The Kwanzaa feast

The Kwanzaa Karamu (Kwanzaa Feast) is a time to celebrate the rich history, traditions and food of African-American culture. This is a very brief, general outline of the holiday, not instructions on how to start your own traditions.

While Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, created in 1966 by Maulana (Ron) Karenga, it does have a rich tradition rooted in many years of African culture and history. Kwanzaa literally means "first fruits of the harvest" in Swahili. While there has never been a festival to celebrate Kwanza in any section of the African-American culture, the gathering of a harvest has been celebrated in a wide variety of festivals. Karenga combined many of the aspects of these traditional festivals into the holiday that we now know as Kwanzaa.

There are many misconceptions about the purpose of Kwanzaa. It is not a religious holiday, nor does celebrating Kwanzaa mean giving up the celebrations of Christmas or Hanukkah. It is a week-long celebration full of ceremony and symbolism, and follows a well-organized "schedule." On each night, a candle is lit and one of the Nguzo Saba -- seven core principles -- is discussed.

The following is a list of the Nguzo Saba and Karenga's description of what they mean.

Umoja - Unity: To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

Kujichagulia - Self-determination: To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for and spoken for by others.

Ujima - Collective Work and Responsibility: To build and maintain our community together and to make our sisters' and brothers' problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamma - Cooperative Economics: To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia - Purpose: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba - Creativity: To do always as much as we can, in whatever way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani - Faith: To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teacher, our leaders and in the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanza starts on December 26 of each year. On December 31, there is a lavish feast -- the Kwanzaa Karamu. This is a night of great celebration and food. The dishes served vary from Southern cuisine, African dishes, Caribbean specialties, to traditional South American fare. Normally the food is intermixed with history, culture, art and music, celebrating the "Kuumba" -- the creativity of the African and African-American peoples. Readings from favorite books, poetry and speeches are cherished.

There are five main parts to the Karamu, and each family celebrates each section a little bit differently. I have outlined Karenga's description of each section and described some of the activities normally enjoyed during this time:

Kukaribisha - Welcoming: Introducing and welcoming guests and family to each other and, oftentimes, playing traditional music and games.

- Remembering: Continuation of music, but with the addition of storytelling by all of the guests.

Kuchunguza tena na kutoa ahadi tena - Reassessment and Recommitment: Usually a speech or story by the eldest or most respected guest or family member.

Kushangilia- Rejoicing: This is where the many of the traditions and symbols come into play. A "grace" (Tamshi la tambiko) is said over the unity cup (Kikombe cha umoja) before it is shared. A remembrance of family members and admired African Americans is said, followed by the eating of the food, usually accompanied by music.

Tamshi la tutaonana - Farewell Statement: At the end of the festivities, a closing sentiment is expressed.

During Karamu and during the whole week of Kwanzaa, there are many symbols that are used and celebrated. Three colors are repeated: red, green and black. The red stands for the blood of African ancestors. The black stands for the skin color of all the people of African descent. Green is to serve as a remembrance of land, new life and new ideas. There are seven primary symbols which are considered essential to the celebration:

Mazao -- Fruits and vegetables
Mkeka -- A straw place mat
Kinara -- A candle holder for seven candles
Mishumaa Saba -- The seven candles in red, black and green symbolizing Nguzo Saba
Vibunzi -- An ear of corn for each child in the family
Zawadi -- Simple gifts usually related to African-American culture
Kikombe Cha Umoja -- A communal unity cup

Many families use this time to employ Kuumba (creativity) to adorn their houses in festive red, black and green decorations. Many others visit historical museums, attend lectures and concerts and learn about the many influential authors, artists, and statesmen of African descent. Each family has its own traditions and ceremonies, with the central theme of celebrating and embracing the African culture -- which is what Kwanzaa is all about.

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