Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of community and culture established as a means to connect black Americans with their African roots. It’s not a religious holiday so, regardless of what you believe you can still take part in the festivities. Despite being created for African Americans, other parts of the world, like the Caribbeans and even in places like Paris celebrate the holiday.
It was first created in 1966 by a professor of Africana studies at California State University – Maulana Karenga. He took the Swahili word kwanza, meaning “first” from matunda ya kwanza meaning “first fruit”. The extra a was added to accommodate the seven children at the first Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa lasts for seven days, beginning the day after Christmas and ending on January 1st. Each day is dedicated to one of seven principles and on that day, families join to light a candle and talk about that day’s principle. The holiday also includes a community feast or karamu, seven symbols that represent the holiday, and gift giving.
So, how do you celebrate Kwanzaa? Let’s start with the basics. Each day represents a principle:
Day 1: Umoja (unity)
Day 2: Kujichagulia (self-determination)
Day 3: Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
Day 4: Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
Day 5: Nia (purpose)
Day 6: Kuumba (creativity)
Day 7: Imani (faith)
Beginning on the first day of Kwanzaa, you greet each other by asking “Habari gani”, meaning “What’s the news?” The answer corresponds to the principle of the day. For instance – on the first day someone would ask “Habari gani” and you would respond with “Ujoma”. Then family and friends would gather for the lighting of the black candle on the kinara and discuss the principle of unity. On the next day you would repeat the same thing and light the red candle – so on and so forth from there.
One important step – DON’T FORGET THE DECOR!
You can go as big or as simple as you want! There’s no right or wrong way. Just make sure your table is decked out with these significant items:
- The mkeka, a woven mat symbolizing the foundation.
- An ear of corn to represent fertility and hope through future generations.
- Fruit to symbolize the fruitful gains of collective work.
- A unity cup reflecting community and togetherness.
The same advice can go for your clothing too. There’s no wrong way! Kwanzaa is a celebration designed to connect black people to their roots and honor African heritage. Get creative with your fit. Bring in bright colors and elaborate patterns that make a bold statement. The culture is anything but basic so get bold!
Kwanzaa is also a gift giving holiday. Giving gifts to your loved ones is usually a labor of love. It is encouraged to make these presents by hand, but it’s definitely not a requirement. You can also shop black and give two-fold! Don’t forget, one of the principles is cooperative economics. Support local black businesses while showing your loved one how much you care.
On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Kuumba, the unity cup is filled with juice, water, or even wine. The cup is passed around for everyone to sip from in remembrance of the ancestors. The final day of the celebration ends with a feast. Yes, you heard right! No celebration is complete without one. Karamu ya Imani (feast of faith) sees a collection of cultural food from a wide range of places – the Caribbean, African Creole, Cajun, and Southern American. It’s a flavorful and communal way to honor black heritage while discussing the final principle, faith. You can even pass down family recipes like your grandma’s famous jerked chicken!
While Kwanzaa saw a huge boom in the 90s, being taught in some schools, television shows making holiday specials, even seeing its first stamp from the Postal Service in 1997 – it may feel like the boom has turned into a whisper.
It’s a beautiful holiday commemorating black culture and heritage with joyful music, important lessons, and mouthwatering food. In a society where black is seen as dangerous and the culture is curated for others to enjoy, it is essential for the community to show solidarity with a celebration all our own.