Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community and culture. Celebrated from 26 December until 1 January, its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language.
The first-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia and appear in ancient and modern times in other classical African civilizations such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland. These celebrations are also found in ancient and modern times among societies as large as empires (the Zulu) or kingdoms (Swaziland) or smaller societies and groups like the Matabele, Thonga and Lovedu, all of southeastern Africa. Kwanzaa builds on the five fundamental activities of Continental African “first fruit” celebrations.
According to the official Kwanzaa website, this means a time of ingathering of the people to reaffirm the bonds between them; a time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation; a time for commemoration of the past in pursuit of its lessons and in honour of its models of human excellence, our ancestors; a time of recommitment to our highest cultural ideals in our ongoing effort to always bring forth the best of African cultural thought and practice; and a time for celebration of the Good, the good of life and of existence itself, the good of family, community and culture, the good of the awesome and the ordinary, in a word the good of the divine, natural and social.
Traditions and principles
Rooted in this ancient history and culture, Kwanzaa develops as a flourishing branch of the African American life and struggle as a recreated and expanded ancient tradition. Thus, it bears special characteristics only an African American holiday but also a Pan-African one, For it draws from the cultures of various African peoples, and is celebrated by millions of Africans throughout the world African community. Moreover, these various African peoples celebrate Kwanzaa because it speaks not only to African Americans in a special way, but also to Africans as a whole, in its stress on history, values, family, community and culture.
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement and thus reflects its concern for “cultural groundedness” in thought and practice, and the unity and self-determination associated with this. The seven principles are unity; self-determination; collective work and responsibility; cooperative economics; purpose; creativity; faith.
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art; colourful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women; and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa. The holiday greeting is “Joyous Kwanzaa”.
A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colours, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast (karamu). The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani? which is Swahili for “What’s the News?”