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Festivals of Light: Kwanzaa

December 15, 2020

By Volunteers of the Children’s International Learning Centre.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of African-American culture. It was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, an African-American history professor in California. Karenga created Kwanzaa to give African-Americans an alternative to existing holidays as well as an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history. The First Fruits festivals of Southern Africa, celebrated in December or January with the southern solstice, were an inspiration for Karenga. The celebration also has elements of various other harvest traditions from many parts of the continent of Africa.

Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase, matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits of the harvest. The holiday is spelled with an additional ‘a’ so there would be a symbolic seven letters, keeping with the traditional seven days of celebration. Although it originally started as an alternative to Christmas, many African-Americans celebrate both holidays throughout the United States of America.

Kwanza room setup including set table and murals

Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of seven principles: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).

On the sixth day, December 31, families gather for gift-giving and a feast of faith called Karamu Ya Imani. The table is decorated with several celebratory symbols: the mkeka (mat) on which the other symbols are placed; the kinara (candle holder) which has seven candles called mishumaa saba; the mazao (crops) including mahindi (corn); and the kikombe (unity cup). Ears of corn represent the children celebrating and may be a part of the holiday meal. During the feast, the kikombe is passed around for everyone to share a drink.

Kwanza decor including small sculptures of people and animals

The colours of the seven candles are traditionally three red, three green, and one black. The black candle is placed in the middle, with the three red and three green on either side. During Kwanzaa, one candle, representing one principle, is lit each day and the other candles are relit to give off more light and vision. The number of burning candles indicate the principle that is being celebrated. The mishumaa saba’s symbolic colours are adapted from the Bendera, a red, black, and green flag created by Marcus Garvey. Red represents the struggle for self-determination and freedom by people of colour. Black is the people, the Earth, and the source of life, representing hope, creativity, and faith. Green represents the Earth that sustains our lives and provides fruits of the harvest, employment and more. Some families put a different coloured candle in one of the spots to represent something important to them. The kinara, in which the candles are placed, is the centre of the Kwanzaa setting and represents ancestry. It can be in any shape — straight, semicircles, or spirals — as long as the seven candles are separate and distinct. Kinaras are made from all kinds of materials, and many celebrants create their own from fallen branches, wood, or other natural materials.

Families decorate their homes with objects of art, colourful African clothes, and fresh fruits. When you greet someone during Kwanzaa you say, “Joyous Kwanzaa”.

display of kwanza items on shelves

The Children’s International Learning Centre (CILC) is a non-profit organization that was established with the vision of contributing to a world of care and respect for all people and our environment. We endeavour to do this by promoting respect for diversity and awareness of our world community through guided discovery and interactive, artistic programmes, which will soon be delivered online.

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