Brownielocks and The 3 Bears
Present

Cartoon Fun
and

The History
 of 

Kwanzaa

(December 26 to January 1)

Note: Some of the information about this holiday might be offensive or disturbing to
pre-school children because it is not a religious holiday, but a dedicated ethnic & political one.
I did my best to present both sides fairly, due to it's origin.  
My purpose is to educate through art, not insult anyone.
This page is not a thesis on African Americans or their customs and by no means to be considered
a final authority.  Feel free to also visit The Official Kwanzaa Website for their views.

First of all, this holiday is acknowledged by many African-Americans, and it is also unrecognized or ignored by many African-Americans.

It is often printed on calendars, but it is not an "official" U.S. Holiday celebration that allows time off from work with pay, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc.

Just like Martin Luther King Day, not all states participate in it's celebration.  And, I personally never heard of it until I moved to the Washington, D.C.  area.  Kwanzaa was never mentioned in my hometown.  I'm also not African-American so this is another reason I had not heard of it until the 1990's. 

Kwanzaa is a holiday that is a personal choice on whether you want to observe it or not because of it's political and racial undertones that can't be ignored (which I briefly mention below.)  Some consider this a holiday that celebrates racial strife.  Others consider it a week of ethnic awareness.  It's all depends on personal viewpoints.  

I scanned several websites.  I spoke with some African-American friends and I also used the book referenced to create this page.
I hopefully did it with balance?

The official colors of Kwanzaa are Red, Green and Black. Why those colors?  Those are the colors of the national flag (bendara) of the African-American people as designed by Marcus Garvey, father of the modern Black Nationalist Movement.

Red =  Continuing struggle for the African-American people

Black = Symbolized their faces

Green = Hopes and Aspirations for the future

Let's get all the politics out of the way first, shall we?

Kwanzaa  began in 1966 after the August 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles by UCLA professor,  Dr. Karenga (born Ronald Everett in Maryland).  At that time he was a graduate student, who felt that his people had lost touch with their African heritage. After completing his Ph.D., he  taught African-American History, with a priority in studying the cultures of the Yorubas, Igbos, Ashantis and Zulus African tribes.  He discovered that all of these tribes celebrated some sort of  harvest festival, at which time they remembered their ancestors, celebrated their good fortunes and planned the upcoming year.

So this was Dr. Karenga's basis for developing a cultural holiday that African Americans of all faiths could celebrate and that would shift their attention away from Christmas and other traditional "white" holidays.

Many Christians find this a bit disturbing that Dr. Karenga would consider Christmas a "white person's"  holiday when Jesus Christ died for everyone.  And that one of the 3 wise men at the manger was African!  And that the bible states that Noah's wife was from an African nation. 

Another opinion is....

What surprises some people today  is that during the time of slavery, they were not allowed to celebrate their native customs.  So it is understandable that they 'might' have considered Christmas a forced "white holiday" on Blacks?  However, it is not my intention to get into racism on this page.  I just want to state that many Christians today (including some who are of African-American origin) feel that Dr. Karenga's creation of Kwanzaa helps to divide rather than unify people of different nationalities by stating that Christmas is a "white man's holiday" and Kwanzaa is a Black man's holiday, when the African-American population of this country has been free for over a century to worship as they wish with their own religion(s) and never been suppressed. If Kwanzaa had been started during times of slavery in the U.S., it might be understandable?  But to create an annual celebration after a race riot, for some people it means to silently continue the riot in a passive-aggressive nature. 

And yet another opinion is....

Many Black Baptist churches have been the victim of racial hatred in the 20th Century and so many Black Christians feel Kwanzaa is disrespectful to their African-American  Christian struggles in America. This is why many Christian Blacks either refuse to celebrate Kwanzaa, or do both.  But they will not allow Kwanzaa to replace Christmas!

Therefore, with some people it's a touchy subject because it's not a harvest or ethnic ancestral holiday, but a political statement against  "white people's Christmas", commercialism, and in some cases about a non-black God or Savior?

What do the kids think?

In some situations, Black children feel a bit cheated out of their normal school break. Why?  While other children are enjoying their seasonal time-off, families who observe Kwanzaa (in their eyes) are having a week-long African Studies course in their homes.  In other words, they are not getting a break from school at all!

On the other hand, some parents feel this is a time to create more of a bond with their children by coming together to discuss their heritage, when normally they would never take the time for it.

And then there are those that feel that African History should be taught per individual home and not a responsibility of the public schools (or at the expense of all taxpayers). And so they feel Kwanzaa is a way to accomplish this.

And then we have Black, Brown, Dark, or is it African-American? terminology to consider.  I was told, even some Americans of African heritage are all confused on how to be referred because it seems leaders keep changing their minds on what offends them and what doesn't. As one told me, "It's like fashion trends.  One time it's Afro, then it's African-American and then it's Black and then...etc. If we are to unite, we need to first unite on our terminology. And if you move in this country it gets even worse.  At least if you're Irish in Boston, you're also Irish in Atlanta. But that's not true of us."

 

 And a good example of  changing terminology is the word Kwanzaa itself. 

The original Swahili word meaning "first" is Kwanza.  Dr. Karenga added another "A" to the word = Kwanzaa because he wanted the word to have 7 letters.  Why?  Because 7 is a number of great symbolic value in the African culture.  And therefore he also made it a 7-day celebration (because most other harvest festivals were 7-days) but also because then each day could represent one of the 7 Principles, which is another part of this holiday I'll get to later.

 

Customs

 

"Let's All Pull Together" is the theme for Kwanzaa.  And the gesture that expresses this feeling is a raised-arm gesture while verbally stating it.  It is very similar to the Russian clenched fist & raised arm gesture to express personal struggles against oppression, or to help create labor unions.

Just as Christmas has a tree or a manger, Kwanzaa has a mat or Mkeka, on which various symbols such a s corn, crops, candle holders and the unity cup are placed.

The type of feasting that is associated with Kwanzaa is similar to a pot luck dinner.  A communal meal is held on December 31, in which each participating family brings a particular dish.  It usually involves traditional foods that include: okra, sesame seeds, black-eyed peas, peanuts or other foods brought to the US from African slaves.  Before and during this feast, there is a program that combines information about African customs, traditions, symbols and entertainment.  

Therefore, many African Americans wear their traditional African clothing during Kwanzaa.  Women might wear a buba or loose-fitting gown or a robe with a scarf at the waist called a busuti.  Some women cover their hari with head wrap called a gele.  Men might wear a shirt called a dashiki or a long robe known as  a kanza.

Because January 1 is the last day of Kwanzaa and also New Years Day, this is celebrated by giving gifts and also a day of reflection and resolutions of thinking of ways to improve the upcoming year. By looking at the past struggles of their ancestors, this last day of Kwanzaa is said to be a time to commemorate survival of their people, to reassess their own personal lives and values, and to recommit themselves to certain cultural ideals.  It is also a time to evaluate their communities.

Symbols

Candle Holder
(Kinara)

The Kinara is a  7-branched candle holder that originally was the  symbol of Nkulunkulu, the first ancestor and father of the African people who was referred to as the "corn stalk" that produced the corn and so helped multiply the African people.  Today, it simply symbolizes the African ancestors as a collective whole.
Corn
(Muhindi)
Corn is one of the basic foods grown in Africa and is therefore a central food in it's culture and society.  They regard the corn's life cycle as a symbol of the human life cycle.  The stalk (kinara) represents the relationship between parents and children, and between their ancestors and their descendants.

It is the custom to have the family place as many ears of corn on the Kwanzaa display (the mat) as their are children in the family.  If a household has no children, there is at least one ear of corn placed because they believe that parenthood is not only biological but social.  So even if a person doesn't have any children of their own, they feel they are responsible for the children of the community.  Kwanzaa is a time for reaffirming this responsibility by all and for all.

Crops
(Mazao)

The  mazao is a bowl of fruits and vegetables that represents the "harvest" symbolizing the roots of African agriculture festivals.  It is considered the most important symbol on the Kwanzaa Mat  (mkeka) as it is meant to praise the rewards of collective and productive labor.
Gifts
(Zawadi)

In the beginning, there was a big discussion over whether gift-giving should be a part of Kwanzaa.  Due to many people feeling that Christmas gift-giving has gotten away from expressing love, to one of  impressing others, that it should be avoided.  There is also the economic problems for those that want to celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa that all this gift-giving is hard on the finances of the family.  However, it was also mentioned that gifts are a symbol of the "fruits of labor" and that traditionally gifts given in African culture were either homemade or grown, not commercial.

So.....it was decided that Kwanzaa gifts would be a bit different than Christmas presents. How?  All Kwanzaa gifts would be instructive and inspirational and would somehow enlighten and inform the recipient about the African heritage and their people's struggles.  The most common gifts are books (about Africa or African Americans); tickets to African-American cultural events; art work by African Americans (pictures, jewelry, music, dolls, etc.) or hand-made clothing or other items.

The presents would be to children only and not adults.  The gifts are not to be purchased until AFTER Christmas was over.  And, to help solve the gift problems of Christmas where children often ask Santa for items that parents can't always deliver, the Kwanzaa gifts would be equal to the value of the children's achievements.  So all gift-giving would represent hard work and sacrifice.  Kwanzaa gifts may be exchanged at any time, but the most common day is on the last day, January 1.

In spite of all this effort to not have commercialism in Kwanzaa, there are now Kwanzaa greeting cards, wrapping paper, specialty items and even Kwanzaa Teddy Bears sold in stores today.

Mat
(Mkeka)

The mat is made of woven straw and is the foundation for all of the other Kwanzaa symbols.  It can best be described as a shrine to self-knowledge and understanding of the African culture and people.   There is an old African proverb that goes, "No matter how high a house is built, it must stand on something."  So the mat is the symbol of the foundation of knowledge of African culture.

Seven Candles
(Mishumas Saba)

There are 7 candles in this candle holder.  

The black candle in the center represents the unity of the African people. 
It is the FIRST candle that is lit.

Then, beginning on the second day....

There are 3 green on right side, 3 red  on left side and 1 black one in the center, which also represents the colors of the national flag of the African-American people.  Each day a candle is lit to symbolize one of the 7 PRINCIPLES (see below).   Candles are light left to right, alternating each day between red and green.   As I said above, red = struggle and green = hope so by alternating between red and green you get a message that there can be no future without some struggle.  The person who lights the candle explains which PRINCIPLE he is lighting that day and that becomes the topic of discussion for that day.

The candle that has been previously lit, is relit again, before the new candle is lit. This goes on until all seven candles are burning on the last day of the festival.  The lighting of the 7 Candles is compared to the Menorah during Hanukkah.  Both rituals are to "raise up light and dispel the darkness" in both a spiritual and intellectual sense.


Seven Principles
(Nguzo Saba)

The 7 Principles are  defined as the values needed to build and sustain  the African-American family, culture and community.  I assume the candles are lit left to right?  Therefore since 1 = black candle and day one then the ceremony goes as follows:

1.  Unity - umoja  Black Candle

2. Self-determination - kujichagulia  RED CANDLE

3. Collective Work & Responsibility - ujima    GREEN CANDLE

4.  Cooperative Economics - ujamma    RED CANDLE

5.  Purpose - nia   GREEN CANDLE

6.  Creativity - kuumba   RED CANDLE

7.  Faith - imani   GREEN CANDLE

There is also a poster that is displayed (I am not sure where) during the celebration that lists and describes these 7 Principles.

Play an on-line 7 Principles Mix and Match Game

Unity Cup
(Kikombe Cha Umpja)

The Unity Cup has two functions:
1.  Used to pour the tambiko (wine or grape juice) that is accompanied by the
"libation statement" which I described above as the upper arm raising and the statement.

2.  To be passed around so that everyone can drink from it as a symbolic ritual to reinforce unity in family and in the African-American community.  

After the cup has been passed around it is laced back on the table, and then the Kutoa Majina begins.  What's that?  That is the calling out of the family's ancestors' names.  Upon the completion of the last name called, a drum is then pounded in African-styled rhythm, which is the signal for the start of the feast (karamu).  After the  feast,  there is singing, dancing and storytelling.  The last event of the entire celebration (and of the evening) ends with a Farewell Statement (tamshi la tutaonana) composed by Dr. Karenga in which everyone shouts "Harambee!" seven times and then Kwanzaa is all over with.

Although Kwanzaa originated in the U.S., it is also celebrated today in Canada, the Caribbean and parts of Europe.

Midi Title is called "You Don't Have to Shout!"
It is a children's song for Kwanzaa by D. Saphra
Since this holiday is to celebrate strife and teach character growth, I picked this one.
Below are the lyrics if you want to sing along.  

You don't have to shout
To get your point across.
You don't have to curse
To be heard.
Clean yet clever,
You'll be clear as ever.
You don't have to use a bad word.

Jokes and anger, 
You'll still show it.
Folks will understand and know it.
Come A-long
You won't go wrong.
If you'll only
Keep on singing this song.

 

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Some Source Information from:
 Holiday Symbols, 2nd Edition
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2000

All graphics on this site (still and animated) have our embedded watermark. They are not public domain!

All contents (Graphics and Text)  are covered by U.S. Copyright Laws. No reproduction of any kind, downloading, copy, paste, save, etc. is allowed.    All rights reserved!

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