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Kwanzaa's Beautiful Traditions


Celebrating Kwanzaa's Beautiful Traditions

During the Christmas season, a beautiful African-American holiday is celebrated. Kwanzaa, rich in tradition and symbolic decorations, was the inspiration of Maulana Karenga, a professor of Pan-African studies and cultural leader. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which in Swahili means "first fruits." In 1966, Karenga created Kwanzaa as a non-religious holiday that is to begin on December 26 and last for seven days. Kwanzaa is based on the traditional African festival of the harvest of the first crops. Kwanzaa decorations combine traditional African practices with African- American hopes and ideals.

Karenga also developed the Kwanzaa tradition's seven principles, or the Nguzo Saba, meaning "the seven principles" in Swahili. These Kwanzaa principles are values of African culture, which are meant to establish and reinforce the community among African-Americans.

Kwanzaa's Seven Principles

  1. Umoja (pronounced "oo-MO-jah")
    English: Unity--to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

  2. Kujichagulia (pronounced "koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah")
    English: Self-determination--to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

  3. Ujima (Pronounced "oo-GEE-mah")
    English: Collective Work and Responsibility--to build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.

  4. Ujamaa (pronounced "oo-JAH-mah")
    English: Cooperative Economics--to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

  5. Nia (pronounced "nee-YAH")
    English: Purpose--to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

  6. Kuumba (pronounced "koo-OOM-bah")
    English: Creativity--to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

  7. Imani (pronounced "ee-MAH-nee")
    English: Faith--to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanzaa Decorations and Traditions

Families celebrate Kwanzaa in their own way. Their Kwanzaa traditions include exchanging gifts, singing songs, dancing, playing African drums, telling stories, reading poetry, and having a large traditional meal. As the family gathers on each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, a child lights one of the candles on a candleholder called a "Kinara," a special Kwanzaa decoration, then one of the seven Kwanzaa principles is discussed. On December 31st, the family has a "Karamu," a traditional African feast along with traditional ceremonies honoring ancestors, discussion of the old year and goals for the new, family performances, music, and dancing.

Kwanzaa's Seven Symbols

  1. The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Mazao
    To demonstrate their "mazao," as a Kwanzaa decoration, families place nuts, fruits, and vegetables, which represent their work, on another Kwanzee decoration called "mkeka" or a traditional place mat. The mazao symbolizes the historical gathering of Africans for their harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity, and thanksgiving were the fruits of their labors.

  2. The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Mkeka
    The Kwanza decoration called the "mkeka" is essentially a traditional African place mat constructed of straw or cloth. The Mkeka represents the firm historical and traditional foundation that Kwanzaa celebrants stand on and build their lives. During Kwanzaa, families remember their traditions, history and contemplate their future.

  3. The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Vibunzi
    This Kwanzaa decoration is a simple ear of corn. Whereas a stalk of corn represents children as the hope for the future, the "Vibunzi," a single ear of corn, represents each individual child and his/her importance. Thus one Vibunzi is placed as a Kwanzaa decoration on the Mkeka for each child in the family. During Kwanzaa, the adults symbolically take the love and nurture that they were given as children and selflessly return it to all children, especially the helpless, homeless, loveless ones in their community. Thus, in the Kwanzaa decoration of Vibunzi we remember the Nigerian proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child." Kwanzaa tradition recalls that the Africa culture called for child rearing to be a community affair.

  4. The Kwanzaa Decoration of Mishumaa Saba. The Seven Candles
    The "Mishumaa Saba" are the Kwanzaa decorations of seven candles symbolizing the sun's power and the sun's giving us light. This Kwanzaa decoration is made up of one black candle, three red candles, and three green ones. The back candle symbolizes (unity) and is lit on December 26th. The three green candles, representing purpose, collective work and responsibility, and faith are placed to the right of the black candle. The three red candles, representing self-determination, cooperative economics, and creativity are placed to the left.

  5. The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Kinara
    This Kwanzaa decoration is the Candleholder-the "Kinara." It is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and symbolizes the original stalk--our ancestors--from whom we descended. These Kwanzaa decorations can be any shape and made from all kinds of materials. The seven candles are placed in the Kinara. The Kwanzaa decoration of the Kinara symbolizes the celebrants' ancestors, who during Kwanzaa, are remembered and honored.

  6. The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Kikombe Cha Umoja
    The "Kikombe Cha Umoja" is a special Kwanzaa decoration that could be called the "Unity Cup." During the feast, on the sixth day according to Kwanzaa tradition, the Unity Cup is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then Kwanzaa tradition calls for the eldest person at the feast to pour the "tambiko," usually water, juice or wine, in the direction of the four winds to honor ancestors.

  7. The Kwanzaa Decoration of Zawadi
    On the last day come Kwanzee decorations that are similar to other holiday observances-the exchange of gifts. The "Zawadi" or gifts are meant to be meaningful to the symbols of Kwanzee. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the distraction of commercialism during the holiday season. Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift, and it binds the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift is meant to solidify and enhance relationships.

Kwanzaa Summary

Kwanzaa is a beautiful African-American tradition that celebrates a culture rich in love of family, honor of the past, hope for the future, and principle-centered ideals.

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