Coming Together

| December 2, 2010

In the midst of wrapping paper and crowded malls, one celebration risks being overlooked this season: Kwanzaa. However, this lesser-known holiday might not be as far removed as we think.

“People celebrating Kwanzaa give gifts like at Christmas,” according to “Kwanzaa: Why We Celebrate It The Way We Do” by Martin and Kate Hintz. “They make vows like at New Year’s. They have a feast with harvested food like at Thanksgiving. Candles are used as symbols like at Hanukkah. A flag is important like at the Fourth of July.”

However, Kwanzaa is not a political or religious holiday, but a seven-day cultural celebration that begins on Dec. 26 and runs through Jan. 1.

“Kwanzaa does not celebrate an event. It celebrates a whole race of people,” according to the Hintzes.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 post-riot Los Angeles by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University. He was searching for ways to bring African-Americans together as a community, and after researching various African celebrations, he ultimately combined several different harvest celebrations to form the basis of Kwanzaa.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. The “first fruits” are represented in “Mazao” (crops, fruits, nuts and vegetables), which is one of the seven principles recognized in a Kwanzaa ceremony.

Mazao, according to the Hintzes, “symbolizes work and the basis of the holiday. It represents the historical foundation for Kwanzaa, the gathering of the people that is patterned after African harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity and thanksgiving are the fruits of collective planning and work.”

The seven principles, according to the book “The Complete Kwanzaa Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest” by Dorothy Winbush Riley, “are values of African culture, which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans.”

“Kwanzaa also has seven basic symbols, which represent values and concepts reflective of African culture,” according to Riley.

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle. In addition to Mazao, the other symbolic principles are:

  • Kinara (candle holder)
  • Mkeka (place mat)
  • Vibunzi (ear of corn)
  • Mishumaa Saba (seven candles)
  • Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup)
  • Zawadi (gifts)

Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling and a large African feast, called a “Karamu.” One consistent tradition is their lighting of the Kinara candle holder. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and lights one of the candles on the Kinara.

The Kinara is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and according to Karenga’s teachings “symbolizes the ancestors, who were once earth bound; understand the problems of human life; and are willing to protect their progeny from danger and mistakes.”

After each candle is lit, one of the seven principles is discussed.

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Category: Cover Stories

About the Author (Author Profile)

Lauren DePaso
Voice-Tribune Staff Writer Lauren DePaso enjoys being a tourist in her own city, exploring the nightlife and cheering on the Cards. A Louisville native, she currently resides in St. Matthews.

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