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Celebrating Kwanzaa

Finding Strength in a Shared History

Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, but it draws on ancient African traditions. The festival was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., an African-American educator, to enrich black culture with African traditions and values. Dr. Karenga built Kwanzaa around seven principles: the unity of family and community; self-determination; working collectively to achieve success; supporting black-owned businesses; acting with purpose to improve the future; using creativity to bring beauty to the world; and believing in the struggle to build a better life for African Americans.

The festival begins December 26 and lasts seven days. Each day the family gathers to light candles, discuss the meaning of that day’s Kwanzaa principle, and drink from the “unity cup.” Kwanzaa is now celebrated in millions of American homes and in many community gatherings. To bring Kwanzaa into your home:

  • Prepare a table with the seven symbols of Kwanzaa. Cover a table with a black or green cloth, topped by a straw or handmade mkeka (mat). On the mat, place fruits and vegetable to celebrate the African harvest; a unity cup, from which everyone will drink to show community; a kinara, a candle holder that symbolizes African-American ancestors; seven candles, which represent the principles of Kwanzaa; an ear of dried corn for each child; and gifts.

  • Light the kinara candles. The kinara is set up with three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right, and a black one in the center. On the first night of Kwanzaa, light the black candle. The second night, light the black one, plus the farthest red candle. The third night, add the farthest green one. Continue the pattern each night, alternating colors, until all candles are glowing.

  • Choose gifts in the spirit of the holiday. It’s customary to give children books or educational toys, heritage symbols, handmade items, or family keepsakes. Gifts are usually given on the sixth day.

  • On the sixth day, hold a feast. Gather friends and family to celebrate the holiday. Invite them to share their creativity—the principle of the day—by performing plays, reading poems, and telling stories.

  • Shout “Harambee!” (“Let’s all pull together”) seven times, in honor of the seven beliefs of Kwanzaa.
  • Rochelle Green is a freelance writer and editor living in Connecticut.

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