Holiday Traditions


Before one can digest turkey, some have already switched gears for the next holiday, putting up Christmas trees and dusting off Santa Clause. Children have their gift lists ready while parents are finding new hiding places in their homes. For some, Christmas traditions run deep, but for others new changes may bring about new traditions.

Many African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, a celebration observed around Christmas. The Pan-African holiday, established in 1966 during the Black Freedom Movement, is celebrated from December 26 through January 1st to commemorate family, community and culture. Also referred to as “the first-fruits celebration,” there is evidence of Kwanzaa’s events being traced as far back as ancient Egyptian history.

The cultural holiday was recreated to reinstate a relationship and connection with African culture, a major agenda of the Black emancipation movements of the 1960’s. The key tenet of the holiday is to emphasize seven communitarian principles that highlight kindred and heritage: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

To celebrate Kwanzaa, there is a special preparation, which consists of seven symbols that carry deeper meanings and symbolizes connection to tradition:

1. A central place is chosen for the Kwanzaa set and is covered with African cloth

2. The mkeka (mat) is placed for all other symbols to be placed on it or immediately next to it

3. The kinara (candle holder) is placed on the mkeka and the Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles) are placed in the kinara. The seven candles are placed to represent the seven principles. There is one black candle, three red and three green candles; black symbolizing the people, red for their struggle, and green for the hope that comes from their struggle. The black candle representing Umoja, is placed in the center of the kinara. The red candles representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, Kuumba are placed on the left side of the black candle, while the green candles symbolizing Ujima, Nia, and Imani are placed on the right. The black candle is lit on the first day of Kwanzaa and the remaining are burned from left to right on the following days of the celebration. This series of steps is to demonstrate the people come first, followed by their struggle, ending with the hope that comes from it all.

4. The mazao (crops) and at least two ears of corn are placed on the mkeka to symbolize the feeding of our community, parents and children.

5. Next, the kikombe cha umoja (the Unity cup) is placed on the mkeka. Its purpose is to pour tambiko (libation) to the ancestors in honor of those who paved the way.

6. Finally, African art objects and African culture books are placed on the mkeka to represent an obligation to the heritage and learning.

The last day of the Kwanzaa celebration, January 1st, is considered to be the day of meditation. A day of humble self-reflection to ask three questions: Who am I? Am I really who I say I am?, and Am I all I ought to be? Based on the answers it becomes a time to recommit and set “resolutions” for the New Year.

Because Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday rather than a religious holiday, it can be celebrated by relatively anyone. It’s appropriate for any age, young to old, and a great way to reconnect and learn about the African heritage. During the holidays, every family has something they participate in and the Kwanzaa celebration is another great tradition to include.

To find out more about celebrating Kwanzaa please visit


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