The Celebration of the Kwanzaa Holiday
Deep African Principles
Dr. Charles Taylor holds a book that he
published that his son illustrated and daughter
explained. “When you add the seven candles, the Mishumaa Saba, three are red, three are green and one is black. They represent the seven principles. And the
seven principles are Nguzo Saba. In the ceremony, the black candle is always lit first to represent the present, followed by the red, which represents the past and
the green, which represents the future of African people. The black candle is lit first and then to the past and then to the future.
Black, red and green colors also have symbolism. The black is the African people, the green is the soil and land and the red is the blood that African people share.”
Besides the Kinara, there are other symbolic pieces to the Kwanzaa centerpiece.
“One symbol is the Mkeka, a mat that is used to represent African traditions and the foundation on which everything else rests,” Taylor emphasized. “All of these
other cultural symbols that I will mention in just a moment are placed on top of the Mkeka. Mahindi is an ear or ears of corn. They represent the number of children in
the family. And if you are in a family without any children, you can still use ears of corn to represent you as your parents’ child. The fifth cultural symbol is the
Kikombe Cha Umoja, which is the unity cup. That is used in the ceremony to share a communal drink. This whole act of passing and drinking from the unity cup is
supposed to depict unity among African people. Then there are the crops and vegetables that are called the Mazao. These are symbolic of the products that were
raised through all of the hard work and labor throughout the year. Typically people will have an apple, banana or orange in their display. And then the last symbol is
Zawadi, which are gifts. These represent the awards for achievement during the year or just to say thank you. And again they are usually homemade because the
whole Kwanzaa tradition is non-commercial.”
The Kwanzaa ceremony is held each night after supper. On each of the seven days, a different Nguzo Saba is highlighted. Each day lasts for approximately 30
minutes or so depending upon the depth that people explore the principle.
“People start by saying ‘Habari Gani,’ which means, ‘What’s happening, what’s the news,’” Taylor said. “And then you reply with that particular principle of the day.
The first day’s principle is Umoja. If I said ‘Habari Gani,’ people would respond by saying ‘Umoja.’ Then there is an affirmation, which we recommend. The affirmation
is just a causative statement about the holiday. But it should go along with the principle. And then after the affirmation, there is a Kwanzaa pledge that we have in
our book and ask people to recite. We pass the unity cup. And after people have taken a drink, they tell in their own words what this particular principle meant to
them and how they were able to live it out or model it during the year. Then there is a family activity that concludes a particular day. All of the activities that we have
in our book are non-commercial. They don’t cost money. An example of the first day is to create a picture board of your family from old pictures. And while you are
doing that, the elderly people are supposed to tell stories about the family and family history. But everyone participates. Even the young people will describe their
picture in terms of what they were thinking about. They do that to create unity. Many people pick out their best pictures sand they create a picture board and they
hang it for the entire week until the last day of the ceremony.”
The libation can also include a remembrance of those who have gone on to the next life.
“In African libations, they remember the ancestors,” Taylor said. “They call their names. The libations I do publically, we have a moment of silence. And during that
moment, I wouldn’t say it is completely silent because we say the names of those ancestors who have passed over. People can acknowledge them by saying their
names out loud. In ceremonies, at least 15-20 people will shout out the name of a loved one who has passed. The libation is a remembrance of those ancestors.”
Each day’s ceremony somewhat resemble each other with a different principle highlighted. But on the last day, January 1st, there is much to celebrate.
“Kids love the seventh day,” Taylor emphasized. “And that is the Karamu. Essentially it’s a celebration. It’s a wrapping up of the entire ceremony. You start out with
this great feast. Typically, with non-family, you invite people over and it is like a pot luck. Everyone brings a dish to pass and a gift to share, a gift that is non-
commercial. It’s something like a gift they made or a book that they’ve read. After this sumptuous meal, the ceremony would begin. In many households, they have
skits, dance, poetry and the like. They talk about the principle for that day, which is Imani, which means faith. You pass the unity cup. People will talk about what
faith means to them. And then people would reflect on what Kwanzaa meant to them as a whole. Then in some places, there would be dancing late into the night and
story-telling. People just enjoy being together. In the end, part of the Kwanzaa celebration’s goal is to bring family together to celebrate culture. After the evening
winds down, there is a closing libation. Typically families will form a big circle and hold hands. They will blow out the candles, one by one, and then they will repeat
the name of the principle that the candle represents. After all of the candles have been blown out, the eldest person will hold the unity cup skyward and say a
Taylor gave an example of the closing libation.
“’Let us remember the true meaning of Kwanzaa lies in its principles,’” Taylor said. “’If we live these principles daily, we will not only have learned about valuable
lessons from our African past, but we will have also assumed responsibility for our future.’ The libation will continue to make sure that you remember these
principles throughout the year. Each candle relights inner light within your soul. Remember that you are part of a family and a community and a people. Go forward
with hope.’ And then everyone has a communal embrace and they say ‘Peace be with you’ and then they repeat the word Harambee, which means, ‘Let’s pull
together,’ seven times. And then they bring the ceremony to an end.”
Kwanzaa remains true to its principle of Umoja within the African Diaspora and beyond.
By Jonathan Gramling
Dr. Charles Taylor has always been a strong advocate for African American traditions and holidays that connect
African American people with their heritage and cultural values. He has written about the Juneteenth holiday and
its history and also published “Kwanzaa: How to Celebrate It in Your Home,” a guide to Kwanzaa written by his
daughter-in-law and illustrated by his son. And he has celebrated it since 1980.
“I embrace Kwanzaa because of the cultural aspect of the holiday and also because it’s a chance for people to
learn more about African history and to be reminded that African history did not begin with slavery, but in Africa,”
Taylor said. “The seven principles that the founder established for Kwanzaa is actually a guide for living for life. It
would be applicable to anyone’s culture, these principles of unity and working together and faith. Those kinds of
principles apply to all of us.”
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Ron Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of the Black Studies
Department at California State University-Long Beach to bring the African American community together after the
Watts riots in LA. It is a seven-day harvest festival that begins on December 26th and ends on January 1st that is
filled with symbolism and meaning. And it was created to be non-commercial so that everyone could celebrate it
At thew center of it is the Kinara.
“The Kinara, which is the name for the candle holder, represents the original stalk of our ancestors,” Taylor