Beginner’s Guide to Kwanzaa

Many people know Kwanzaa as that third holiday that takes place around the same time as Christmas and Hanukkah. If you count yourself among the group that has approximately zero knowledge about the event, stay tuned. This traditional African celebration is all about family and peace, instead of presents and consumerism. Believe it or not, you can have an amazing holiday party without dirty socks hanging over the fireplace or a giant tree shedding pine needles in the living room! This guide can give you the 411 on Kwanzaa, the final celebration of the year:

A Groovy Blast From the Past

You might not associate Kwanzaa with hippies, but the holiday does have its origins in the 1960s. It was created by Maulana Karenga in an effort to give African-Americans a celebration revolving around their history, culture, and heritage. The name of the Pan-African holiday comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” or fruits of the harvest. The name sounds like it should be closer to Thanksgiving than Christmas, but Kwanzaa is celebrated between December 26th and January 1st. Back when Kwanzaa first came to be, adherents had to pick: Christmas or Kwanzaa. Now, it’s a lot more casual. You can have your Christmas cake and eat it on Kwanzaa, too!

More than Food…it’s a Feast

One of the biggest aspects of Kwanzaa is definitely the food. There are plenty of dishes that get made in the first few days of the celebration, but it’s really time to undo the belt buckle and loosen your pants on December 31st. New Year’s Eve is when the table is set for Kwanzaa Karamu, a communal feast that’s typically shared by friends and family. Decorations in red, green, and black adorn the dining room, but the main attraction is the food on the table. The cuisine served up for this meal depends on the location, as what you’ll see in the Caribbean would be different from the food served in Liberia or Atlanta. However, some of the most popular dishes include jerk chicken, fried plantains, collard greens with ham or bacon, black-eyed peas, blackened fish, and sweet potato pie or casserole. In short? Show up hungry, because you’ll be rolling out of the Kwanzaa Karamu. Another fun aspect of the dinner is the Kikombe cha Umoja, a communal cup passed around to all diners. If you’re lucky, that communal cup will be loaded with wine. A merry tipsy Kwanzaa, indeed!

What’s New, Rosetta Stone?

Celebrating Kwanzaa properly involves adding some new words to your lexicon. Don’t worry; you won’t need to invest in Rosetta Stone tapes to learn the lingo. Just memorize a few key phrases—one for each day of the seven-day celebration—to feel more accepted into the Kwanzaa community. The official greeting for every day is “Habari Gani,” which translates to “What’s new?” The answer for each day is as follows:

  • December 26th: Unity – “Umoja”
  • December 27th: Self Determination – “Kujichagulia”
  • December 28th: Collection Responsibility – “Ujima”
  • December 29th: Cooperative Economics – “Ujamaa”
  • December 30th: Purpose – “Nia”
  • December 31st: Creativity – “Kuumba”
  • January 1st: Faith – “Imani”

Too much to handle? No problem. The language-challenged among us will appreciate that it is perfectly acceptable just to say “Joyous Kwanzaa” during this holiday. That’s extra helpful when the words above become too tough to say after a few rounds of the communal cup!

Decorations are All About the Right Lighting

Just because there’s no Santa or mistletoe in Kwanzaa doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to decorations. Taking centre stage is the Kinara, a candle holder that looks similar to a Menorah and gets lit once a day. Straw mats, called Mkekas, are placed on the tables, and ears of corn and a bowl of fruit are placed on top of the mats.

Kwanzaa is an inclusive holiday, and you can celebrate it whatever your nationality. Some of the best places to soak in the season, however, include major cities in the United States, Canada, England, and recently Brazil. You can go to Africa to celebrate, of course, but there’s something extra sweet about staying home with loved ones for this special holiday.

Do you have any advice for someone new to Kwanza?

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