Cultural Christmas 2013: Kwanzaa


Before we start, I’d like to address the death of Nelson Mandela, argubly the most selfless human to ever walk this earth. I will say that, at the age of 95, he didn’t have long left for his world, but I hope that his legacy will live on in all our hearts and souls. RIP, Nelson Mandela.

So, today we are talking about the holiday of Kwanzaa. We’ve had Eid, Hanukkah and now Kwanzaa. But what is Kwanzaa? To answer our question, Kwanzaa is an African american/ Pan African celkebration, celebrated fromn the 26th of December through January first. Kwanzaa is related to many African celebrations of the first harvest. The name Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which translates as first fruits.

In African-American culture Kwanzaa is a time for five fundamental activities:

  • To reestablish interpersonal bonds

  • To express reverence to the creator

  • To commemorate and honor ancestors

  • To commit to following cultural ideals

  • To celebrate life, family, community and culture

It was created by a guy called Dr. Maulana Karenga, in the year of 1966. He is an African American professor, and formerly a Black Panther member and leading figure. Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966to be the first pan-African holiday. He said his goal was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”.

The holiday has 7 distinct rituals:

  • Umoja (unity): To work towards unity with others whether family members or members of a larger community.

  • Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define oneself and find one’s unique voice in the world

  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To cooperate in community building and problem solving

  • Ujamaa (cooperation): To build and sustain business from which the community as a whole profits

  • Nia (purpose): To collectively strive towards cultural unity based on tradition

  • Kuumba (creativity): To use our creativity to improve our community

  • Imani (faith): To believe in each other, our leaders, and the righteousness of our struggle

During Kwanzaa, children receive gifts of books and heritage symbols. The book represents the value of learning recognized since ancient Egypt and the symbol is to remind the child of his or her commitment to African traditions. Kwanzaa colors are red, green, and black. A mat (called a mkeka) is laid on a table and decorated with 7 candles representing the 7 principles and one is lit on each day of Kwanzaa. Ears of corn are placed on the mkeka, along with a unity cup (called a kikombe cha umoja) for pouring libations in honor of the ancestors. The mkeka is also decorated with beautiful art objects and books that represent the best that African culture has to offer.

And that is Kwanzaa in a nutshell. Please share this post if you liked it, tell your friends, and spread the Kwanzaa spirit that little bit early. For my next Cultural Christmas post, we will instead of focusing on religious/cultural variations, discuss variations accross the world, starting in Asia.


About the author


Since 2012, Benjamin Attwood has written for the If you Ask Ben blog.

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