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Last Updated: Apr 21st, 2011 - 14:44:53 


Kwanzaa - A Winter Celebration
By Sarah Lane
Nov 11, 2004, 09:48 PST


The Festival of Kwanzaa

The Festival of Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st. It begins the day after Christmas and ends on New Year's Day. This time period was chosen because it corresponds with the end of the year celebrations in America. Kwanzaa celebrates the African American people, their culture, and their history. It is a time of reflection and community gatherings. Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga in 1966, during a time when African Americans were focused on a struggle to gain equality in America. Other powerful political influences of the time included Martin Luther King, Black Power, and the Civil Rights Movement. The 1960s were a time when people searched for freedom, self identity, and joined major revolutionary movements.

The very first Festival of Kwanzaa was celebrated on December 26, 1966. Africans and African Americans of all religious faiths and backgrounds practice this winter holiday. The purpose of Kwanzaa is to bring African Americans together in celebration of their black culture. This is a holiday specific to the needs of African American growth and development, and rejuvenation of the principles recognized by them. It has no claims or ties with any specific religion.

Dr. Karenga gained his inspiration in creating this holiday from the harvest festivals celebrated throughout Africa. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Kiswahili phrase meaning fresh fruit, or matunda ya Kwanza. He added the extra ‘a’ at the end of the word Kwanzaa to add to its significance. This holiday carries some of the same characteristics as the harvest festivals, such as setting aside a designated time to gather with family and friends to celebrate the crops and harvest, giving thanks to the creator for a good harvest and full life, celebrating ancestors and the past, allowing people to recommit themselves to their community, and celebrating culture and the promise of next year.

These very same ideas also helped to inspire Dr. Karenga to develop the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. Those Seven Principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

The first principle Umoja, or unity, means unity of family, community, nation, and race.

The second principle Kujichagulia, means self determination and stands for being responsible for oneself and creating your own destiny.

Number three Ujima, means collective work and responsibility, or building and maintaining a community together.

Four is Ujamaa, or cooperative economics. This means that everyone must build, maintain, and support their own stores, establishments, and businesses.

The fifth principle is Nia, meaning purpose. The purpose of this holiday is to restore African American people to their traditional greatness and to be responsible to ones ancestors and descendants.

The sixth principle is Kuumba. This means creativity in using your imagination to improve communities and what you inherited.

The seventh and final principle is Imani, meaning faith. It encourages people to believe in themselves as a whole, believe in their families, educators, leaders, and the righteousness of the African American struggle.

Along with these Seven Principles are Seven Symbols. These items are arranged in an area of the home set up as an alter, usually a table. The seven symbols are as follows:

1 - Mkeka: The Mat is what everything else rests upon at the makeshift alter. It symbolizes experiences, culture, achievements, and sacrifices the ancestors made upon which lives are built.

2 - Kikombe cha Umoja: The Unity Cup represents family and community unity. When it’s filled with a chosen substance (usually water, juice, or wine) a bit is poured out as a reminder and respect for ancestors, and everyone then takes a sip from the cup.

3 - Mazao: The Crops are the fruits and vegetables resulting from the harvest. Samples of the harvest are placed on the Mkeka, shared, and then eaten to honor the work of the people it took to grow them.

4 - Kinara: The Candleholder holds the seven candles that represent the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. This is also placed on the Mkeka and a new candle is lit every night.

5 - Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles represent the Seven Principles but also are the colors of the Bandera or African Flag. The candles are red, green, and the one in the middle is black.

6 - Muhindi: The Corn represents children and the future of the family. One suke (ear) of corn is placed on the Mkeka for each child in the family. If there are no kids then one is placed on the Mkeka to represent the children of the community. This symbol also represents Native Americans, the first inhabitants of the land. It is important to acknowledge and respect their contribution to the culture and ancestors of the African American.

7 - Zawadi: Gifts are given to children during Kwanzaa to make them better people. They are usually a heritage symbol such as a book or video. These educational items are to remind them of the glory of the past and the promise of the future.

The fourth symbol, the Kinara, holds the seven candles. The order from left to right is three red, one black, and three green. Each night one family member (usually the youngest) lights one of the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) in the Kinara and discusses one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. The black one is lit first. The next night the farthest red on the left is lit, then the next night the farthest green on the right, and so on and so forth. The black candle represents the faces of the people, the red represents the blood shed by the people, and the green stands for the color of the motherland and hope. On the sixth day, which is New Year’s Eve, family and friends gather, have a feast, and celebrate their history, culture, and the upcoming new year. This holiday although a fairly recent addition to our nation’s history, is no less recognized for its unifying properties and is a living preservation of African American ideals, beliefs, and culture.

Source: Holidays on the Net, Doug USA, A & E Television Networks,

© Copyright 2004 by

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