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  • Writer's pictureSnickerdoodle Knits

Learning About Kwanzaa, an African American & Pan-African Celebration

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

While Kwanzaa itself isn't directly linked to knitting, it has been through the knitting community that I have learned about Kwanzaa. I'd always assumed it was a religious holiday, but I'd never taken the effort to look into it.

It was last year (2019) during Caleisha's, of Quirky Monday, Vlogmas videos (Days 26-32) that I first learned about Kwanzaa and the meaning behind it. Like most, if not all, holidays and traditions, individuals and families may celebrate differently, but the core concepts are the same. I appreciate the reflection that is a part of this holiday, and I feel that those of us that are not Black can learn from and appreciate this holiday as well. I also believe that many of the principles and reflections can be applied to the knitting community: listening to and respecting voices of the community for the sake of unity, harnessing creativity, possessing a community over competition attitude, and supporting one another.

Over the next seven days (the duration of Kwanzaa), I will continue to add to this post with any additional stories and resources that come up. I have one story that was shared with me (if you have additional stories or memories, or want to share what Kwanzaa means to you, feel free to share in the Kwanzaa survey here), and otherwise I will link articles and other sources of information from those that celebrate. My goal in this is to highlight and share the Black voices, so we can learn about and appreciate the African American culture.

Note: Photos are from the Happy Kwanzaa collection on Pexels


About the Celebration

Today, Ceci from CreativeCeci on Instagram shared about the meaning behind Kwanzaa and how her family shares. You can find her post here.

Additional information about Kwanzaa, the traditions, and what it means follow.

"[Kwanzaa was] Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa celebrates foundational values of African culture that build and reinforce family, community, and culture among African Americans and Africans throughout the world.

Each day in the seven-day celebration, which runs December 26 to January 1 every year, emphasizes one of seven principles, known as Nguzo Saba. Here they are, in English and Swahili, with a handy phonetic pronunciation guide:

  1. Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–hah): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

  2. Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

  3. Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–man): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

  4. Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–man): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

  5. Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

  6. Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

  7. Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

"What does Kwanzaa mean?

The name of the holiday comes directly from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" meaning "first fruits." Celebrations surrounding "first fruits" have a deep history in African culture and major religions, although Kwanzaa itself is not a religious holiday.

What do the colors red, green and black symbolize?

[B]lack symbolizes the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle. Black, red and green candles are lit on the Kinara, a candle holder, during the holiday.

What are the seven symbols of Kwanzaa?

The seven symbols of Kwanzaa are the Kinara (candleholder), Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), Mkeka (the mat) Mazao (crops), Muhindi (ears of corn), Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup) and Zawadi (gifts)."

Kwanzaa Traditions

A The Oprah Magazine article discusses eight traditions of Kwanzaa that "Celebrate the Power of Honoring Our Past." The traditions included within the article are Assembling the Kwanzaa display, Lighting the candles, Reflecting on the principle of the day, Preparing and sharing food, Honoring ancestors, Sharing your talents, Giving gifts to children, and Reflecting deeply during Imani. Many of these traditions are specific to one day, but lighting the candles and reflecting happens each day. The article shares, "'We talk about how the different principles have meaning in our lives—what we have been through in the last year, and how we hope to embody the principles in the upcoming year,' says Dr. Monica Coleman, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware."

Learning Resources:


Day 1: Umoja // Unity

"Umoja (Unity) is the first and foundational principle of the Nguzo Saba for without it, all the other principles suffer. Unity is both a principle and practice of togetherness in all things, good and of mutual benet, It is a principled and harmonious togetherness, not simply a being together."

The Official Kwanzaa Website also indicates that Unity includes Family Unity, Intergenerational Unity, Community Unity, and Pan-African Unity.

Tanya Cauren from YarnGoneWild_yarncraft on Instagram shared (via my Kwanzaa survey) about her experience celebrating Kwanzaa: "The gathering of friends over years, honoring our elders while instilling character building principles in the children as they recite each one and share its meaning," which ties directly to "Umoja, the first day of Kwanza is the principal of Unity. As we gathered in my home, there were heart print moments for all, as we embraced and reflected the tenet “it takes a village”."

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Day 2: Kujichagulia // Self-Determination

According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, Kujichagulia, or Self Determination, is "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves." The website outlines three parts: Commitment and Practice, Defining Identity, and Cultural Groundedness. The concept of Kujichagulia "demands that we as an African people define, defend and develop ourselves instead of allowing or encouraging others to do this."

This includes three questions: "Who am I, am I really who I am, and am I all I ought to be?" and the website continues to explain: "To answer the question of "Who am I?" correctly, then, is to know and live one's history and practice one's culture. To answer the question of "Am I really who I am?" is to have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign. And to answer the question of "Am I all I ought to be?" is to self-consciously possess and use ethical and cultural standards which measure men, women and children in terms of the quality of their thought and practice in the context of who they are and must become, in both an African and human sense."

The website also discusses Afrocentricity, what it is, and how it relates to Self-Determination, including that "Afrocentricity, as the core and fundamental quality of our self-determination, reaffirms our right and responsibility to exist as a people, to speak our own special truth to the world and to make our own contribution to the forward flow of human history."

Learning Resources:


Day 3: Ujima // Collective Work and Responsibility

The third principle of Kwanzaa is Ujima, or Collective Work & Responsibility: "To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

This Collective Work & Responsibility is about working for and as a community, so all can be free, and the Official Kwanzaa Website says it "supports the humanism that begins with commitment to and concern for the humans among whom we live and to whom we owe our existence." The website also shares that "cooperation is another key aspect of Ujima. It is based on the assumption that what one does to benefit others is at the same time a benefit to him/her."

"Such a commitment implies and encourages a vigorous capacity for self-criticism and self-correction which is indispensable to our strength, defense and development as a people." and "We must accept and live the principle of shared or collective work and responsibility in all things good, right and beneficial to the community." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

Learning Resources:


Day 4: Ujamaa // Cooperative Economics

Like other principles, Ujamaa is also focused on the better good for the community as a whole. According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, Ujamaa means Cooperative Economics and is "To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together."

The website splits their page on Ujamaa into three categories: Shared Work and Wealth, Economic Self-Reliance, and Obligation of Generosity.

Within the Shared Work and Wealth section, the website states, "it is essential because without the principle and practice of shared wealth, the social conditions for exploitation, oppression and inequality as well as deprivation and suffering are increased."

"President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in his discussion of Ujamaa says, Ujamaa is "based on the assumption of human equality, on the belief that it is wrong for one (person) to dominate or exploit another, and on the knowledge that every individual hopes to live in a society as a free (person) able to lead a decent life, in conditions of peace with his (her) neighbor."44 Ujamaa, Nyerere tells us, is above all human centered—concerned foremost with the well-being, happiness and development of the human person. And the assumption is that the conditions for such well-being, happiness and development are best achieved in a context of shared social wealth." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

Within the Obligation of Generosity section, the website shares, "Also, inherent in Ujamaa is the stress and obligation of generosity especially to the poor and vulnerable," and that "this struggle is not simply to be generous to the poor and vulnerable but ultimately to end their poverty and vulnerability so that they too can live a decent, undeprived and meaningful life. For only in such a context will they be able to pursue the truly human without the limitation imposed by poverty, deprivation or the debilitating struggle for just life's basic necessities. To share wealth and work, then, is to share concern, care and responsibility for a new, more human and fulfilling future."

Learning Resources:


Day 5: Nia // Purpose

The fifth principle of Kwanzaa is Nia, or Purpose, which the Official Kwanzaa Website describes as "To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness."

The website splits the Nia page into four sections: Collective Vocation, Heirs and Custodians of a Great Legacy, Generational Responsibility, and Joining Personal and Social Purpose.

This concept of Nia addresses the ancient history of Africans as "having not only been the fathers and mothers of humanity, but also the fathers and mothers of human civilization, i.e., having introduced in the Nile Valley civilizations some of the basic disciplines of human knowledge." and later says, "This is what we mean when we say we who are the fathers and mothers of human civilization have no business playing the cultural children of the world."

"[O]ur purpose is derived from three basic facts. The first two are that we are both heirs and custodians of a great legacy. This means first that we must not simply receive the legacy as a formal historical and cultural transmission, but recognize and respect its importance. Secondly, it means that far from being simple heirs we are also custodians. And this implies an even greater obligation. To inherit is to receive as legacy, place adequate value on and make a part of one's life. But to be a custodian of a great legacy is to guard, preserve, expand and promote it. It is to honor it by building on and expanding it and in turn, leaving it as an enriched legacy for future generations. [...] It is a call for us to see ourselves not as simple ghetto dwellers or newly arrived captives of the suburbs, but more definitively as a world historical people who have made and must continue to make a significant contribution to the forward flow of human history."

In many ways Nia seems to be intertwined with Ujamaa (the principle from day four), as "Nia suggests that personal and social purpose are not only non-antagonistic but complementary in the true communitarian sense of the word. In fact, it suggests that the highest form of personal purpose is, in the final analysis, social purpose, i.e., personal purpose that translates itself into a vocation and commitment which involves and benefits the community. As we have noted elsewhere, such level and quality of purpose not only benefits the collective whole, but also gives fullness and meaning to a person's life in a way individualistic and isolated pursuits cannot."

Learning Resources:


Day 6: Kumbaa // Creativity

The sixth principle of Kwanzaa is Kumbaa, or Creativity, which is "To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

The Official Kwanzaa Website explains that Kumbaa "logically follows from and is required by the principle of Nia. It is a commitment to being creative within the context of the national community vocation of restoring our people to their traditional greatness and thus leaving our community more beneficial and beautiful than we, i.e., each generation, inherited it. The principle has both a social and spiritual dimension and is deeply rooted in the social and sacred teachings of African societies." It also shares that, "The lesson here is that creativity is central to the human spirit and human society; that it causes us to grow, restores and revitalizes us and the community and insures our life for eternity."

Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa shares, "It is of value to note here that my creation of Kwanzaa falls within the restorative conception of creativity. For when I say I created Kwanzaa, the term "created" does not imply or mean "made out of nothing," for it is clearly not the case as the above discussion on the Continental African roots of Kwanzaa shows. What one has, then, is rather a creative restoration in the African spirit of cultural restoration and renewal in both the ancient Egyptian and African American sense of the practice as used in the 1960's. It is, in fact, a restoring that which was in ruins or disuse in many parts of Africa, especially among Africans in America, and attempting to make it more beautiful and beneficial than it was before as the principle of Kuumba (Creativity) requires."

Riche Holmes Grant shared on Better Homes & Gardens that, "Traditionally, the culminating event of Kwanzaa takes place on December 31 in the form of a large feast known as the karamu." (Food, Decor, Traditions: The Meaningful Ways My Family Celebrates Kwanzaa)

Learning Resources:


Day 7: Imani // Faith

The final principle of Kwanzaa is Imani, or Faith, which the Official Kwanzaa Website describes as "To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

The Official Kwanzaa Website explains that it is "a profound and enduring belief in and commitment to all that is of value to us as a family, community, people and culture. Faith is put forth as the last principle as unity is put forth as the first principle for a definite reason. It is to indicate that without unity, we cannot begin our most important work, but without faith we cannot sustain it. Unity brings us together and harnesses our strength, but faith in each other and the Good, the Right, the Beautiful inspires and sustains the coming together and the commitment to take the work to its end."

The website also shares that "faith in ourselves is key here, faith in our capacity as humans to live righteously, self-correct, support, care for and be responsible for each other and eventually create the just and good society."

Gifts are traditionally given to the children on the last day of Kwanzaa and are to cultural and educational, and are often homemade.

Learning Resources:


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