Kwanzaa 101 for the Uninitiated, Self-Conscious, or Confused

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Symba Nureddin, 9, watches the festivities during a Kwanzaa festival at the Museum of Natural History Dec.28, 2002, in New York City.
Photo: Stephen Chernin (Getty Images)

Y’all, Kwanzaa is LIT. Seriously. What other uniquely African-American holiday invites you to spend seven days talking about the realest shit?

People get so caught up in how it’s a made-up holiday, but come on—a holiday is a group decision. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday is younger than Kwanzaa. I’m not saying it’s right, but thems the facts.

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So how do you, a Kwanzaa skeptic, get on board without feeling silly? I got you.

Step One: Get your stuff.

The visuals of Kwanzaa are pretty simple. You can get a kit, go to an African market, or get creative. Candles in a Kinara are the traditional way of doing Kwanzaa, but if you don’t have the time or energy to pull that together, don’t. I find having a Kwanzaa table set up is a reminder to stop and think about the Kwanzaa principles, but know that if you’re reflecting on the principles you’re doing Kwanzaa. It’s just like you don’t need a tree to celebrate Christmas; but if you like a tree, it’s nice to have. For Kwanzaa, the main elements are:

  • Mkeka: Mat
    The Mkeka is the base of your Kwanzaa table. The foundation. Historically, it is a raffia or straw woven mat with an earthy vibe.
  • Kinara: Candleholder
    The centerpiece of your Kwanzaa table is your kinara, candleholder.
  • Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles (three red, one black, and three green)
    Growing up, it was surprisingly difficult to find black candles in December, but capitalism has caught up with Kwanzaa and my mom called me last week to say they had them at…Whole Foods. Let me find out.
  • Kikombe cha Umoja: Unity Cup
    In Kwanzaa pictures, the unity cup is depicted as a wooden chalice, but any larger, attractive cup will work. We all sip from the cup at our immediate family celebrations, but in larger groups, it’s appropriate to just dip your finger in the cup. Whatever you do, agree on it beforehand, no one wants to sip after everyone else has dipped.
  • Mazao: Harvest
    This is represented by fruits or vegetables on your Kwanzaa table.
  • Muhindi: The Corn
    Dried ears of corn that represent children or abundance. Traditionally, you have one ear for each child in the house, plus one additional ear.
  • Zawadi: Gifts
    Ideally, these are handmade, educational and purchased from a black-owned business.

Step Two: Get your people.

A Kwanzaa celebration is two people or 2,000. I find closer to 20 is a sweet spot, but I don’t know your life. Because you will be actively reflecting on the principle of the day, 20 people or so is a good amount that allows everyone to talk without the ceremony dragging on FOREVER!

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Step Three: Get food.

Duh. When in the history of ever do our folk have a celebration without refreshments? Depending on your budget or bandwidth you can cook yourself, ask everyone to bring something or have it catered. In my Kwanzaa community we’ve done it all—just don’t invite people over without some kind of food plan.

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Step Four: Get serious.

Kwanzaa is 100 percent fun, but it was started as a nation-building tool during the Black Nationalist movement in the 1960s. It’s an opportunity for black people (and our invited guests) to reflect on important principles, share our victories with each other, and reinforce the values of our community.

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Kwanzaa is not a consumerist holiday. Like I said: if you can’t find an amazing Kinara or the perfect unity cup keep it pushing and have your Kwanzaa celebration anyway. The important part of your Kwanzaa fest is coming together with friends and family to be festive and reflect on the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, which make up the seven days of Kwanzaa:

Umoja: Unity - Unity in the family, community, nation, and race
Kujichagulia: Self-Determination - To define ourselves, name ourselves and not be defined by others.
Ujima: Collective work and responsibility - To work together and be accountable to each other.
Ujamaa: Cooperative economics - Combining our energy and focus to build businesses, economic stability and to support each other’s economic goals.
Nia: Purpose - Knowing what your goals are both personally and in the community, and working towards them.
Kuumba: Creativity - Creating, beautifying and staying fly.
Imani: Faith - Believing in our people, our families, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

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Each day of Kwanzaa, us Kwanzaaphiles greet each other by saying “Habari Gani?” which is Swahili for What’s the word (or news)? On the first day of Kwanzaa, the response is “Umoja.” The second day, the response is “Kujichagulia,” and so on. You get it. The greeting reminds us that it’s Kwanzaa time and in the midst of all the things you’re doing today, to keep the principle in your thoughts. Also, if you’re a 16-year-old me, it reminds you that you’re going to be asked to talk about it at Kwanzaa that night.

The basic ceremony, once everyone has arrived, socialized, and eaten, is to start by acknowledging our ancestors, both our collective ones (i.e., Malcolm X, Madame C.J. Walker, Langston Hughes) and your personal ones. This is a reminder of our shared history and helps to set the tone. It doesn’t have to be rooted in a particular spiritual tradition, but it can be. In my family we call out names and pour a little water in a plant for each one.

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Once you’ve acknowledged our ancestors it’s good to spend a little time talking about Kwanzaa in general. It’s usually someone’s first Kwanzaa, and even if you know all the things it’s a good time for a refresher. In preparation, you can pick up a Kwanzaa book from your local library or from a black-owned bookseller. There is no shame in literally reading it off the page. Growing up, this was one of the first things that my parents delegated completely to the children. During this part, you talk about the Kwanzaa table (if you have one) and what the elements on the table represent.

The main part of a Kwanzaa ceremony involves discussing the principle of the day and lighting a candle for that day. If you are mid-Kwanzaa week it is traditional to light the candles for the previous days and have shorter discussions about them to bring everyone up to speed. The dope thing about this is that by the seventh day of Kwanzaa, you’ve been talking about Umoja (unity) all week. Once you get to your particular Kwanzaa day—I’m going to use Nia (purpose) for my example—you facilitate a discussion about the day’s principle.

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You can ask how Nia has shown up in your guests’ lives in the last year and what steps people are taking towards their purpose in the coming year. Kwanzaa happens right around the beginning of the new year, so most of us are instinctively thinking about this anyway. It’s the perfect time to vocalize, reflect and plan.

After everyone has dropped gems on Nia (and there will be gems, trust) you should talk briefly about the principles that follow, but you don’t have to light candles. In my family, we then end the ceremony with a song or two. We’ve curated our own collection of Kwanzaa songs that are simple and fun for children with an uplifting message and vibe, like “Deep and Wide,” complete with the hand movements. We want someone who’s never heard the songs to be able to chime in quickly and end on an upbeat note.

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Then you rinse and repeat the next day.

Performers with the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers hold a Kwanzaa celebration hosted by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum at Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Washington, D.C., Dec. 27, 2017.
Photo: SAUL LOEB (AFP via Getty Images)
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I’ve celebrated Kwanzaa my whole life—some years it’s been just my immediate family together at home every night with one or two guests. Currently, we have a Kwanzaa calendar with different families in our community hosting on alternate nights and sharing responsibilities. And if you want to celebrate Kwanzaa but don’t want to organize it yourself, many community organizations and museums host Kwanzaa events as part of their annual programming.

This is a blueprint of a Kwanzaa ceremony for the curious. I personally think Kwanzaa is important because it gives black people an opportunity to reflect on important principles together within an organized framework. My goal here is not to dictate how your Kwanzaa should be done, but to give you a framework to make Kwanzaa something that you can easily incorporate into your own celebration. You should definitely bring your Kuumba (creativity) and flavor to whatever you do.

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After all, it’s about being Kwanzaa present, not Kwanzaa perfect.


Moji Alawode-El lives in Harlem with her partner and son. She loves dancing, yoga, and reading and has been celebrating Kwanzaa forever.

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