Photo by Sophinarath Cheang.
Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga in 1966, a professor and philosopher whose goal was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history.” Although this was the goal, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It is open to who ever would like to celebrate it. Some people celebrate it as an alternative to Christmas or in addition to Christmas or anything else they may celebrate.
Kwanzaa starts on the 26th of December every year. It is a holiday celebrated for seven days. Each day is designated a principle. The principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility) Ujimaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). These principles are meant to create an improved and harmonious lifestyle for families, communities, and all in all, the nation.
Holidays are a time of decorations, likewise for Kwanzaa. There are different decorations that represent different things. There is a kinara which holds seven candles for each day. The candles are red, black, and green: three red, one black, and three green. They are lit one at a time from left to right. There is a chalice that is meant to be shared for libations for the ancestors and is referred to as the Kikombe cha Umoja. Corn is represented for the children, the longest corn is for the oldest and the shortest is for the youngest. Other foods like squash are represented for the harvest season. The ceremony is started by someone asking Habari Gani which is Swahili for “what is the news.” People may recite an African Pledge, drum, sing, and recite phrases or read from famous, well-respected African-Americans. Usually on the last day (Imani), there is a feast called a karamu and gifts are exchanged.
The ritual varies from each family since there is no exact or traditional way of celebrating Kwanzaa.
My family has celebrated Kwanzaa for as long as I can remember. We’ve always had a sense of our own cultural identity (thanks to our parents), and commemorated our ancestors. “Although I had attended Kwanzaa events as a young single woman, I began celebrating Kwanzaa in my own home when I started a family. I wanted my children to have a sense of their own cultural heritage and cultural identity,” says my mother Sonya Clark.
My younger sister Tovah says, “I like Kwanzaa because it makes me feel like I’m in Africa, with my ancestors.”
We usually start off by asking “what’s the news?” in Swahili and then our mom will tell us what the principle was for that night. The youngest (with our help) would light the first candle for the night. Then we’d start with our libations. Each one of us would take a sip from the cup and name off an ancestor. After that our mother would read a scripture from a book and or ask us if there was anything else we wanted to add. Sometimes my brother(s) will play drums and we’d chant positive words that relate to the principle for the night. We end the night with the candle(s) burning out to the music. The next day we repeat the same routine, leading up to the last day where we exchange gifts.
This time of the year is a festive year, a year in which families and friends get together to enjoy the holidays. No matter what is celebrated, it’s all about coming together and enjoying each other’s company.