Happy Birthday Kwanzaa!

2016 will see the trio of this month's happy holidays all stacked together. We are all familiar with Christmas and Hannukah, but how much do we know about Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is a holiday born out of the civil rights movement as a cultural celebration of Africans in America.  First celebrated in 1966, it will mark its 50th observance this year.  It is not a religious holiday but instead ties in to several African first fruit celebrations and each day celebrates one of seven beliefs known as the Nguzo Saba. 

Day 1 Umoja or Unity teaches oneness of our people and common ground of humanity

Day 2 Kujichagulia or Self-determination reaffirms everyone’s right to stand up for and decide their own future

Day 3 Ujima or Collective Work/Responsibility teaches us to work together to acknowledge our problems and seek solutions

Day 4 Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics teaches the value of shared work and shared wealth, for the greater good

Day 5 Nia or Purpose to bring good into the world by building up and maintaining our people, past, present and future

Day 6 Kuumba or Creativity calls us to create art to heal, repair and transform our world

Day 7 Imani or Faith celebrates each other’s abilities and strengths and our dreams for the future

Each day of the festival, celebrants will ask “Habari Gani?” What’s the News? and the appropriate response is the corresponding principle of the day such as "Umoja!" or "Nia!".

There is a lighting ceremony each day and the first and 6th days are often marked with meals and gatherings, and each day time is spent discussing that day’s principle.  A ceremonial table setting features a wooden candleholder, the kinara, which holds 7 candles. One black candle symbolizes the African people, three red candles symbolize the struggles of life and three green candles symbolize hope for the future.  The same colors appear on the bendera, the African-American flag.

Fruits and vegetables are also placed on the mat.  An ear of corn for each child in the home, symbolizing hope for the future, as each kernel can be planted to grow more corn.  A unity cup, kikombe cha umoja, is shared by all family members.  Candles are lit each night beginning with the black candle and each consecutive night on additional candle is added, red first then green and altering until all are lit on the 7th day. The sixth night is the feast, or karamu.  New Year’s Day is the completion of the Kwanzaa festival and is observed with thoughtful reflection of the past year and meditations on improvements for the coming year.

Each day’s ceremony incorporates several symbolic items, all of which are set on a traditional woven mat, a mkeka. Make your own with this simple project that can be modified from paper to felt.  

Kwanzaa gatherings feature lots of different African dishes served throughout the week.  One traditional food is the Benne Cake, a sweet treat featuring sesame seeds, thought to bring good luck.  A traditional recipe can be found at the end of The Story of Kwanzaa J394.2612 W317S by Donna L. Washington, illustrated by Stephen Taylor, or find a very similar recipe here, one native to South Carolina, probably adapted from the original brought over by West African slaves.   

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season and all the best in the coming year!

Stories about the African-American culture

The Water Princess, JP Verde, Susan

A Sweet Smell of Roses, JP Johnson, Angela


Young Adult Fiction

My Name is Not Friday, YA Walter, Jon

X, YA Shabazz, Ilyasah

Bright Lights, Dark Nights, YA Edmond, Stephen

The Boy in the Black Suit, YA Reynolds, Jason