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Kwanzaa: History, Principles and Ways You Can Celebrate!

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Kwanzaa is an annual holiday that begins December 26  and ends January 1 at the start of the new year with gift-giving and a feast of faith, called Karamu Ya Imani. Kwanzaa celebrates the rich cultural roots of Americans of African ancestry. The word Kwanzaa was derived from matunda ya kwanza which means “the first” or “the first fruits of the harvest” in Swahili.  Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a Black Studies professor who wanted to bring African-Americans together after the Watts riots in 1965.  Dr. Karenga studied African harvest celebrations and combined elements of several different celebrations from tribes in Africa, such as the Ashanti and  Zulu, to develop the foundation of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is based on  seven fundamental principles, “Nguzo Saba” that are prevalent in African cultures and contribute to building connection and empowerment in the African-American community.  On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed.

 The seven principles are:

Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–jah)

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah)

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah)

To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.

Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah)

To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH)

To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness

Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah)

To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee)

To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

There are seven symbols of Kwanzaa:

Mazao (the crops)

These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.

Mkeka (the mat) 

This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.      

Kinara (the candle holder for seven candles one black, three red, and three green)

This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people -- continental Africans.

Muhindi (the corn)

This is symbolic of our children and our future which they embody.

Zawadi (gifts)

These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.

Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup)

This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible.

Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles)

These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the matrix and minimum set of values which African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.

The last day of the Kwanzaa celebration, is the first day of the new year, January 1. It is a time for reflection on the past and present and a time to set intentions for the future. 

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