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History | Celebration

Kwanzaa

Food | Stories | Sites


How Kwanzaa is Celebrated

As its creator Maulana Karenga says, "Kwanzaa is celebrated through rituals, dialogue, narratives, poetry, dancing, singing, drumming and other music, and feasting."1 Such activities might demonstrate Kwanzaaa's seven principles, known by the Swahili phrase "Nguzo Saba." They are:

celebration graphic
  • umoja (unity),

  • kujichagulia (self-determination),

  • ujima (collective work and responsibility),

  • ujamaa (cooperative economics),

  • nia (purpose),

  • kuumba (creativity), and

  • imani (faith).

Some readings during Kwanzaa might include Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christmas sermon on peace, W.E.B. DuBois' Prayers for Dark People, and the poetry of Lanston Hughes, according to Paula Woods and Felix Liddell, who have written a book about Kwanzaa, "Merry Christmas Baby."

One major ritual of Kwanzaa is lighting a candle on each day its seven days. The candles, called "mishumaa," are the colors of the Black Liberation Flag; there are three red candles, three green and one black.

After the candle lighting, celebrants might drink from a unity cup in a toast to their ancestors with the exclamation, "Harambee!" which means "let's all pull together."

The candles, in a candelabra called a "kinara," and the unity cup sit atop a straw mat, the "mkeka," that also holds fresh fruit to represent African harvest festivals. The mkeka is central to Kwanzaa's culminating feast on December 31.

Kwanzaa also includes gift-giving, generally to children. They might receive three traditional gifts: a book to further a goal or highlight black achievement, a heritage symbol, and a toy or other present. The gifts are displayed on the mkeka and given on January 1.

Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, United Press International, San Francisco Chronicle, Encarta 96 Encyclopedia

1From Karenga's contribution to Encarta 96 Encyclopedia

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