Kwanza: What Exactly Is It?

My family has been celebrating Kwanzaa for a little over 15 years now: Homemade gifts. Libations to my ancestors. Candle lighting! and good ole healthy soul food. When I talk about Kwanzaa, people often ask many questions or have a lot of preconceived ideas about the celebration.

So what exactly is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 based upon the the African tradition of celebrating the harvesting of the first fruits. Kwanzaa is a time of reflecting, reassessing, recommitting and rejoicing--and giving special reverence for the creator and creation and commemorating the past. 

Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days: Dec. 26 to Jan 1. The seven days are based upon the Nguzo Saba (seven principles) with each day being symbolic of one of the principles.

Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

  • Dec. 26 Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
  • Dec. 27 Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
  • Dec. 28 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.
  • Dec. 29 Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Dec. 30 Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Dec. 31 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.
  • Jan. 1 Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa
(The following is taken from the official Kwanzaa website)

Mazao or The Crops: These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.
Mkeka or The Mat: This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.
Kinara or The Candle Holder: This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people -- continental Africans.
Muhindi or The Corn: This is symbolic of our children and our future, which they embody. Mishumaa Saba or The Seven Candles: These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the matrix and minimum set of values which African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.
Kikombe cha Umoja or The Unity Cup: This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity, which makes all else possible.
Zawadi or The Gifts: These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.

If you are interested in learning more about Kwanzaa, check out one of many books about Kwanzaa, or attend our upcoming Kwanzaa program on Tuesday, December 28, at 6:30. We will celebrate the third principle: Ujima-Collective Work and Responsibilty.