Contrary to what many may think, Kwanzaa is not an African Christmas, nor is it a copy of Hanukkah. These are common misconceptions of the celebration that lands during the winter season and incorporates candle lighting at family gatherings. It was not created to replace religious festivities. In fact, it is a non-religious celebration that can be observed by a person of any religious faith. The cultural holiday is celebrated by some African American and Pan-African families. On December 26th, one candle is ignited to begin the commemoration of life. Consecutive candles are lit the following days, leading to a culmination of seven lit candles on the first day of the new year.
Kwanzaa is based on the African year-end harvest festivals that have taken place for thousands of years. The name derives from the phrase, “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in KiSwahili, the language spoken by various people in Africa. This first-fruits celebration is modeled after the Ashanti people’s Yam festival in Ghana and the Yoruba people’s harvest festival in Nigeria. These harvest festivals are also found among the Matabele people in Zimbabwe and the Zulu people in South Africa. But the tradition dates further back to the ancient Egyptians.
Each day leading up to January 1st, families light a candle and reflect upon one of seven principles (nguzo saba):
- unity (umoja)
- self-determination (kujichagulia)
- collective work and responsibility (ujima)
- cooperative economics (ujamaa)
- purpose (nia)
- creativity (kuumba)
- faith (imani).
These are believed to have been the virtues used to construct African communities. The colors of the seven candles symbolize the unity of people (black) that honors African (green: land of Africa) roots (red: noble blood).
On the first evening, the black candle in the center of the Kinara (candle-holder) is lit and the family discusses unity. The three red candles on the left of the Umoja candle, representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba, and the three green candles on the right, representing Nia, Ujima, and Imani are lit throughout the next six evenings. During this time families partake in dancing, singing, story telling, poetry readings, and crafting. Some families will even dress in traditional African clothes.
A New Year’s Resolution
On December 31st, families and communities host a feast known as Karamu. Tables are filled with dishes such as sweet potatoes, collard greens, and a maize porridge (sadza). By January 1st all seven candles are lit. It is on this day that each individual takes a moment to meditate on who they are and who they aim to be. By recommitting to their highest ideals they pay homage to their African heritage.
It’s no surprise that two celebrities that observe Kwanzaa are Maya Angelou and Opra. These women are known to be in touch with their inner selves and with the African American community. Though this holiday is rooted in the African American and Pan-African culture, it is important to acknowledge that this cultural tradition is one that carries universal morality. The value of family and community is important to protect. During this time we can all benefit from humbly assessing ourselves. With the new year comes the opportunity to grow.