Kwanzaa was born out of a need for all African Americans, to come together and celebrate family, tradition and community.

The sixties was a turbulent time, especially for African Americans. As a way of preserving African American culture, Dr. Maulana Karenga created a cultural holiday from December 26 through January 1. In 1966 Kwanzaa was born out of a need for all African Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, to come together and celebrate family, tradition and community.

History of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa’s roots are derived from a Swahili term known as “matunda ya kwanza” or first fruits. It has been the focus of a seven day event which not only encompasses the African tradition but is based on the Pan-African language which is primarily spoken in Africa today.

Similar to New Years, Kwanzaa represents the passing of one year and the welcoming of a new year to come. It is a time of reflection in which African roots are observed much as they were during ancient times when African harvest or first fruit celebrations represented five functions which included: the reaffirmation or “ingathering” of people to bond together, giving thanks to the creator, recognizing and honoring ancestors, honoring cultural values and celebrating life as a family, a community and existence as a people.

In addition, within the Kwanzaa history are Seven Principles also known as Nguzo Seba which are part of the seven-day celebration. When African Americans reinforce their values rooted in their ancient culture.

To commemorate this special holiday, a Kwanzaa setting is placed in a central part of one’s home in which seven symbols are utilized to represent the values of the African culture and serve as a reminder of one’s commitment to family and community.

Kwanzaa is a time of reflection that is celebrated by African Americans worldwide. It is a time in which ancient traditions are revisited and the rich history of the African culture is renewed through the reassertion of family values and community. It is a holiday in which every African American is afforded the opportunity to acclaim their heritage and to reaffirm their commitment to the ancient bonds which serves to strengthen their own identity in particular and as part of the world community in general.

Decorating for Kwanzaa

The decorations utilized to celebrate Kwanzaa are quite beautiful.  The symbols traditionally used encompass a variety of items which hold a great deal of history and culture as well.

Here is a traditional Kwanzaa setting which is usually placed in a central location on one’s home. First, a piece of cloth made in Africa is placed on the table.  On top of the cloth is the Mkeka or the mat which is the foundation for all essential items to be placed upon.  The mat is symbolic of one’s roots.  The Kinara, or candle holder, is set in the center of the mat.  The candle holder is comprised of seven candles whose colors from left to right are: three red, one black, and three green. 

What do these colors symbolize? Red represents the struggle; black signifies the people, and green is the hope for the future.  The candles are known as the Mishumaa Saba, which also represent the 7 Kwanzaa Principles. What are the principles?  Red stands for self-determination, cooperative economics and creativity.  The black candle represents unity and is situation in the middle of the Kinara.  Green stands for collective work and responsibility, purpose and faith. 

In addition to the cloth, mat and candle holder there are ears of corn placed on the mat.  The corn represents the children.  Then a Unity Cup is placed on the mat.  It is used in the Libation Statement of the Karamu Feast on December 31.  Finally, books on African culture as well as other objects representing African culture are placed on the mat as well.  The stress on education and continuous learning on African heritage is apparent. 

Once every item is in place, the candles are lit; one each day starting with the black candle on December 26.  Each candle is subsequently lit, starting from left moving to right, every day afterward until January 1.

Karamu, the Kwanzaa feast

Karamu is celebrated on December 31. There is a specific program to be followed to commemorate this occasion as formulated by Dr. Karenga.  Whether the celebration is taking place in a family’s home or in a larger social setting, the following list of activities is the basic model for this special day.

To begin with, there is the welcoming which is composed of an introduction to the upcoming events.   Next is the remembering in which everyone reflects on their culture.  After which there is the reassessment and recommitment in which an elder or distinguished member gives a short speech on the tenets of Kwanzaa. 

Next is the rejoicing followed by the libation statement in which a unity cup is utilized by passing it around to family and guests; each of whom takes a sip from the cup.  Next is the reading of names of ancestors and well-known heroes and heroines, followed by the beating of drums. Finally, the Karamu feast begins encompassing cultural activities and ends with a final goodbye or farewell statement.

The most interesting facet of the Karamu feast is the libation statement.  Before the cup is passed around to family and friends; the contents, usually water, is poured in four directions; east, west, north and south.  It is a reminder not only to remember past generations but to reflect on future generations as well and their cultural heritage.

It is important to note the words that are spoken during the libation part of the ceremony. 

For The Motherland, the cradle of civilization.
For the ancestors, and their indomitable spirit
For the elders, from whom we can learn much.
For our youth, who represent the promise for tomorrow.
For our people, the original people.
For our struggle and in remembrance of those who have struggled on our behalf.
For Umoja, the principle of unity, which should guide us in all that we do.
For the creator, who provides all things great and small.