What is Kwanzaa

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By: Taylor Ferreira

We know all about Christmas, even Hanukkah, but what is Kwanzaa? It’s always listed with the other winter holidays, but is one we rarely hear about. Where does it originate? What does it celebrate? And why don’t we know more about it? I thought we could all become a little more cultured today, and learn something about one of the more uncommon, candle-lit celebrations.

     Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University Long Beach with the goal to unite the African-American community. He studied and combined several different harvest celebrations such as those of the Shanti and the Zulu to form the foundation of the Kwanzaa celebration. The way this holiday is celebrated varies greatly from family to family, but often includes traditional music, dancing and storytelling as well as a large meal. The celebration consists of seven days, in which every night a candle is lit. The candle holder is called a Kinara, and each candle represents a different principle of Swahili. They are called the seven principles of Nguzo Saba, and are based on traditional African values.

     The first candle lit, the black one in the center, represents unity (Umoja). The second candle means self-determination (Kujichagulia), the third is collective work and responsibility (Ujima), the fourth is cooperative economics, the fifth is purpose (Nia), then creativity (Kuumba), and finally, faith (Imani).

      There are also seven symbols that align with the principles in which are also discussed each night of the Kwanzaa celebration. The first is called Mazao, or harvest. It represents the work and unity it requires to bring plenty to the community. Family values are the core of the celebration, and in order to create the harvest, a united family is essential.

    The next is called Mkeka, or the Place Mat. This represents the historical and traditional foundation of the holiday, and is usually made of straw or cloth. Many of the other symbols rest on the cloth, representing how the culture is built upon their history, and shaped by past traditional ideals. The ear of corn, or Vibunzi represents fertility and symbolizes future life and posterity. The Seven Candles, or Mishumaa Saba are ceremonial objects that represent how the seven principles give light and vision to how they should live their lives. It symbolically recreates the rays of the sun and how they influence harvest and prosperity. The colors, black, green, and red, make up the colors of the flag created by Marcus Garvey, and represents the community, the earth and prosperity, as well as struggle and self-determination for freedom. The Kinara, or the candle holder represents ancestry, in which the seven principles (the candles) stem from. The Kikombe Cha Umoja is the unity cup, and finally the gifts, Ziwadi, are given to further unite the family and solidify the seven principles among the members.  

    I hope that you learned a little something today about this unique winter celebration. Its focus on community, unity, family, and hardwork is something that we can all take into our lives. There is so much that can be learned from looking back and honoring ancestors for their journey, determination, and strength.

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