchanges between immediate family members are common, but it's mostly for children. And if you're giving your kids PlayStations and DVDs every night of Kwanzaa, you're missing the point. Gifts are given only on the final night, and they should have meaning.
There's always a book -- one that has cultural and historical significance, preferably -- and some sort of heritage symbol. Zawadi are one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, so they're displayed on the mkeka, which is yet another reason to make sure they're appropriate. A box of Legos won't look quite right sitting next to the kinara and kikombe cha umoja.
There are numerous ways to fulfill the heritage symbol part of the equation. A gift that comes from the heart (and hands) is always preferable to a store-bought one handmade gifts are, in Dr. Karenga's words, "a wall of resistance against commercialization" [source: Official Kwanzaa Web Site]. Create a family photo album, cookbook or framed family tree. Weave a mkeka or make your own kinara. Ideally, the zawadi portion of the evening shouldn't be a big deal -- gifts are not the focal point. They're to be given out quickly and admired, and then it's on to the next activity. Gifts take a backseat after a day of introspection and meditation, and it's more important to focus on winding up the seven-day holiday and getting ready for the new year.
If there were ever any doubts that Kwanzaa would eventually move into the mainstream, they were erased in 1997 with the debut of the first Kwanzaa postage stamp, designed by Synthia Saint James. It was followed by a second edition, in 2004, by artist Daniel Minter.
What Things Do You Need to Celebrate Kwanzaa?
In order to properly observe Kwanzaa, you will need to have seven key items:
- The Kikombe Cha Umoja ("Unity Cup"): Celebrants drink from this special cup on the sixth day of Kwanzaa to honor their African ancestors.
- The Kinara ("Candleholder"): The kinara, which represents the family's ancestors, is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and holds the seven candles of Kwanzaa. It can be in any shape, as long as the seven candles are separate from each other.
- The Mazao ("Crops"): The mazao symbolize the harvest fruits that nourished the people of Africa (e.g., fruits, nuts, and vegetables).
- The Mihindi("Ears of Corn"): Ears of corn represent fertility. One ear of corn is placed on the mkeka for each child in the family.
- The Mishumaa Saba ("Seven Candles"): These seven candles represent each of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. There are three green candles, three red and one black. The black candle represents the principle of Umoja ("unity"), and is placed in the center of the kinara. The three green candles represent the principles of Nia, Ujima and Imani, and are placed on the right side of the black candle. The three red candles represent the principles of Kujichagulia, Ujamaa and Kuumba, and are placed on the left side of the black candle.
- According to Riley, these colors were originally inspired by the Pan-African flag, or "bendera," that Marcus Garvey created in 1920. Black symbolizes the African-American people red symbolizes the blood that has been shed in their struggle for freedom and equal rights and green symbolizes earth, the entity that sustains life and provides hope.
Want to Know More About Kwanzaa? We've Got You Covered
At its core, Kwanzaa is about connecting the the past and present and celebrating community.
When I was younger, I thought Kwanzaa was just &ldquoBlack Christmas.&rdquo But although my family was Black, Kwanzaa wasn&rsquot a holiday we celebrated. My understanding of it was extremely limited and filtered through the white gaze. When I got older and learned about different ways of expressing pride in Black heritage, I learned more about the holiday and why so many hold it close to their hearts.
If you haven&rsquot celebrated Kwanzaa before, this winter &mdash with the threat of Covid-19 still looming and many of us unable to be with our families &mdash might be a good time to start.
At its core, Kwanzaa is about reflecting and acting upon principles and values that have and will continue to get the Black diaspora through each struggle we have faced, the struggles we&rsquore facing now, and the struggles yet to come.
When is Kwanzaa? And what is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa lasts from December 26th to January 1st, and the holiday is uniquely African American. Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of Africana studies at California State University, it&rsquos also still a very new holiday.
Although it's based in African American traditions, Kwanzaa does have some similarities to the New Yam Festival in places like Ghana and Nigeria, where people offer yams to the deities and the ancestors, then distribute them to the community as a way to give thanks.
In fact, the word "kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili phrase &ldquomatunda ya kwanza,&rdquo meaning "first fruits,&rdquo as yams are the first crops harvested in the year.
Kwanzaa is meant to celebrate harvests of a village or community, and the way it's celebrated often stands in stark contrast to the more commercialized &mdash and vastly more popular &mdash holiday of Christmas.
Why do people light candles during Kwanzaa? And what are the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa lasts for seven nights, each of those days are represented by a different candle on a candelabra called the kinara. Because Kwanzaa lasts for seven days and is represented by the kinara, it&rsquos often compared to Hanukkah &mdash the Jewish festival of lights that lasts eight nights and has a candelabra called a menorah to represent those days. The Hanukkah menorah actually has nine candles, and the history behind that is very interesting.
But the kinara has seven &mdash one black, three red, and three green candles &mdash which represent Black people, blood (the blood spilled and blood passed down from the ancestors) that unites us, and the rich and fertile land of Africa, respectively. Black, red, and green are also the colors of the Pan-African flag, a symbol of unity amongst the African diaspora, whose colors have the same meaning.
Each of these candles is meant to represent the Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).
You can probably see how these principles are so closely related to what it takes to survive this global pandemic, where Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are dying at much higher rates, and communities must take care of each other to survive.
What are some other symbols of Kwanzaa?
Being a harvest festival, crops (mzao) represent how our African descendants brought their knowledge of agriculture to this continent, building the foundation of this empire against their will. But it also represents our ingenuity and collective labor. Corn/maize (muhindi) is a big part of Kwanzaa, signifying children and the hope they bring with them.
A woven mat (mkeka) represents the necessity of a foundation &mdash familial, cultural, communal. The kinara usually rests on the mkeka.
Corn/maize (muhindi) signifies children and the hope associated in the younger generation. The unity cup (Kkimbe cha Umoja) is used to pour libations to the ancestors.
Do people give gifts on Kwanzaa?
Yes, each night of Kwanzaa, people usually get zawadi, or gifts. However, gift-giving during Kwanzaa is much different than the gifts people receive during Christmas. Each Kwanzaa gift is supposed to reflect a principle of the night on which it is given. And, to reject commercialism, Kwanzaa gifts are encouraged to be homemade and infused with love and intention. There are lots of ideas for homemade Kwanzaa gifts you can make, from African dolls to your own kinara.
Why is Swahili the language of Kwanzaa?
Despite many people seeing Africa as one huge monolith, there are over 2,000 languages spoken on the continent. And due to the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, many African Americans don&rsquot know what language their ancestors spoke, or they have so many roots in so many places that the languages of their background are numerous.
Swahili is the most commonly spoken African language, moving widely across countries and tribes. Therefore, Swahili was thought to be the best language to represent unity and recognize the unique cultural memory of African Americans.
There are so many Swahili phrases associated with Kwanzaa, like the greeting, &ldquoHabari gani,&rdquo which means "How are you/ What&rsquos the news?" People will often greet each other this way each day of Kwanzaa.
What kind of food do people eat during Kwanzaa?
During Kwanzaa, people eat everything from gumbo to oxtail to fish pepper soup &mdash basically dishes from African, African American, and Caribbean cuisine. Many of these meals will be a mix of traditional recipes and more modern versions, or culturally synthesized versions, to acknowledge the past and the future of the diaspora.
These dishes are eaten throughout the week, but the holiday culminates with a big feast (called Karamu) on Dec 31st.
If I have a different religion, or if I&rsquom not Black, can I still celebrate Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, it&rsquos a cultural one. Because of this, people from all different religious backgrounds &mdash including African spiritual traditions &mdash celebrate the holiday. However, whether non-Black people should celebrate the holiday is much more contested. Some people believe Kwanzaa is meant for all races and ethnicities, as long as they keep the revolutionary nature of Kwanzaa in mind. To be on the safe side, it&rsquos better to be sensitive to the views and feelings of others if you&rsquore not part of the Black diaspora and are planning on celebrating Kwanzaa.
I&rsquove heard that the founder of Kwanzaa is problematic. Should I still celebrate the holiday?
Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, has a history that cannot merely be called &ldquoproblematic.&rdquo In 1971, he was convicted of felonious assault and false imprisonment for torturing two women at his home. According to The Los Angeles Times&rsquo reporting, the abuse these women endured while trapped was horrifying. In addition to these crimes &mdash for which Karenga was sentenced and spent five years in prison &mdash he has also been accused of rape by some in his community.
In an article examining Karenga&rsquos history and Kwanzaa for The Root, Kirsten West Savali wrote Kwanzaa was &ldquo. birthed in struggle and chaos, then bathed in blood.&rdquo
Kwanzaa isn&rsquot merely a feel-good holiday, it was created in response to a time of great turmoil &mdash after the Watts Riots amid the FBI&rsquos COINTELPRO program, which harassed Black communities and activists economic inequities and more. And now, more than half a century later, Black people are still dealing with the same issues.
Because of this, Savali argued that we must remember Kwanzaa is &ldquofreedom work and not the whitewashed, often commercialized version we may see today during public school recitals.&rdquo
But as she points out, it is exactly the revolutionary origins and nature of Kwanzaa that make it difficult to celebrate for some. It&rsquos hard to celebrate a holiday whose founder failed to live up to the principles he taught. However, for many people, Kwanzaa still has meaning outside of Karenga&rsquos influence.
Deciding whether you want to celebrate Kwanzaa is a personal decision, but whatever you decide, it&rsquos good to avoid celebrating the holiday in ways that glorify its creator.
Nylah Burton is a Washington D.C. based writer. Follow her on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.
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Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Kwanzaa
While its roots came from the African traditions, the celebration of Kwanzaa began in the United States. It was established after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, California – one of the most severe riots in the city’s history. Disturbed by the disintegration of African-American community because of violence, Dr. Karenga decided to create an annual event that he and his fellow Africans could celebrate together. According to him, he created this Kwanzaa for three basic reasons: first, to preserve the African culture second, to bring African communities closer together and third, to promote the importance of communal African values.
Initially, Kwanzaa was practiced as an African-American holiday, since it was created to commemorate the life-long struggle of African-American communities. But in the years since it was established, Kwanzaa has gained appeal and widespread recognition with more than 20 million people now observe the festival, according to CNN. Despite its very young age, many countries now, such as Canada, America, Africa, Caribbean, and England, consider it as a part of their culture, and many people celebrate it as part of their year-end tradition. People claim it to be the fastest growing holiday.
Even though Kwanzaa is celebrated for the purpose of uniting the black people, the National Retail Federation found that only 2.3 percent of African-Americans observed the holiday in 2006. And the number has significantly declined in recent years. According to the research done by Dr. Keith Mayes, a professor at the University of Minnesota, only about 500,000 out of 40 million black families in the U.S. now celebrate the holiday, which only amounts to a paltry 1.5 percent of America’s black population.
Well, there are various reasons why some blacks have made a conscious decision to entirely avoid the holiday. Some people consider Kwanzaa as pagan. They think that by celebrating the holiday, they worship the person who created it, which is an act of paganism. Other groups believe that the celebration is racist and anti-Christ. Others think that the holiday is just made-up, so there’s no reason for it to be celebrated.
BOND founder, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, said in an article in Front Page magazine that “Christians who celebrate or incorporate Kwanzaa are moving their attention away from Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the simple message of salvation: love for God through his Son.”
Another reason why some blacks decided to not celebrate the holiday is because it is not considered an actual holiday in Africa and the person, who founded it, has a not so good history. In 1971, Dr. Karenga was convicted of assaulting and torturing two black women, who were part of his own organization, which gave some critics the impression that the holiday detracts from Karenga’s claim that he created it to unite the black community. As what Kiilu Nyasha, a former Black Panther in New Haven CT, said, “How can I honor a holiday made up by a man who tortures women in his own organization?”
Other people, on the other hand, do not celebrate the holiday simply because they are already too busy to fit another holiday between Christmas and New Year.
There is a wide misconception that Kwanzaa is only for African-American people. On the contrary, Kwanzaa, like Christmas and New Year, is for everyone. Although it was specifically created for the black community, non-Africans can also celebrate the holiday. According to the official website of the Kwanzaa, which is also authored by Dr. Karenga, Kwanzaa “is clearly an African holiday created for African people. But other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans Chinese New Year besides Chinese Native American pow wows besides Native Americans.”
Just like Christmas, Kwanzaa is a time for sharing, giving, and celebrating with friends and families. However, it is important to remember that a big part of the holiday is still meant for the black community. While advocates of Kwanzaa encourage everyone to join in the celebration of the holiday, they do not encourage adding things to the celebration that would destroy or diminish the true meaning of it. Kwanzaa ceremonies typically include dancing, drumming, reading of African principles, candle-lighting, feasting, and story-telling.
Although Kwanzaa is often thought as an alternative to Christmas, the founder of the holiday said that “it is not a substitute for anything.” While Karenga’s initial purpose for creating Kwanzaa was “to give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday,” Karenga later revised his statement and said, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holidays…but rather as a means to help African-Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage.”
He also emphasized that unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, which have religious purposes, Kwanzaa has a cultural observation, “offering a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity, and chance to make a proactive choice.” The creation of Kwanzaa is also meant to give people an opportunity to take advantage the seasonal excitement present during the season. While it can also be an alternative to existing holidays, its purpose doesn’t focus on that. People definitely have a freedom to celebrate Christmas and other holidays in addition to Kwanzaa.
Remember, the principles of Kwanzaa include unity and cooperation. Thus, people of all faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Hebrews, Buddhists, and Jews, can celebrate Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa, which is also interestingly spelled in seven letters, has seven principles and seven symbols. The seven principles (also called Nguzo Saba) include umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (a sense of purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Each principle is celebrated each night, where members of the family gather together to discuss them, and one member lights one candle on a special holder, called kinara. Depending on the Kwanzaa observers, they may also include common activities in their ceremonies, such as dancing, drumming, and poetry reading in addition to explaining the values of African culture.
The seven symbols, on the other hand, include mazao (crops), mkeka (place mats), muhindi (ear of corn), mishumaa saba (candles), kinara (candleholder), kikombe cha umoja (unity cups), and zawadi (gifts). These symbols, which represent the values of African culture, are displayed on a table during the ceremony. The crops (fruits, nuts, vegetables) symbolize the African harvest celebrations and recognize the hard work of those who labored to grow them the mats symbolize the foundation of African traditions and history the corn represents the children and their future the candles represent the seven principles of the holiday, the candleholder represents their ancestors – from where the African people came the unity cup, as the name suggests, symbolizes unity and the gifts symbolize the love and labor of parents.
Just like Christmas, which has two official colors – red and green – Kwanzaa also has its own official colors, which were considered very important in ancient Africa. The official color symbols of Kwanzaa are green, red, and black, with each of them representing a different meaning. The green color symbolizes both the fertile land of Africa and hope for a brighter tomorrow the black color represents the skin color of the African people, and the red signifies their blood that is shed in the struggle for their freedom.
During the seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa, observers light one new candle per day on the kinara. The placement of the candles is as follows: one black candle in the center, three red candles to the left, and three green candles to the right. The center black is lit first and then it alternates between the red and green candles starting with the farthest red, then the farthest green, and so forth, until it reaches the center. Each candle has a meaning, so every time a candle is lit, it is essential to pause for a while to reflect on the candle’s meaning.
The three color symbols of the holiday was based on the colors of the national flag of the African-American people, which was designed by Marcus Garvey, the father of the modern Black Nationalist Movement.
In addition to the seven-day tradition of lighting the candles, on each day of the celebration, observers greet one another a Swahili phrase, Habari gani, which means “What’s the news?” The response to the greeting is one of the seven principles, depending on which day of Kwanzaa it is. For instance on the first day, people will respond Umoja. During this day, people will focus on unity – telling stories that are related to the day’s principle and doing things that will demonstrate the oneness of African-American community. On the second day, people will answer Kujichagulia and focus on self-determination on the third day, people will say Ujima and discuss the importance of the principle and so on.
Another popular greeting during the celebration is the Swahili phrase Harambee, which means “Let’s all pull together!” If you’re not familiar with these phrases, though, you can simply greet your family and friends a “Happy Kwanzaa!”
Just as Christmas and other holiday celebrations, Kwanzaa also features feasting, known as karamu. It takes place on December 31 st , the sixth day of the holiday. During this event, the dining tables are designed with colorful decorations and filled with a blend of delicious Caribbean, African, and South American delicacies. Some popular dishes are fried chicken, okra, baked ham, plantains, sweet potatoes, and black bean soup. But while this event is an opportunity to satisfy the observers’ appetites, karamu isn’t all about food. It’s also a time to bond with other members of the community, honor their roots, and celebrate their rich history and traditions.
Apart from sharing meals, it’s customary for Kwanzaa observers to discuss the African principles during the karamu. Even children are encouraged to speak or share a story that has a relevance to the principle of that day. In addition, there are selection of music, drumming, artist performance, and poetry reading. And during this event, it is customary for observers (both adults and children) to wear traditional African-style garb with red, black, and green colors. Pieces of African clothing that people may wear include buba (a loose fitting blouse), busuti (a floor-length dress), dashiki (a hand-painted or embroidered shirt), kanzu (a colored robe), gelee (a West African headwrap), or a kanga (a colorful East African garment). Wearing traditional African clothing is meant to show pride in their culture and history.
Although one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa is about gift-giving, the holiday isn’t about buying and exchanging expensive presents. Instead, Kwanzaa observers are encouraged to give gifts that only cost a little but with richer meaning.
Kuumba, which is the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, relates to building and developing the creative potential of Kwanzaa observers. It pushes families and communities to always do the best they can, in the way they can, to beautify the lives of others and the land that they inherited. Throughout the year, each family member should find or think of something that they will give to their loved ones during the celebration of the holiday. While one may purchase gifts, handmade presents are much encouraged. Some gift ideas include African-inspired home decorations, linens, art symbols, ornaments, pillows, or jewelries. Books about African folk tales or African recipes are also a popular choice.
Every item that is given on the holiday is being cherished because every Kwanzaa observer knows that each item has been carefully thought out to show their care and love for each other.
As we know, Kwanzaa is celebrated all over the world, but I think people didn’t know that even celebrities (including non-blacks) celebrate this African-American and Pan-African holiday. Among the celebrities, who have been known to celebrate the festival every year, are Oprah Winfrey, the famous talk show host, actress, and producer Stevie Wonder, one of the most creative and loved musicians of all time Maya Angelou, American author and poet Chuck D., American rapper and author Holly Robinson Peete, American actress and singer Jim Brown, actor and former NFL star Synthia Saint James, award-winning artist and designer of the first Kwanzaa stamp and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the famous celebrity couple, raising a multicultural family.
In fact, even the presidents of the United States recognized the importance of this day. Even though no one can say for sure whether President Barrack Obama celebrates the holiday or not, he regularly issues an annual statement that sends his best wishes to all those celebrating the Kwanzaa festival. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush also did the same during their time in office.
Sure, it’s true that Kwanzaa still remains a mystery to other people. But let’s not forget that it’s a totally new holiday that has just been around for about 50 years. I’m sure that in the years to come, more and more people will appreciate the true meaning of the celebration, just like Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year, and other holiday celebrations, which have been around a thousand of years ago. Although Kwanzaa has some inconsistencies and its founder faces a lot of criticisms, the holiday aims to unite the black people, recognize their struggle, and preserve their culture and history. Like other holidays, Kwanzaa can be used as an opportunity to promote unity and togetherness, to enjoy and celebrate with others, as well as to learn the value of African society.
What Is Kwanzaa? 5 Things To Know About The Pan-African Holiday [PHOTOS]
Kwanzaa, the pan-African holiday, kicks off today with a weeklong celebration of African culture and values. The African diaspora will celebrate the occasion by paying tribute to their roots and striving to lead better lives.
Here are five things to know about the holiday:
1. Kwanzaa have a relatively short history compared to other traditional holidays
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, founder and chairman of the Black Nationalist Organization and current professor and chairman of Africana Studies at Cal State-Long Beach, as a way for African-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Kwanzaa got its name from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” the first-fruit celebrations in Africa thanking the gods for the harvest.
2. It’s not tied to a religion
While the first day of Kwanzaa starts on Dec. 26 – the day after Christmas – and is celebrated during the holiday season, it is not a religious holiday. The holiday ends on Jan. 1.
Although Karenga initially thought of Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas, he later changed his stance and encouraged African Christians and Africans of other religions to participate in Kwanzaa.
3. Kwanzaa is rooted in seven principles
These principles are known as Nguzo Saba, and each value represents an aspect of African philosophy.
In his Kwanzaa 2013 message, Karenga explains the purpose of the principles:
“The Nguzo Saba stand out as a clear way to walk, work and struggle in the world as African people a way of life that begins with the respect for the relational character of human life,” he wrote. “It is a cultural way we call communitarian, i.e., community-grounded, which understands that we come into being, develop and flourish relationships. And it is a way that teaches that the hub and hinge on which the whole of human life turns is the quality of relationships.”
The principles are: Umoja (Unity) Kujichagulia (Self-determination) Ujima (Collective work and responsibility) Ujamaa (Cooperative economics) Nia (Purpose) Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
A candle holder known as a kinara sets up seven candles, each representing one of the Kwanzaa principles. The kinara is lit during Kwanzaa.
4. Presents are exchanged, but at least some of the gifts should be educational
According to the official Kwanzaa website, which is maintained by Karenga, “Gifts are given mainly to children, but must always include a book and a heritage symbol. The book is to emphasize the African value and tradition of learning stressed since ancient Egypt, and the heritage symbol to affirm and reinforce the African commitment to tradition and history.”
5. The Kwanzaa celebration
Kwanzaa observers are instructed to avoid mixing symbols of the holiday with other celebrations, such as Christmas.
“First, you should come to the celebration with a profound respect for its values, symbols and practices and do nothing to violate its integrity, beauty and expansive meaning,” the official Kwanzaa website advises. “Secondly, you should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture. This would violate the principles of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) and this would violate the integrity of the holiday.
“Thirdly, choose the best and most beautiful items to celebrate Kwanzaa. This means taking time to plan and select the most beautiful objects of art, colorful African cloth, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc., so that every object used represents African culture and your commitment to the holiday in the best of ways.”
Some of these items include the kinara, crops to symbolize African harvest celebrations, and corn, which represents children and the future.
American Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the aftermath of the Watts riots  as a specifically African-American holiday.   Karenga said his goal was to "give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."  For Karenga, a major figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the creation of such holidays also underscored the essential premise that "you must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction." 
According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits".  First fruits festivals exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice, and Karenga was partly inspired by an account he read of the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama.  It was decided to spell the holiday's name with an additional "a" so that it would have a symbolic seven letters. 
During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas. He believed Jesus was psychotic and Christianity was a "White" religion that Black people should shun.  As Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so practicing Christians would not be alienated, stating in the 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture that "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."  Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas. 
After its initial creation in California, Kwanzaa spread outside the United States. 
Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage). They were developed in 1965, a year before Kwanzaa itself. These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili word meaning "common".
Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the principles, as follows: 
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa celebratory symbols include a mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed:
- a Kinara (candle holder for seven candlesticks  )
- Mishumaa Saba (seven candles)
- mazao (crops)
- Mahindi (corn), to represent the children celebrating (and corn may be part of the holiday meal). 
- a Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) for commemorating and giving shukrani (thanks) to African Ancestors
- Zawadi (gifts).
Supplemental representations include a Nguzo Saba poster,  the black, red, and green bendera (flag), and African books and artworks—all to represent values and concepts reflective of African culture and contribution to community building and reinforcement. 
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa.  The holiday greeting is "Joyous Kwanzaa".   
A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast of faith (Karamu Ya Imani).   The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani?,  which is Swahili for "How are you?" 
At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, some African American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year. 
Cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.   
The popularity of celebration of Kwanzaa has declined with the waning of the popularity of the black separatist movement.     Kwanzaa observation has declined in both community and commercial contexts.    According to University of Minnesota Professor Keith Mayes,  the popularity within the U.S. has "leveled off" as the black power movement there has declined, and as of 2009 between 500 thousand and two million Americans celebrated Kwanzaa, or between one and five percent of African Americans. Mayes added that White institutions now celebrate it. 
The National Retail Federation has sponsored a marketing survey on winter holidays since 2004, and in 2015 found that 1.9% of those polled planned to celebrate Kwanzaa – about six million people in the United States. 
Starting in the 1990s, the holiday became increasingly commercialized, with the first Hallmark Card being sold in 1992,  and there has been concern about this damaging the holiday's values. 
Stjepan Meštrović, a sociology professor at the Texas A&M University, sees Kwanzaa as an example of postmodernism. According to Meštrović, post-modernists in modern society may view "real" traditions as racist, sexist or otherwise oppressive, but since living in a world where nothing is true is too terrifying to most people, "nice" and "synthetic" traditions like Kwanzaa have been created to cope with the nihilistic, individualistic modern society. 
In popular media Edit
Maya Angelou narrated a documentary film about Kwanzaa, The Black Candle, written and directed by M.K. Asante Jr. and featuring Chuck D.  
Futurama also makes frequent reference to Kwanzaa, through it’s use of the character - “Kwanzaa-bot”. Despite this, the show unfortunately does little to elaborate beyond repeatedly stating that very few people seem to know that much about Kwanzaa including stating that “Kwanza-bot”, seems to know very little about the holiday themselves.
US government Edit
The first Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Synthia Saint James, was issued by the United States Post Office in 1997, and in the same year Bill Clinton gave the first presidential declaration marking the holiday.   Subsequent presidents George W. Bush,  Barack Obama,  and Donald Trump  also issued greetings to celebrate Kwanzaa.
The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red and green. Black represents the color of the people of Africa. Red stands for the struggles of the African peoples and the blood they’ve shed. Green symbolizes the fertile land of Africa and hope.
The holiday takes place over seven nights. Similar to Hanukkah, candles are lit every night of Kwanzaa. Each night represents a different principle, outlined below.
3. Collective work and responsibility
4. Cooperative economics
(Photo credit: DmNdm, Depositphotos.com)
12 Facts About Hanukkah You Probably Didn't Know
Everything you need to know about the Festival of Lights.
Chag sameach or, Happy Hanukkah! As the holiday is fast approaching, we thought we should break down the history behind some of the Jewish holiday's traditions. From its history and its food to how to celebrate it today, here are twelve things to know about the history of Hanukkah.
The holiday commemorates the triumph of a band of rebel Jews known as the Maccabees in reclaiming their temple from the Greek-Syrians.
The temple required a holy light to burn inside at all times, but the Jews had only enough oil for one night. Incredibly, the light burned for eight days.
A Menorah is a candelabra with nine candles. Four on either side and a candle in the center intended to light all the others. This is known as the shamash and it sits higher than (or somehow apart from) the other candles.
It used to be tradition for people to give money to one another for Hanukkah. But as Christmas became more popular, more and more Jewish people began giving gifts instead.
Latkes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), apple fritters, kugel- when you think of the food served at Hanukkah most of them are fried. This isn&rsquot a coincidence, people fry their food in oil for Hanukkah as a symbol for the miracle oil that burned for eight nights straight.
This year you can see the lighting of the 32 feet high and 4,000 pound Menorah every night from December 2nd to December 9th.
Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah are actually much more significant to the religion.
In 1951, he accepted a Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion.
You may have seen the holiday spelled like Hanukkah, Hannuka, or Chanukah. the list goes on. The most common version is Hanukkah, but all of the spellings are actually accurate. Because there is no correct way to directly translate the Hebrew sounds to English, it could be spelled a variety of different ways, each equally correct.
The Greek-Syrians had outlawed Jewish studies, so the Jews spun dreidels to pretend they were merely playing games while they engaged with their scripture.
To celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, many of the holiday's festive foods are prepared in oil, particularly: the family favorite sufganiyot (or jelly donuts).
Jews follow a tradition of incentivizing their children to learn Torah on this holiday by gifting them gelt, or golden-wrapped chocolates that resemble coins. Gelt can also be won in a game of Dreidel!
12 Things To Know About Kwanzaa
Before fourth grade, Kwanzaa was a mysterious seven day holiday right after Christmas, only presented to me in the form of classroom activities involving glue sticks and construction paper. But when my teacher that year asked class if anyone celebrated Kwanzaa, a girl raised her hand and the classroom turned. Our teacher asked her to describe what she thought Kwanzaa was all about. &ldquoTo remember where we come from,&rdquo she said confidently. My interest was sparked, and soon Kwanzaa became an important tradition for me (and, in time, my family too).
Despite being a well-known holiday many of us grew up hearing about, the purpose and meaning of Kwanzaa is often obscure to those who don&rsquot light the Kinara each year on December 26. In honor of the holiday's 50th anniversary, here are 12 things you may not have known about the holiday.
1. Kwanzaa has roots in the struggle for racial equality.
Amid national upheaval and distress during the Civil Rights Movement, Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga, now professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, was determined to find a way to bring the African-American community together to persevere through hardships. Karenga combined African traditions of communal wealth and unity to create a holiday tradition focused on meditation and togetherness.
2. Kwanzaa isn&rsquot tied to any particular faith.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture rather than religion, so whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Winter Solstice, you can always wrap up your year honoring African heritage.
3. The word Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase &ldquomatunda ya kwanza&rdquo which means &ldquofirst fruits.&rdquo
Many African civilizations celebrated &ldquofirst fruits&rdquo harvests to promote A commitment to community growth and prosperity. Swahili was the language of choice for Kwanzaa&rsquos name because it is the most commonly spoken African language.
4. Kwanzaa has an extra &ldquoa&rdquo for a super sweet reason.
At an inaugural ceremony for the holiday, originally named Kwanza, seven children offered to carry the six letters of the word. In an effort not to leave a child out, the holiday gained an extra &ldquoa&rdquo at the end of its name.
5. The Kinara, or the Kwanzaa candle holder, has meaning.
No matter the size or shape (it comes in many!), the Kinara represents the &ldquostalk&rdquo or roots of the African-American community &mdash our African ancestors! The culture they tirelessly cultivated and protected creates a sturdy foundation for our modern communities.
6. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa are represented by candles on the Kinara, which are symbolic of Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles of African heritage.
The Kinara holds one black candle at its center, symbolizing Umoja, or unity. At the right of the Umoja candle are three green candles, one for Nia, or purpose, Ujima, or collective work and responsibility, and Imani, or faith. And on the left of the Umoja candle are three red candles representing, Kujichagulia, or self-determination, Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, and Kuumba, or creativity. Candle placement is an important element of Kwanzaa because it places unity at the center of all other principles &mdash without it, no other candle can be lit and no other principle can be met.
Families are encouraged to take time each day to discuss with each other and their communities what each principle means to them and how they intend to carry it out in the new year, be it volunteering, supporting community businesses, donating to those in need, etc.
7. The colors of the Kwanzaa candles are symbolic too.
Black represents people of African heritage, red is symbolic of the blood uniting all of those with African ancestry, as well as the bloodshed African Americans endured in the fight for freedom, and green represents the lush and vibrant land of Africa. These colors aren&rsquot exclusive to Kwanzaa candles Kwanzaa celebrations are filled with black, red, and green, from flags to table clothes.
8. You&rsquore encouraged to get dressed up for the holiday.
Many families wear traditional African clothing, printed with beautiful patterns and vibrant colors when celebrating Kwanzaa to show pride in their African heritage.
9. &ldquoHabari gani?&rdquo is Kwanzaa&rsquos official greeting.
It's Swahili for &ldquoWhat&rsquos the news?&rdquo and should always be answered with the Kwanzaa principle of the day. For example, if someone asks you &ldquoHabari gani?&rdquo on the first day of Kwanzaa, you reply &ldquoUmoja.&rdquo
10. Gifts, or Zawadi, can be exchanged on Kwanzaa.
Handmade gifts are especially encouraged (in order to avoid the chaos and consumerism of holiday shopping). They also promote creativity and purpose, and should always be tied back into African heritage. Some families give gifts related to the principle of the day.
11. There&rsquos so many different ways to celebrate Kwanzaa.
Families are encouraged to create their own Kwanzaa traditions, whether it be making Kwanzaa vision boards to create a sense of direction and purpose for the coming New Year:
Or watching your kids perform in the cutest Kwanzaa play ever:
Habari Gani? Ujima Habari Gani! Today is about COLLECTIVE WORK AND RESPONSIBILITY. Be your brother and sister's keeper. Share goals. pic.twitter.com/XzdPb6XRcW&mdash Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux) December 28, 2016
12. Another great explainer of the essence of the holiday comes thanks to Disney Channel's 'Proud Family' Kwanzaa special.
After an especially hectic Christmas, the Proud's meet a homeless family who teaches them how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Through teaching the principles of Kwanzaa, the homeless family manages to help the Proud family see the true meaning of the holiday season: togetherness.
Watch the video: MEET OUR NEW BABY. THE WAJESUS FAMILY BIG ANNOUNCEMENT