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Celebrate Kwanzaa with the Library

Shukrani Gray

Shukrani Gray

Shukrani is the African American Resource Collection and Equity & Inclusion Librarian at the New Orleans Public Library

Kwanzaa was created in the 1960s by Doctor Maulana Karenga, who established the holiday as a way for people of the African diaspora to celebrate their connection with Africa. Once a celebrated civil rights leader, Dr. Karenga later became embroiled in scandal and the diaspora has since separated the holiday from his controversy. Over the past six decades, Kwanzaa observers have expanded it into a beautiful time to celebrate Blackness, community development, and familyhood. 

The word “Kwanzaa” means “first fruits,” which is a nod to harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa. Instead of celebrating the bounty of our harvest, Kwanzaa celebrates the bounty of all the things we have done to help our families and communities throughout the year. 

Celebrated between December 26 and January 1, Kwanzaa centers around Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Blackness. The Kinara is a special candle holder where we place Mishumaa Saba –– seven candles to represent each of the seven principles. The black candle in the middle represents unity and Black people; the red ones signify the blood that our ancestors shed; and the green candles represent the land we are connected to. 

Each day during Kwanzaa, we light one of these candles and commemorate its corresponding principle: Umoja for unity; Kujichagulia for self-determination; Ujima, for collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa for cooperative economics; Nia for purpose; Kuumba for creativity; and Imani for faith. 

In each of these principles, we represent all aspects of our lives and our connection with our diaspora. 

Most families who celebrate Kwanzaa will have a very similar display set up in their homes, showing off their Kinara and Mishumaa Saba –– candle holder and seven candles –– and a few other special items: 

  • Kikombe cha Umoja –– A unity cup, which represents togetherness in the family.
  • Muhindi –– An ear of corn, which represents the fruitfulness of the family, particularly the children. 
  • Mazao –– Fruit to symbolize harvest.
  • Zawadi –– Gifts for our families. 
All these items are placed on a Mkeka, which is a woven mat that symbolizes the earth, as well as the foundations of African traditions and history. 
 

Kwanzaa gifts are meant to help us develop and grow, so we often exchange books, homemade presents, or items bought from Black vendors and businesses so that we can continue to support one another. 

Some people think you cannot celebrate Kwanzaa alongside Christmas or Hanukkah, but that is not true. While the other two are religious holidays, Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, which means anyone with a connection Africa or the diaspora, regardless of their faith, is welcome to celebrate.

Kwanzaa is a joyous holiday filled with love, support, revelry, and reflection. To make your Kwanzaa even better, check out these recommendations of what to watch, read, or listen to this holiday season:

 

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