Created in 1966 by Dr. Mulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is a holiday focused on connecting African-Americans with their heritage and culture. A celebration with genesis in the Black Panther and freedom movement era, Karenga’s goal for the pan-African holiday is to, “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history.”

Though containing colors of green and red that may resemble Christmas and the daily lighting of candles similar to Hanukkah, the cultural celebration is different in that it has no major religious affiliation. Since it’s implementation into American society, it has spread throughout other nations. 2015 marks the 49th annual celebration of Kwanzaa and an estimated 1.8 million Americans are expected to participate. Interested in celebrating during this holiday season? Here's a quick beginners guide to having a Heri za Kwanzaa, or Happy Holiday!

Getting to the ROOT of Things

Observed from December 26th to January1st, Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase, mutunda ya kwanza, or "first fruits of the harvest." The East African language is said to be a symbol of Pan-Africanism primarily in the 1960s. Each year of celebration is centered on a  theme. According to Dr. Karenga, this year's theme is "Creating and Celebrating the Good." Gifts are typically exchanged on December 31st along with a customary Kwanzaa ceremony focused on giving respect and gratitude to ancestors. Ceremonies may include drumming and musical selections, candle light rituals, brief history lessons, and sharing libations through a kikombe cha umoja, passed around to all in attendance. 

Decorations are a Major Key to Success

The signature colors of Kwanzaa are black, red, and green. Decorations should include traditional items like African baskets, kente cloth patterns, pieces of art, and symbols of bountiful harvest. Rather than a Christmas tree, the main room of the house should contain a central table with an abundance of Kwanzaa symbols. The following should be placed on the Mkeka, a straw mat symbolizing the historical foundation of African ancestry: Mazao, fruit placed in a bowl to represent the community's productivity
Kinara, seven pronged candle holder Mishumaa Saba, the seven candles which represent the core principles of kwanzaa. Three candles are red to represent struggle, three are green to represent hope, and one is black to signify African heritage. Muhindi, ears of corn to represent the children of the community Kikombe cha Umoja, a cup to represent family and community unity   The 7 Principles of African Heritage

A different principle is celebrated each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. These words signify keys to building productive families and communities in and outside of Africa. When asked “Habari gani,” Swahili for “What’s the news?” the principles below create the answers.  
Umoja (unity), to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. Kujichagulia (self-determination), To define, name, create, and speak for oneself. Ujima (working together), To build and maintain a community together and make our brother and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together. Ujamaa (cooperative economics), To build, maintain, and support each other’s businesses and to profit from them together. Nia (purpose), To restore our people to their traditional greatness. Kuumba (creativity), To do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. Imani (faith), To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The Historical Celebration Continues

Though the holiday often receives cross cultural criticism, its overall purpose is to create unity and uplift those who choose to partake. Originally created to replace traditional creations, Dr. Karenga urges Black men and women to celebrate alongside traditional holidays. According to the University of Minnesota, the popularity of the holiday was initially declining but saw a rise in participation in 2010. As years go by, the celebration is expected to level off. Kwanzaa begins this Saturday and will end with a large feast and gift giving celebration on New Year’s Day.

Do you celebrate Kwanzaa or have any special traditions? Let us know in the comments below.