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Festivals of Lights: Kwanzaa

December 26, 2021

Around the world, people celebrate festivals with specific traditions and customs. When people come to Canada, depending on the food and plants available, they adapt and use what’s accessible for traditions. One important element of these festivals is the use of forms of light.

Through the ages, people have gathered together around fire and light in all its forms. Fire offers warmth, heat to cook with, and protection. Light in nature is used for all kinds of purposes. Moonlight and the stars help mark time and aid in navigation while the sun is an essential part of life and growth. Humans seek out light as it provides comfort, the ability to see and the energy to grow food and plants. Light is celebrated as a symbol of hope because in times of darkness, people wish and pray for light and its reassurance. Therefore, it makes sense that many holidays and observances are celebrated with lights as part of their tradition. People in our communities and neighbourhoods around the world celebrate with the sparkle and bang of fireworks, the comfort of a single candle’s flame, the crackle of flames from an open fire, a lit lantern or the twinkle of lights from decorated boughs of an evergreen or even a palm tree!

Light weaves a common thread to unite people from north to south, east to west in the celebration of many festivals including: Indigenous observances, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Lunar New Year, Ramadan/Eid-ul-fitr. Journey with our volunteers and friends from the Children’s International Learning Centre (CILC) as we learn of celebrations and observances by seeing a snapshot of cultural nuances through their eyes with the RBG at Home blog.

(December 26 to January 1)

Volunteers at the Children’s International Learning Centre

Kwanzaa is a cultural festival (not a religious one) that is celebrated by many African-Americans regardless of religious background. It is a relatively young holiday as it started in 1966 in California, USA by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African–American history teacher. The celebration has now spread to many countries. His goal was to bring together African-Americans by reminding them of their shared African heritage. He also wanted people to recognize the rich traditions, customs and history that have become forgotten or lost. It is celebrated during the holiday season so that people can rejoice in the spirit of the festive season.

Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili term, Kwanza which means “first”. Thus, Kwanzaa also celebrates the “first fruits” at harvest time.  Usually, the word has 6 letters but when used for the celebration, an extra ‘a’ is added to the end to represent the 7 days of Kwanzaa starting from December 26 until January 1. As well, it represents the 7 principles which are values that help build and reinforce community among the African-American culture. One principle is recognized for each day of Kwanzaa.

  • Day 1: Umoja (unity): Loving one another and maintaining unity in family and community.
  • Day 2: Kujichagulia (self-determination): Trying your best, learning how to become your best self, standing up for yourself, defining yourself, and speaking for yourself
  • Day 3: Ujima (working together and responsibility): Building a community and working together to accomplish goals and solve problems.
  • Day 4: Ujamaa (cooperative economics): Supporting your own stores so the community can profit together. Volunteering or giving back to charities.
  • Day 5: Nia (purpose): Finding your own place in the community and making a positive influence. Remembering where you come from.
  • Day 6: Kuumba (creativity): Doing what you know to make something creative and help leave our communities more beautiful than when we inherited it.
  • Day 7: Imani (faith): Believing in people and faith.

To celebrate Kwanzaa, people decorate homes in the 3 traditional colours of Kwanzaa: black represents people; red represents all the struggles of African-Americans; green represents hope for the future and the land.

Seven is a popular number for Kwanzaa as there are also seven symbols associated with the celebration.

  • i) kinara (a candle holder) which represents the African ancestors
  • ii) mishumaa saba (seven candles) which symbolize the 7 principles (values) people are urged to live by
  • iii) kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) which is used for commemorating and giving thanks to African ancestors
  • iv) muhindi (corn) which represents the children who are the future
  • v) mazao (crops) which are symbolic of African harvest celebrations
  • vi) mkeka (the mat) represents tradition and history which is the foundation upon which people build
  • vii) zawadi (the gifts) symbolizes the love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children

The celebration is not complete without a festive meal. The meal has a variety of foods of the family’s choice. Tables are usually filled with fruits and vegetables to symbolize the harvest. Some foods which represent the African harvests are okra, yams, squash, sweet potatoes, and bananas. It is important to note that the food is shared as Kwanzaa is about celebrating community.

CILC Kwanzaa display
CILC Kwanzaa display 2017–2018
CILC Kwanzaa display 2018-2019
CILC Kwanzaa display 2018-2019
CILC Kwanzaa display 2019–2020
CILC Kwanzaa display 2019–2020
Children's International Learning Centre

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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