Originated by California State University Long Beach Professor Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., in the aftermath of the 1966 Watts Riots, this is a non-religious African American holiday celebrated each year between December 26th and January 1st.
Drawing from traditions primarily of the Ashanti and Zulu African nations, it is based around the celebrations of first harvests. The name Kwanzaa come from the Swahili matunda ya kwanza (first fruits), hence the enjoyment of fruits, nuts and vegetables (or mazao) as well as the effort taken in harvesting them plays a part in this very personal celebration as well as being an icon for one of the seven symbols that make up this festival.
Family, friends and children are also important and symbolized by the corn stalk (vibunzi), each stalk representing a child in the family with a minimum of two stalks (mihindi) representing the responsibility of the community in raising all children in the village. The task of child raising is assumed by all, even if they have no children of their own, in the traditional African cultural village.
The mazao (harvest) and at least two stalks of corn are placed on the mkeko, a place mat woven out of husks (made much like a wicker basket) or in today’s world made from Kente or other native textiles.
The candle holder, which is generally made from wood or other natural materials and can be varied in size and shape so long as each of the seven candles are separate, is the center piece and represents the roots or ancestry from which all evolved.
The central and primary black candle is lighted first on December 26th and represents Umoja or unity. Three green candles (Nia, Ujima, and Imani) are placed to the right of Umoja while three red candles (Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba) are placed to the left of Umoja. Each of these red or green candles represents a given principle, are lighted for the first time on ensuing nights until January 1st when all are fully lighted. With each new day of the celebration more power, light and vision comes with the addition of a new candle lighted in succession from Umoja to the current principle on a given day.
The kikombe cha umoja is a special cup used to perform the tambiko (libation) ceremony of unity as the cup is passed from person to person in a given household, but leaving something at the bottom of the cup for the ancestors not present. This remaining portion is poured in the four compass directions to the wind and then to the ground below for the Earth as the eldest asks the gods and ancestors to share the in festivities and bless all, after which everyone present says “Amen.” In very large gathering each may have their own cup and one is reserved for the “ancestors.” Water, juice or wine is used in the tambiko ceremony.
Imani is celebrated on the last day (January 1st) of Kwanzaa with the exchange of meaningful and often hand-made gifts (zawadi) which are to promote growth, self-determination, achievement, success, accomplishments and commitments. The items created or chosen as gifts reflect the self-determination, purpose and creativity of the giver.