Kwanzaa fills void for Africans ... with celebration of family, community and culture
Janelle Oswald, Contributor
For many Jamaicans and others of African descent, the celebration of Christmas offers very little spiritual fulfilment, especially due to the 'mis-sold' story of Christ and the misrepresentations of their ancestors in the Bible.
In search of something to fill this void, numerous African descendants, particularly African Americans, have embraced a 'new' holiday celebration known as Kwanzaa. Observed between December 26 and January 1, and celebrating its 48th anniversary this year - Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor is it meant to replace Christmas but was introduced to the conscious minds of African descendants as an alternative concept to add to their already practised religion such as Christianity or Islam.
A set of spiritual principles launched in 1966 by Dr Maulana 'Ron' Karenga, who is referred to as the modern-day 'creator', Kwanzaa has now captured the hearts of more than 18 million African Americans across the diaspora and counting, and this new age tradition has also reached the shores of Jamaica.
Karenga's inspiration for Kwanzaa was sparked during segregated America. People of African descent were coming together in unity to address the historical inequities, injustices and racist institutions. There was a new sense of inherent power and dignity that was being expressed within the African-American communities across the nation.
This new sense was manifesting as a call for human rights, civil rights, prisoner rights and, most significantly, as 'black' power.
A known activist (founder of the Black Power group United States organisation), Karenga sought to design a celebration to honour the values of ancient African culture while promoting positive African imagery in order to lift the hearts of African Americans who were striving for progress.
Modelled on the African harvest festivals, which have been practised across Africa for millenniums - the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase 'matunda ya kwanza', meaning 'first fruits of the harvest'.
Swahili was selected as the spoken language of Kwanzaa because it is seen as a universal African dialect. Several nations in East Africa spoke/speak Swahili and yet it is not a colonial language such as English or French, thereby presenting itself as the best choice for a modern pan-African language that could speak to a pan-African vision.
However, to say Kwanzaa is a new concept would eclipse its majestic richness in history. The teachings and philosophies of Kwanzaa, which mark the winter solstice (shift and change of the new season/sun/son) has been around since Kemet (ancient Africa).
Originally known as 'Karast Maat Kwanzaa', which builds upon the ancient traditions and wisdom practised by our ancestors, Kwanzaa is an invitation to experience greater understanding, wisdom and growth, offering a true unity and expression within the family, community and humanity.
This new holiday, or 'Holy Days' observance, is in fact a 12-day observance starting from December 21, hence the term '12 days of Christmas'.
The 12 days of Karast Maat Kwanzaa are:
- December 21: Maat - Balance
- December 22: Set - Desire
- December 23: Ausar - True Self
- December 24: Auset - Love
- December 25: Heru - Born
- December 26: Umoja - Unity
- December 27: Kujichagulia - Self-Determination
- December 28: Ujima - Cooperation
- December 29: Ujamaa - Family
- December 30: Nia - Purpose
- December 31: Kuumba - Creativity
However, if you opt for the modern-day practice, Karenga's principles of Kwanzaa focus on a seven-day observation.
The seven steps are as follows:
Decorate your home or the main room with the symbols of Kwanzaa. Put a green tablecloth over a centrally located table. On top of the table place a straw or woven mat called a Mkeka, which symbolises the historical foundation of African ancestry. Place the following on the Mkeka:
Mazao - fruit or crops placed in a bowl, representing the community's productivity.
Kinara - a seven-pronged candle-holder, which symbolises the ancestors.
Mishumaa Saba - the seven candles, which represent the seven core principles of Kwanzaa. Three candles on the left are red, representing struggle; three on the right are green, representing hope; and one in the centre is black, signifying Africans or those who draw their heritage from Africa.
Muhindi - ears of corn. Lay out one ear of corn for each child. If there are no children, place two ears to represent the children of the community.
Zawadi - various gifts for the children.
Kikombe cha Umoja - a cup to represent family and community unity.
Honouring our rich and diverse heritage, decorate your house or around the room with Kwanzaa flags called Bendera, and posters emphasising the seven principles. You can purchase or make these with the children.
In order to get in the mood and spirit of Kwanzaa, try practising the greetings. Starting on December 26, greet everyone by saying 'Habari Gani' which is a standard Swahili greeting meaning 'what is the news?' If someone greets you, respond with the principle (Nguzo Saba) for that day (check 12 days of Christmas list):
Lighting candles creates great energy in the home. Light the Kinara daily. Since each candle represents a specific principle, they are lit one day at a time, in a certain order. The black candle is always lit first. Some people light the remaining candles from left to right (red to green) while other people alternate as follows:
- Day 1 - Black candle
- Day 2 - Far left red candle
- Day 3 - Far right green candle
- Day 4 - Second red candle
- Day 5 - Second green candle
- Day 6 - Last red candle
- Day 7 - Last green candle
Celebrate Kwanzaa in a variety of different ways. Pick and choose some or all of the following activities throughout the seven days of Kwanzaa, saving the feast for the sixth day. A Kwanzaa ceremony may include:
- Drumming and musical selections.
- Readings of the African pledge and the principles of blackness.
- Reflections on the pan-African colours, discussions of African principles of the day, or recitations of chapters in African history.
- The candle-lighting ritual of the Kinara.
- Artistic performances.
Have the Kwanzaa Karamu (feast) on the sixth day (New Year's Eve). The Kwanzaa feast is a very special event that brings everyone closer to their African roots. It is traditionally held on December 31 and is a collective and cooperative effort. Decorate the room where the feast will be held in a red, green, and black scheme. A large Mkeka should be placed in the centre of the floor and the food should be placed creatively and made accessible to all.
Before and during the feast, an informative and entertaining programme should be presented.
Traditionally, the programme should involve welcoming, remembering, reassessment, recommitment and rejoicing, concluded by a farewell statement and a call for greater unity. During the feast, libations are to be shared from a communal cup known as Kikombe cha Umoja, which should be passed around to all celebrants.
It's time for Kuumba. Kuumba, meaning creativity, is highly encouraged and brings a sense of self-satisfaction. The gifts are usually exchanged between the parents and children and are given out traditionally on January 1, the last day of Kwanzaa. Since the giving of gifts has very much to do with Kuumba, the gifts should be of an educational or artistic nature.
Nevertheless, whatever days of observance (12 days versus seven days) you gravitate to, Kwanzaa serves to increase a deepening of our inner relationships of the True Self, the ancestors and God Most High, as well as our relationships with our families, communities, nations and the earth as a whole.