American traditions over the decades have turned from the concepts of religion to shopping, vacations and gifting.  The heart of the season has lost its value.  Kwanzaa is a Swahili word meaning the first fruits of the harvest.  This seasonal celebration is not a new tradition or an American one, it originated from our African ancestors. 

In 1966, Maulana Ron Karenga adopted the basics of this concept to observe for people of color in America.  It’s an African celebration, the harvest people of color come together to celebrate and give thanks for what they have overcome and bless into future generations.  This custom has been key in building unity within our community, honoring our ancestors and is an upliftment of our people as a whole.

  • Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to the evening of December 31, there are symbols that represent the African beliefs and culture.
  • Mkeka- straw mat that symbolizes the tradition as the foundation on which all resets.
  • Kinara- seven spaced candle holder representing the original stand from which African people originated.
  • Muhindi- the ears of corn which represent the off spring of the stalk.

Gifts given are called Zawadi, they represent the fruits of labor of the parents and rewards of the seeds, sewn by children.  The Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) stand for the seven principals and are used in a candle light ceremony when all family members are present.

Each candle has a significant meaning; black candles- represent the color of African people.  Red candles- represent the blood of our ancestors.  Three green candles represent earth, life, ideas and the promises of the future. 

Beginning from December 26th with black mishuma. A different candle is lit for each day, alternating from left to right.   An African form of praise (TAMBIKO) is performed to pay homage to personal and collective ancestors.  Wine, juice or distilled sprits are poured in a unity cup while the elder makes a statement honoring departed family for inspiration and values they have left with their descendants.  The elders then drink and pass for all to share. 

The phrase “HARAMBEE” is shouted by all meaning, let’s pull together. Everyone joins and repeats the saying seven times.  On the evening of December 31st, a celebration with food, drink, dance and music for collective family and friends.  A time for merriment, rejoicing, reassessment and recommitment.

Source: national museum of African art and the Anacostia museum