What is KWANZAA?

Updated: Dec 31, 2019

Call your mother. Call your father. Call your sister. Call your brother. It’s KWANZAA time! It’s family time! Seven days of celebration! It’s after Christmas, but before New Year’s Day. Nope, it’s not Hanukkah. It’s not a religious or political holiday. 

What is Kwanzaa? I oftentimes get asked this question, not knowing if the person asking wants the short version or the in depth essay. In many instances, it is the short version. Let’s face it. We all have places to go but not a lot of time to get there. 


The meaning of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a word derived from the East African Language of Swahili. It means first fruits.The holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. It is celebrated from December 26- January 1. This holiday was created in the midst of the Civil Right Movements, right after the Watts riots in California, and just about 10 years after the Rosa Parks bus incident. These dates are relative because one should be able to gather that this holiday is fairly new. In comparison to older traditions and holidays, Kwanzaa has only been around for about fifty plus years.

Dr. Maulana Karenga wanted to create a holiday about what it means to be a person of African descent, focusing on the people not living in Africa. He felt as though these people were detached from the culture. Specifically, the values and traditions of the African culture.This holiday would serve as a vehicle of self expression with a sense of camaraderie amongst celebrants.

The Seven Symbols

There are seven symbols of Kwanzaa. The mkeka is the mat, and it represents the foundation. The kinara is the candle holder, and it represents our ancestors. The mishumaa saba is the seven candles, and they represent the seven principles. There are three red candles that represent the struggle and blood. There are three green candles that represent the land. The one black candle represents unity. The next symbol, the kikombe cha umoja, is the unity cup. This represents togetherness. The mazao is the fruits and vegetables, and they represent hard work and cooperation. Muhindi is the ears of corn, and they represent the children. Lastly, zawadi is the wrapped gifts. The gifts most often given are books and money. These gifts contribute to the knowledge of the receiving party or a business investment.

The Seven Principles

There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, called the nguzo saba. The first principle, celebrated on the first day, is UMOJA. This principle means unity and enforces the idea of togetherness of family. KUJICHAGULIA is the second principle. It means self determination. It supports the idea that YOU can decide who you are or who you will be. The third principle, UJIMA, means collective work and responsibility. This principle promotes coming together for a stronger community. The fourth principle, UJAMAA, means cooperative economics. This principle promotes the patronizing African American stores and services. NIA  is the fifth principle and means purpose. This day is celebrated by thinking about your purpose in life. The sixth principle, KUUMBA, means creativity. This is one of my favorite days to celebrate, because the kids put together skits and dances to perform. The last principle, IMANI, means faith. We celebrate by paying homage to a higher power and recollecting on the tremendous amount of faith that our ancestors held onto, during trying times.

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