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Kwanzaa celebrates culture not commerce

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Millions of people across the African Diaspora celebrate Kwanzaa, a Pan-African holiday created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, each year from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. People of all faiths can enjoy the holiday, which focuses on family, community and culture.

Since  the festive practice emphasizes values, each day of the celebration highlights one of Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba (Swahili for “seven principles”): Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

Nielsen’s 2013 report on Black consumers, titled “Resilient, Receptive and Relevant: The African American Consumer 2013,” revealed African Americans represent over a trillion dollars in retail spending each year, making Black America the 16th largest economy in the world, and yet a 2013 Brandeis University study showed the average white family in America had over eight times the wealth of the average Black family in the United States. For these reasons and others, Kwanzaa avoids holiday commercialization.

Kwanzaa gifts, called zawadi, however, are given from parents to children to encourage cultural growth. Books and Kwanzaa heritage symbols are traditional zawadi. Books reinforce the tradition of African learning beginning with Kemet. Practice Ujamaa by buying books from African American owned shops like Midtown Detroit’s Source Booksellers. Heritage symbols help to establish the infrastructure of the families children will build in the future, who will in turn pass along the seven principles to their own children.

The symbols include: Mkeka (the mat) symbolic of tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which to build; the Kinara (the candle holder) lit each day of Kwanzaa, symbolic of the parent people — continental Africans; Muhindi (the corn) representing children and the future which they embody; Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles), symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the set of values which African people can rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs; and Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup), symbolic of the practice of unity which makes all else possible.

Many Kwanzaa celebrants make their own zawadi to exchange. Handmade zawadi are not only good for their recipients, the process of making them empowers the givers as well. Learning a craft gives the crafter purpose; inspires their creativity; teaches self-reliance; and can create economic opportunities for the maker and their community.

Janine Goldin suggests crocheted and knitted gifts. Free patterns are available online (try and tutorials can be found on Youtube. Caitlin Drinkard, decoupages cookie tins each year, which she fills with delicious holiday treats. Clipping pictures from magazines or newspapers such as Ebony, Jet or the Michigan Citizen, can turn a plain tin into a beautiful narrative about African American history; author Donna Washington recommends baking Benne Cakes (African sesame seed cookies). She says sesame seeds are considered good luck.

Siku ya Taamuli (the Day of Meditation) or Imani is Kwanzaa’s final day, Jan 1. Dr. Karenga says, “And it is, of necessity, a time to recommit ourselves to our highest ideals, in a word, to the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense.’”

To learn more about Kwanzaa, visit Find Washington’s benne cakes recipe at:


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