Although Kwanzaa is a holiday that celebrates African-American and African culture, Kwanzaa is celebrated by people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds much like Cinco de Mayo or the Chinese New Year are not limited to only those of Mexican or Chinese heritage. Kwanzaa is celebrated by over 20 million people worldwide and is the fastest growing holiday.
Kwanzaa is a festive, joyous time of family and community. Because Kwanzaa’s popularity is growing so quickly, many may not be familiar with the vocabulary or traditions of Kwanzaa. If you are celebrating Kwanzaa for the first time, you might like to begin by decorating your home with the colors of Kwanzaa: black for the people, red for their struggle and green for hope and the future. You could hang a Bendera Ya Taifa, a flag of the Black Nation, and should include symbols of African heritage, African sculpture or artwork.
The central symbol of Kwanzaa is the kinara, a candleholder, which hold the mishumaa saba, or seven candles that represent the Seven Principles. There is one black candle, which represents the first principle, Umoja, or unity and this is placed in the center of the kinara. The red candles represent the principles of Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics) and Kuumba (creativity) and are placed to the left of the black candle. The green candles represent the principles of Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Nia (purpose) and Imani (faith) and are placed to the right of the black candle.
Here is how Kwanzaa is traditionally celebrated:
1. Spread a mkeka, a placemat usually made of straw, on a table or on the floor.
2. Add the mishumaa saba, or seven candles, to the kinara and place that in the center of the mekaka.
3. Arrange the muhindi, or ears of corn—one for each child in the family or two if no children are present—on each side of the mekaka.
4. Arrange the zawadi, educational or handmade gifts to be exchanged between parents and children, kikombe cha umoja, a communal cup to symbolize unity, and a basket of mazao, fruits and vegetables to symbolize the harvest, on the mkeka.
5. Place African art objects or books about African culture on the mkeka to symbolize commitment to heritage and learning.
6. On the first day of Kwanzaa, light the black candle. The remaining candles are lit, one each day of the celebration, from left to right to signify that the people came first, then their struggle and finally their hope and the future.
7. Each night, prior to lighting the kinara, pour tambiko, or libation such as water, grape juice or wine, into the kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup. Pour drops of tambiko on the floor in the four corners of the room to represent the four corners of the globe. This is done to honor ancestors. Pass the unity cup so that all may take a sip.
8. Light the mishumaa saba each day and discuss the one of the corresponding Seven Principles. Everyone in your group should explain what the principle means to them, and how they have practiced it during the day or pledge how they plan to practice it in the future as an individual and as a community.
9. Prepare and host a karamu, or Kwanzaa Feast, on December 31st. The karamu is a highlight of Kwanzaa when families and friends come together to celebrate through song, dance, and food. Prepare a feast together and include traditional African dishes as well as African-American dishes. Before eating each participant should speak about what the Seven Principles mean to him or her and to vow to uphold those, offering examples, throughout the coming year. Rejoice with music, drums, dance, and of course, your bountiful feast!
10. Exchange zawadi, educational or handmade gifts, on January 1st. These gifts must always include a book or an African heritage symbol. These gifts are meant to stimulate pride in learning and history.
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