The Traditions Of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is an African-American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community and culture. It is observed from December 26 through January 1 and its origins may be found in the first harvest celebrations of Africa, from which this holiday takes its name. Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase, "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits" in Swahili, a Pan-African tongue that is the most widely spoken language of Africa. The first-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history dating back to Ancient Egypt and Nubia, with references, both ancient and modern, appearing in other classical African civilizations, such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland, and among societies as large as empires...Swaziland, for example...and smaller groups like the Matabele.

Kwanzaa was conceived and developed in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, an author and scholar-activist who stresses the need to preserve, continually revitalize and promote African American culture. Dr. Karenga is a professor with the Department of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach. Kwanzaa was first celebrated on December 26, 1966 and having been introduced in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement of the mid-60s, reflects a concern for cultural groundedness in thought and practice. Unity and self-determination are also associated qualities. Primarily created to reaffirm and restore rootedness in African culture, this celebration is an expression of recovery and reconstruction of African culture. The founding organization of Kwanzaa is the Organization Us, which is the authoritative keeper of its tradition. The second function of this holiday is to serve as a regular communal celebration to reinforce and reaffirm the bonds between the African people. A third purpose of Kwanzaa is to introduce and reinforce the "Nguzo Saba" (also known as the "Seven Principles"), representative of communitarian African values, which are: (1) Umoja or Unity; (2) Kujichagulia or Self-Determination; (3) Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility; (4) Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics; (5) Nia or Purpose; (6) Kuumba or Creativity; and (7) Imani or Faith.

Kwanzaa also builds upon the five fundamental activities of Continental African first-fruits rituals, which are as follows:

Ingathering: A time of ingathering of the people...of family, friends and order to reaffirm the bonds between them.
Reverence: A time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation.
Commemoration: A time for commemoration of the past in pursuit of its lessons and in honor of its models of human excellence...the ancestors...all the people and actions that have come before.
Recommitment: A time of recommitment to the highest cultural ideals...both personal and an ongoing effort to always bring forth the best of African cultural thought and practice.
Celebration: A time for celebration of the good...the good life and of existence itself...the good of family, community and culture...the good of the awesome and the other words, a celebration of the good in all its manifestations on the Earth.

Kwanzaa has seven basic symbols and two supplemental ones. Each is representative of values and concepts that are reflective of African culture and contributive to community building and reinforcement. The seven basic symbols are:
Mazao or Crops (Fruits, Nuts and Vegetables): Symbolizes work and the basis of the holiday. It also represents the historical foundation for Kwanzaa...the gathering of the people that is patterned after African harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity and thanksgiving are the rewarding fruits of collective planning and labor. Since the family is the basic social an economic center of every civilization, this festival forged stronger bonds between family members and served to reaffirm commitment and responsibility to each other. In native Africa, the family may have included several generations of two or more nuclear families, as well as distant relatives. Although Ancient Africans were unconcerned with the large numbers that might make up a family, it was accepted that there could only be one leader...the oldest male of the strongest group. Hence, an entire village might have been composed of one single family. The family was considered a limb of a tribe that shared common customs, cultural traditions and political unity...they were supposedly all descended from common ancestors. The tribe lived by traditions that provided both continuity and identify. Tribal laws frequently determined the value system, judiciary and customs encompassing birth, adolescence, marriage, parenthood, maturity and death. Through personal sacrifice and hard work, the famers sowed seeds that brought forth new plant life to feed the people and other animals of the earth. To demonstrate their mazao, celebrations of Kwanzaa place nuts, fruits and vegetables...all of which are representative of work...upon the mkeka.
Mkeka or Mat: The mkeka is fashioned from straw or cloth and originates directly from Africa. Thus, it is symbolic of African tradition, history and culture...a foundation upon which to stand and build. In much the same way that today stand upon all the yesterdays that came before, the other symbols associated with this holiday stand on the mkeka. During Kwanzaa, celebrants study, recall and reflect on their native history and the role each is to play as a legacy to the future. Ancient societies made mats from straw...the dried seams of grains that were sowed and reaped collectively. The weavers took the stalks and created household baskets and mats. Today, celebrants of Kwanzaa buy mkeka that are fashioned from Kente cloth, African mud cloth, and other textiles from various areas of the African continent. The mishumaa saba, the vibunzi, the mazao, the zawadi, the kikombe cha umoja and the kinara are placed directly on the mkeka.
Kinara or Candle Holder: The kinara is the center of the Kwanzaa setting, representative of the original stalk from which the people came...the ancestry. The kinara can be any shape...straight, semicircular or spiral...provided the seven candles it holds are separate and distinct, like a candelabra. The kinara may be made from a variety of materials and many celebrants create their own from fallen branches, wood or other natural substances. It is symbolic of the ancestors, who were once earth bound, but who understood the problems of human life and are now willing to protect their progeny from danger, evil and mistakes. In African festivals, the ancestors are remembered, honored and deeply revered. The mishumaa saba are placed in the kinara.
Muhindi or Ear of Corn: The muhindi represents fertility and symbolizes that through the reproduction of children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life. One ear is known as vibunzi while two or more ears are called minindi. Each ear is symbolic of a child in the family. Thus, one ear is placed on the mkeka for each child in the household. If there are no children in the home, then two ears are still set upon the mkeka because each person is responsible for the children of the community. During Knwanzaa, the love and nurturance that was heaped upon the individual as a child is selflessly returned to all children, but particularly the helpless, the homeless and the loveless of the community. Hence, the Nigerian proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child," is realized in this symbol, since raising a child in Africa was a community affair, which involved the tribal village as well as the family. Good habits of respect for self and for others, together with discipline, positive thinking, expectations, compassion, empathy, charity and self-direction, are learned in childhood from parents, peers and experiences. Children are essential to the celebrations of Kwanzaa. They are the future...the seed-bearers who will carry cultural values and practices into the next generation. It is for this reason that children were cared for both communally and indiviually within the tribal village. The biological family was ultimately responsible for raising its own children, but every person in the village was held accountable for the safety and welfare of all the children.
Mishumaa Saba or Seven Candles: Symbolic of the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles...the matrix and minimum set of values by which African people are urged to live in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs. Candles are ceremonial objects with two primary purposes: to symbolically recreate the power of the sun and to provide light. The celebration of fire through candle-burning is not limited to one particular group or country. Indeed, it occurs everywhere. Mishumaa saba are the seven candles of Kwanzaa...three red, three green and one black. (Please see the section on this page entitled "Lighting the Kinara" for more information.)
Kikombe cha Umoja or Unity Cup: The kikombe cha umoja is a special cup that is used to perform the libation or tambiko ritual during the Karamu feast on the Sixth Day of Kwanzaa. It is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible. In may African societies, libations are poured for the living dead, whose souls remain with the earth that they tilled. The Ibo people of Nigeria believe that to drink the last portion of a libation is to invite the wrath of the spirits and ancestors. Consequently, the final drops of the libation belong to the Ancient Ones. During the Karamu feast, the kikombe cha umoja is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then, the eldest individual present pours the libation...usually water, juice or the direction of the four winds: north, south, east and west, thereby honoring the ancestors. This person asks the gods and ancestors to share in the festivities and in return, to bless all those who are not present at the gathering. After requesting this benediction, the elder pours the libation on the ground and the group says, "Amen." Large Kwanzaa gatherings may operate in a manner very similar to communion services in most churches and it is common for celebrants to have individual cups, but drink the libation together as a sign of unity. Some families may have a cup that is specifically designated for the ancestors with everyone else having his or her own. The last few ounces of the libation are poured into the cup of the host or hostess, who sips it and hands it to the oldest individual in the group, who then asks for the blessing.
Zawadi or Gifts: When Imani is celebrated on the Seven Day of Kwanzaa, meaningful gifts are exchanged with members of the immediate family...especially the promote or reward accomplishments achieved and commitments that have been kept. Gifts may also be exchanged with guests during this time. Handmade presents are encouraged in order to promote self-determination, purpose and creativity, as well as to avoid the chaos of shopping and conspicuous consumption during the December holiday season. A family may spend a entire year making kinaras in addition to creating cards, dolls and/or mkekas to give to their visitors. The acceptance of a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift. It obliges the recipient to follow the training of the host or hostess. The Kwanzaa gift cements social relationships, allowing the receiver to share in the duties and rights of a family member. The gifts, particularly those given to the children, must include a book and a heritage symbol. The book emphasizes the African value and tradition of learning stressed since Ancient Egypty, and the heritage symbol is to reaffirm and reinforce the African commitment to tradition and history.

The two supplemental symbols of Kwanzaa are:
Bendera or The Flag: The colors of the Kwanzaa flag are black, red and green...the colors of the Organization Us. Black is representative of the people, red symbolizes their struggle and green represents the future and hope that comes from the struggle of the people. The colors of this flag are based upon those given by the Honorable Marcus Garvey as the national colors for African people throughout the world.
Nguzo Saba Poster or The Poster of The Seven Principles.

Pouring Tambiko: The kikombe (or cup) is filled with juice or water, which is then poured by a priest or elder into a bowl filled with green vegetables. The pourer recites a tamshi la tambiko (or libation statement) as the liquid fills the bowl. A tamshi la tambiko is a statement of praise to the African-American ancestors and a commitment to continue the tasks they have begun.
Ancestral Roll-Cal: Kwanzaa participants stand and tell of someone who has been a personal inspiration to them.
Harambee: Harambee, which means something similar to, "let's all pull together," is a unifying motion in which the Kwanzaa participants raise their right arms with hands open and then pull down their arms as they make a fist.
Siku ya Taamulli: This is the day of meditation and customarily, the the last day of Kwanzaa. Its intent is to give the participants a time to reflect on their lives and the lives of all Africans and African-Americans as they move into the New Year.

During Kwanzaa, candles are placed in a special holder called the Kinara. There are a total of seven candles, known as the Mishumaa Saba, each representing one of the Seven Principles. The candle colors are red, green and black...the colors to be found in the Bendera or African Flag created by Marcus Garvey. These colors are also symbolic of African Gods. Red is associated with Shango, the Yoruba God of Fire, Thunder and Lightning, who lives in the clouds and sends down his thunderbolts whenever he is angry or offended. Red also represents the struggle for self-determination and freedom by people of color. Green is associated with the Earth that sustains life and provides hope, divination, employment and fruits of the harvest. Black is representative of the people and Earth as the source of life, symbolic of hope, creativity and faith. In addition, black denotes messages as well as the opening and closing of doors.

The Mishumaa Saba consists of three red candles, which are placed on the left, three green candles, which are placed on the right, and one single black candle, which is placed in the center. On each day of Kwanzaa, a new candle will be lit as a symbol of the Kwanzaa Nguzo or Principle of that day. The black candle represents Umoja (unity). It is the basis of success and is lit on December 26. The three green candles...representative of Nia (purpose), Ujima (responsibility) and Imani (faith)...are placed to the right of the Umoja cancle, while the three red candles...symbolizing Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperation) and Kuumba (creativity)...are placed to the left. After the lightin of the black candle, the farthest left red candle is lit, followed by the farthest right green candle, then the middle red candle...the middle green candle...the last red candle and the final green candle.

The illuminating fire of the candles is a basic element of the universe, with every celebration and festival including fire in some form. The mystique of that of the irresistible and has the ability to destroy or create with its mesmerizing, frightening and mystifying power. The honor of lighting the candles will depend upon the individual family since there are no rigid rules with respect to this ritual. Many families give the honor to the youngest child and some give it to the eldest family member. Other families may share the duty with a different member lighting the candles each evening. On the last night of Kwanzaa, the family takes a final drink from the Unity Cup. Then, all the candles are extinguished and the holiday officially comes to a close.

On December 31, families and communities hold a Karamu, which is a special feast, including readings, remembrances and a festive meal. The Karamu feast may consist of traditional African dishes, as well as those featuring ingredients that Africans brought to the United States...sesame seeds, peanuts, sweet potatoes, collard greens and spicy sauces, for example. This celebration may be held at a home, church or community center. Historically, the last day of Kwanzaa...the first day of the New Year...has been a time of serious appraisal for African people. Also known as the "Day of Meditation" or "Day of Assessment," it is a period of self-reflection related to things done and things yet to be done. It is also a time for musing on the life and future of the people and a recommitment to the highest cultural values in a special way. Following in this tradition, it is a time to humbly ask...and soberly answer...the three Kawaida questions: "Who am I?" - "Am I really who I say I am" - "Am I all I ought to be?" In addition, this is also a day when many Kwanzaa participants choose to pay particular homage to the ancestors...those of the national community as well as those of the family.

It is important to note that Kwanzaa is a spiritual, festive and joyous holiday...a cultural celebration of the oneness and goodness of life. It claims no ties with any religion and thus, is available to and practiced by Africans of all faiths, who come together based on the rich, ancient and varied common ground of their original homeland. Today, the seven-day observance of the Kwanzaa holiday is celebrated by millions of African-Americans and Africans all over the globe.

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