History of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is a holiday tradition that is based on the “first harvest” celebrations in Africa. In recorded history, these first harvest celebrations can be traced all the way back to Nubia and Egypt and can be found in cultures all over Africa. While many of these first-fruit celebrations may differ from one society to another, they all had a few principles in common. These principles include people gathering together to celebrate, acknowledging the creator and thanking him for his blessings. a commemoration of the past, a re-commitment to African cultural thought and a time to celebrate community.
Rooted in these principles, especially those of the Ashanti and the Zulu, Kwanzaa arose from the Black Freedom Movement in 1966 in the United States. It was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga – a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, USA. He created it after the Watts riots as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community. He gave it the name Kwanzaa -a word that is taken from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” and is Swahili for “first-fruits.”
Kwanzaa was originally envisioned by Dr. Maulana Karenga as an oppositional alternative to Christmas. However, in later years he changed his position as to not alienate African-American Christians and later stated that Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religious holidays.
From 1966 through the end of the 20th century, the idea and practice of Kwanzaa began to slowly increase in popularity across the United States. Then its popularity began to increase dramatically after the start of the 21st century as the idea and practices of this holiday began to not only spread through conventional media but also through the Internet. In 2004, a study showed that a little less than 5 million African-Americans planned to celebrate the holiday that year. However, two years later, another study showed that almost 28 million African-Americans had planned on celebrating the holiday in 2006. In 2009, the popularity of Kwanzaa was further bolstered by the release of the documentary film about Kwanzaa called the “Black Candle,” a film narrated by Maya Angelou and directed by M. K. Asante. Since then, Kwanzaa has not only spread all across North American but also parts of Europe and Africa as well.
Kwanzaa Customs & Celebrations
Kwanzaa celebrations vary from family to family. Some families stick with strictly Kwanzaa related practices, while other families mix elements of Kwanzaa into their Christmas celebrations. However, most Kwanzaa celebrations are based on Nguzo Saba – or the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
The Seven Principles:
- Umoja (Unity): Striving for and maintaining unity in the family and the community.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): Defining oneself and speaking for oneself
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): Building and maintaining a community and making our brother’s and sister’s problems our own and solve them together
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Building and maintaining our businesses for ourselves and each other
- Nia (Purpose): To build and develop our collective communities together
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do whatever we can to leave our communities more beautiful than when we inherited them
- Imani (Faith): To believe with our hearts in our people, our families and the righteousness of our struggle
The Seven Symbols:
Kwanzaa celebrations usually include a special mat called a Mkeka in which all of the other symbols are placed. On this mate are placed a candle holder called a Kinara, seven candles which are collectively called Mishumaa Saba, mazao (fruits, nuts and vegetables), a unity cup called Kikombe cha Umoja, an ear of corn called Vibunzi and Zawadi or gifts.
The place mat, or Mkeka, is traditionally made from either straw or cloth. It symbolizes African history, tradition and culture. All of the other six elements are placed on the Mkeka.
Fruits, nuts and vegetables are laid out to represent the historical foundation for this holiday – the gathering of people after a harvest. It represents bounty, joy, sharing and allows people to give thanks for their gifts.
The Kinara, or candle holder, can be made of any material but is usually handcrafted from wood or other natural materials. This candle holder represents the ancestors and the mishumaa saba are placed in them to represent the principles of Kwanzaa – which rise from the ancestors.
The Mishumaa Saba
Mishumaa saba features seven candles. Three of them are red, three of them are green and one of them is black. The three red candles represent the principles of Ujamaa, Kuumba and Kujichagulia, and they are placed to the left of the green candles. The three green candles represent the principles of Ujima, Imani and Nia. The black candle symbolizes Umoja and is lit on December 26th.
Kikombe Cha Umoja
Kikombe cha umoja is a unity cup that is traditionally used to perform the ceremonious libation ritual, otherwise known as tambiko. This ritual is performed on the 6th day of Kwanzaa. In some African societies, the libation is poured for the living dead whose souls stay connected with the earth until it is tilled. During the Feast of Karamu, this unity cup is passed to family members and guests–all of whom drink from it to promote unity with one another. The next thing that happens is the eldest person pours a libation for the four winds (north, south, east and west). This last portion of the libation is reserved for the ancestors.
Vibunzi & Mihindi
Vibunzi is an ear of corn that is used to represent fertility. Vibunzi refers to one ear of corn. If more than one is present, then they are referred to as Mihindi. An ear is present for each child in the family. This is to show the importance of children to society and how they are the seed bearers of the culture into this future.
On the seventh day, gifts are exchanged with immediate family to reward accomplishments and commitments and is also exchanged with guests. It is recommended that these gifts are handmade to promote self-determination and to avoid the commercialism of the Christmas season. Accepting a gift makes the receiver an important part of the family and promotes the principle of Umoja – otherwise known as unity.