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Kwanzaa — celebrating pan-African culture, community and history

 

Photo by Black Hour licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that celebrates the African community, family and values. Read on to get a glimpse as to why it’s important.


What is it?

Child dressed in traditional African clothing.
(AP Photo/The Orange County Register, Eugene Garcia)

The celebration of Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It’s a time for people of African heritage to celebrate their culture and its history. 

Kwanzaa lasts seven days, taking place from December 26th to January 1st.

The celebration was founded in 1966 in the United States, and Canada began to celebrate it in 1993. The word kwanzaa comes from the Swahili language and means “first fruits.”


How is it celebrated?

Drummer speaks during Kwanzaa celebration.
Photo by Black Hour licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

Kwanzaa is celebrated with many ceremonies throughout the week.

People often decorate their homes in the colours of the Pan-African flag: red, green and black.

People may wear traditional African clothing — women might wear a colourful robe called a kaftan, while men wear a bright shirt called a dashiki (say "da-SHE-KEE").


Are there any special traditions?

Child helps light the candles during Kwanzaa.
Photo by Black Hour licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

An important tradition in Kwanzaa has to do with a candle holder called the kinara.

It holds seven candles, including three red ones, three green ones and a single black candle.

Each day during Kwanzaa, one candle is lit, so that all of them will be burning brightly come the seventh day.
 

Kwanzaa candle holder (called kinara) on altar with a large book with the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Photo by soulchristmas licensed CC BY 2.0

Every candle represents a different value of African culture. They are:

  • unity — umoja (say “oo-MO-jah”)
  • self-determination — kujichagulia (say “koo-GEE-cha-GOO-leeya”)
  • community work and responsibility — ujima (say “OO-GEE-mah”)
  • building and supporting businesses within the community — ujamaa (say “oo-JAH-mah”)
  • having purpose — nia (say “Nee-yah”)
  • creativity — kuumba (say “koo-OOM-bah”)
  • faith — imani (say “ee-MAH-nee”) 

Each value is discussed by families during Kwanzaa, as the candles are lit.


Are there any other important symbols?

Special symbols for Kwanzaa.
Photo by Black Hour licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

There are seven central symbols of Kwanzaa. They represent African values and the community.

The first is the kinara, the candle holder that holds the seven candles. It symbolizes African heritage.

The candles themselves are another symbol and are meant to be a sign of light during the seven days.  

The rest of the symbols are placed near the kinara. These include:

  • A decorative straw mat called a mkeka (say "em-KEH-kah") that’s placed under the candle holder and represents the past.
  • Fruits and vegetables that signify abundance.
  • A cup that every family member will drink from as a sign of sharing.
  • One ear of corn for each child in the family.
  • Gifts, which are often handmade, that will be shared on the seventh day and encourage growth, self-determination, achievement and success.

What happens at the end of Kwanzaa?

Special dishes served on the final night of Kwanzaa.
Photo by Ethnic Cultural Center licensed CC BY-NC-ND

A special feast, called karamu (say "ka-RAH-mu"), is held on December 31st, the sixth day of Kwanzaa. Sometimes this meal is held in a church or community centre. 

Traditional African dishes are served and may include items like beans, rice, stew, chicken and countless sweet desserts.

On January 1st, the last day of Kwanzaa, families exchange gifts that are often homemade, which are known as zawadi (say "za-WAH-dee").
 

Women dancing during Kwanzaa.
(AP Photo/The Herald-Sun, Christine T. Nguyen)