The Traditions Symbols & History Behind the Celebration


The annual Kwanzaa traditions that Dele Lowman celebrated with his mother, brothers, and the surrounding community in Pittsburg, Pa., Were the highlight of his childhood. “One of the things my family would do was write African proverbs in calligraphy on beautiful paper, which my mother would have me decorate,” she says. “We rolled them up like parchments and tied them with ribbon and everyone picked one. “

For two years in a row, Dele randomly chose the proverb that reads “He who knows he has enough is rich,” a truth she says her mother has happily reminded her of over the years.

Observed annually between December 26 and January 1 Kwanzaa is a Pan-African celebration and cultural holiday designed to support the social, cultural and economic fabric of the African American community in the United States.. by strengthening its link with African culture. Dr Huberta Jackson-Lowman, retired professor of psychology at Florida A&M University, says Kwanzaa “emphasizes our connection to our African history, not just our experiences in this country.” In addition to applying the principles of Kwanzaa in her classes, she also instilled them in her daughter, Dele.

Although Kwanzaa is traditionally celebrated by families of African descent, any family can celebrate the spirit of Kwanzaa during the holiday season and beyond. Here are the traditions, symbols, and principles you should know about the celebration.

What is the history of Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa emerged in 1966 after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and president of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, developed the celebration to build solidarity within the African American community and a stronger connection to African history. He founded US, a cultural organization, and designed Kwanzaa to reflect the “first fruits” celebrations found in various African countries.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the expression “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili.

As Kwanzaa spread to various countries around the world including France, England and Brazil, Dr. Karenga’s reputation remained marred by an assault charge in the early 1970s. Speaking of Karenga’s past and of the holiday celebration, Dr Jackson-Lowman said, “We can appreciate gifts and understand that they come from imperfect people. “

Indeed, the gift of Kwanzaa centers culture and community, and is rich in symbolism.

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What are the 7 symbols of Kwanzaa?

The visual focal point of the celebration is Mkeka, a carpet accented with symbols.

  • Mkeka, the carpet, symbolizes the history and the tradition which serves as the foundation of the community.
  • Mazao, the harvests, represent the first fruits which are brought to the community.
  • Kikombe cha Umoja, the cup of unity represents the founding principle of unity.
  • Muhindi, corn, symbolizes the children who represent the future. Each ear of corn is supposed to represent the number of children in the household. If there are none, at least two are placed on the mat.
  • Kinara, the candlestick represents the African ancestors who support the community.
  • Zawadi, the gifts concretely represent the commitments made by the participants during the celebration. Children are usually the recipients of gifts which include a book and a cultural heritage present.
  • Mishumaa Saba, the seven candles represent seven principles that particularly underpin and uplift communities of African descent.

      How is Kwanzaa celebrated?

      Essentially, Kwanzaa, according to Dr. Jackson-Lowman, is “coming together to celebrate who we are and pass our culture on to our children.”

      Although all Kwanzaa celebrations are filled with food, family, and Kinara (candleholder) lighting, the way communities celebrate the holiday varies. These various community traditions are usually filled with traditions such as African drumming, dancing, inspirational messages, storytelling, heritage learning, crafts and of course a feast. Children can participate in ceremonial holiday tasks, such as lighting the kinara and displaying the symbols on the mkeka.

      Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday but a spiritual celebration which celebrates seven principles known as Nguzo Saba. Each principle is brought out on one of the seven days of the feast and relates to the Mishumaa Saba:

      Umoja (Day 1)

      On the first day of Kwanzaa, December 26, a child (or adult) lights the black candle in the center of Kinara on the first day to mark Umoja (Unity). Unity is at the heart of community, and this first day of Kwanzaa invites celebrants to “seek and maintain unity in family, community, nation and race”. This day emphasizes that the unit is intergenerational and extends over the continents.

      Kujichagulia (Day 2)

      Self-determination, or Kujichagulia, is at the center of the second day of Kwanzaa on December 27. The purpose of Kujichagulia is “to define ourselves, to name us, to create for ourselves and to speak for ourselves”. On this day, the first red candle (to the left of the black candle) is lit.

      Ujima (Day 3)

      The third day of Kwanzaa focuses on Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility). Its aim is to “build and maintain our community together and make our brothers and sisters’ problems our problems and solve them together”. In a spirit of unity, Ujima calls on the community to take responsibility for the obstacles of individual members. The community works unceasingly for the good of all. The first green candle (to the right of the black candle) is lit on this day, December 28.

      Ujamaa (day 4)

      Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) emphasizes that community members must “build and maintain our own stores, stores and other businesses” and “profit together”. Building and supporting black-owned businesses is at the heart of Ujamaa. The second red candle is lit on this day, December 29.

      Nia (Day 5)

      The fifth day of Kwanzaa, December 30, focuses on Nia (goal) in order to “make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness”. Nia insists that it is not enough to have an individual goal or objective. Rather, each person must commit to the larger goal of restoring and strengthening the community. On the fifth day, the second green candle is lit.

      Kuumba (Day 6)

      Kuumba (Creativity) encourages creativity in the service of the collective. The sixth day asks the celebrants “to always do all that we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and more beneficial than we have inherited it”. Kwanzaa itself is an example of Kuumba in action. The third red candle is lit on this day, December 31st.

      Imani (Day7)

      The last green candle is lit on the seventh day, January 1, and gifts – often handmade – are given. The weeklong celebration ends as it should with Imani (faith), which is to “believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle” .

      The faith that she and her community will be victorious despite obstacles, which is why Dele works tirelessly as a writer and chair of her county’s electoral council, in addition to her full-time job as an executive recruiter.

      Dele’s faith was built each year as her mother co-led Kwanzaa celebrations in their community. Today, she does the same for her nine-year-old daughter. “I feel like I have sought to integrate Kwanzaa into all aspects of my life and my daughter’s life, so that it is more than something we do for the holidays, but really our way of thinking. and live. “

      family celebrating kwanzaa

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      How to celebrate the spirit of Kwanzaa all year round

      There are countless ways to celebrate the spirit of Kwanzaa during the holiday season and throughout the year. Here are three simple activities to get started:

      • Support arts organizations that practice Kuumba (Creativity). The Lula Washington Dance Theater and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are just two organizations that reflect the vibrant African American community. Or if you’d rather support a local arts organization, that’s fine too.
      • Practice Ujamaa (cooperative economy) by supporting black-owned businesses. To locate businesses near you, simply do a Google search and type in your city name and “Black Owned Businesses”. Purchase products and services from these companies throughout the year.
      • Watch the documentary Kwanzaa, The black candle, told by the late poet Maya Angelou. Watch it with your family and think of ways to collectively celebrate the spirit of Kwanzaa throughout the year.

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