The Meaning of Kwanzaa


By Christopher Anderson, Age 12

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday like Hanukkah or Christmas. Kwanzaa is an American celebration that honors African Americans. It starts on December 26 and ends on January 1. However, this celebration can last seven days, one day or hours. Even though Kwanzaa is celebrated once a year, the principles are reflected in every day of our lives. It is a time when we stop and remember the past, as we work together for the future.
In 1966, Dr. Karenga, a professor and chair of Black Studies at Cal State Long Beach, created this celebration. According to Heshimu, one of the core administrators at Organization US, the group from which Kwanzaa was birthed, an extra ‘a’ was added to the spelling of Kwanzaa because there were seven children present at the first celebration and Dr. Karenga didn’t want to leave any of them out. Kwanzaa is a Swahili word meaning “first fruits” and is based on many of the first-fruits celebrations in Africa. Dr. Karenga, however, created this celebration specifically for Africans in America.
Kwanzaa is based on seven principles or beliefs, called the Nguzo Saba (En goo’-zo Sah’-bah). There is one principle for each day of Kwanzaa.
Day One (Dec. 26): Umoja (Oo-moh’-jah) or Unity- Being together and staying together.
Day Two (Dec. 27): Kujichangulia (Koo-jeae-chah-goo-lee’-ah) or Self Determination- Making your own decisions. This can be practiced by choosing what you want to be, and what you want to do for yourself.
Day Three (Dec. 28): Ujima (oo-jee’-mah) or Collective Work and Responsibility- Working together and looking after each other. It reminds families and the community to work towards what is best for everyone.
Day Four (Dec. 29): Ujamaa (Oo-jah-mah’ah) or Cooperative Economics- Encouraging African Americans to build their own places of work. It reminds people to shop at stores in their community and help other local businesses.
Day Five (Dec. 30): Nia (Nee’ah) or Purpose- Making plans and having reasons for doing things. Nia encourages people to have goals that help build their neighborhoods.
Day Six (Dec. 31): Kuumba (Koo-oom’-bah) or Creativity- Celebrating being creative. Music and dance are especially important on Kuumba.
Day Seven (Jan. 1): Imani (Ee-mah’-nee) or Faith- Believing in a higher power.
Each day every family member is to discuss how they have practiced that day’s principle in their lives over the year. For example, on Dec. 26th the discussion will be around unity, on Dec. 27th around self-determination, on Dec 28 around collective work and responsibility and so on.
The centerpiece of the celebration is the table. The symbols of Kwanzaa are placed on the table and are:
1. A straw mat: Mkeka (em-kay’-kah)- The straw mat is a reminder of traditions. It is a place to start building the future. All of the symbols of Kwanzaa are placed on the mkeka.
2. Dried corn: Muhindi (Mee-heen’ dee)- There is one ear of dried corn for each child in the family, because children are the center of the Kwanzaa celebration and represent hope for the future.
3. Fruit and vegetables: Mazoa (Ma-zah’-o)- The mazao stands for unity. They represent the rewards of working together.
4. Unity cup: Kikombe cha Umoja (Kee-kom’-bay chah OO- mo’-jah)- The unity cup stands for togetherness, or unity. The cup is shared, with everyone taking a sip (or pretending to take a sip) as it is passed around.
5. Candle holder: Kinara (Kee-nah’-rah)- The candle holder stands for the first African men and women, and holds the seven candles which are called mishumaa (mee-shoo-mah’-ah. Sah’-bah). The candles are red (for the struggle), green (for hope) and black (for the people). The black candle is in the middle with the three red candles to the left and the three green candles to the right. On Dec 26 the black candle is lit and blown out after that day’s principle has been discussed. Every day the previous candle or candles are lit and a new one, alternating from left (red) to right (green).
6. Gifts: Zawadi (Zah-wah’-dee)- These are gifts that are given at Kwanzaa. The gifts are mainly for children, usually handmade and often have educational relevance. One gift is given each day.
Kwanzaa is celebrated by 100 million people around the world. The celebration traditionally has a karamu (kah-rah’-moo), which means feast, on the sixth day. There are many feasts that take place throughout Los Angeles and surrounding cities. Shades of Africa, located on 4th and Alamitos Street, usually has one every year. The last day is used as a day of meditation. The meditation is dedicated to reflection, recommitment, and prayer for the needs, concerns and, most of all, blessings of family and community.
Have a blessed holiday season and remember, it only takes one to make a difference!

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