Let the Kwanzaa celebration be even more meaningful to you in 2020 than ever before.  

Perhaps like me you have lost beloved family members and friends to the COVID-19 virus or to other illnesses and due to travel being prohibited, have been unable to gather to mourn them.  In the same respect, we have not been able to gather in large numbers for any event, whether to celebrate or to commensurate.  We need the comfort and the hope that Kwanzaa brings to assure us that family, culture and blessings are still present.  

Why I love the Kwanzaa Celebration (December 26 to January 1) is because it focuses on all that is good and meaningful in the lives of Black people.  

Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in the Swahili language is a celebration linked to ancient African harvest celebrations around the world when the last crops are gathered and people hold ceremonies in appreciation of all that they have harvested.  Kwanzaa is based on African traditions, rituals, and values that inspired founder, Dr. Maulana Karenga, in 1966 to remember what connects us to Black people scattered world and to set aside a week to reflect on seven, important, basic life principals. They are: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. 

The number seven is important in the celebration of Kwanzaa, beginning with the seven letters in the word itself, the seven principals, and seven symbols on a Kwanzaa table to be enjoyed over seven days.  The seven symbols are seven candles, a candle holder, a mat, ears of corn, the unity cup, produce (fruit and vegetables) and gifts that are handmade or functional like books or quilts.

Kwanzaa, technically doesn’t require you to purchase a special kit, although Kwanzaa kits are available to order.  The beauty of the celebration is that all of the items are already present in your home.

What makes the celebration important is your family’s interpretation of the seven principals, the personal meaning of the seven symbols (did your children make the mat out of paper or did a favorite elder weave the mat) and how each person shares their unique family story using the symbols and connecting the principals.  This means that Kwanzaa is a global celebration that connects African Americans to Black people around the world, while it is a national celebration focusing on the African American experience, yet it is very unique in how each local family chooses to share individual family stories.

In Madison, from 1989 to 1992, there was an annual Kwanzaa Marketplace that began at the downtown Madison Senior Center, organized by the late Ms.Milele Chikasa Anana. When the fair outgrew that space, it moved to The Monona Terrace. The Kwanzaa Marketplace brought together vendors in art, literature, clothing, crafts, music and other Afri-centric goods.  It highlighted well-known African American writers and always included a Kwanzaa re-enactment to explain the holiday to African Americans in Madison.  The Kwanzaa Marketplace ended after four years due to the difficulty of getting vendors.  

It wasn’t until 2006 when Ms. Edith Lawrence Hilliard restarted a one Saturday Kwanzaa Celebration at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. She wanted the Madison Community to enjoy the experience of a city-wide Kwanzaa celebration.  She involved the community by approaching various organizations asking them to get involved.  Each organization took a principal and defined it.  These were joyous celebrations for five years.  After an absence of two years, a group of Madison women; Corinda Rainey Moore, Sabrina Madison, Lauren Rock and once again, the late Ms. Milele, organized a one-day celebration of Kwanzaa at Fountain of Life Covenant Church in 2014.  

Their goal was to have a communal space where the principals that Black people lived by all year long were recognized and collectively celebrated.  Hilliard re-started the Kwanzaa Celebration again from 2016 to 2018 at the Goodman Community Center, but was out of the state in 2019.

While all these community celebrations have been glorious, the beginning of every people is in the individual hearts and homes of each family.  Kwanzaa can be celebrated well in each home by one person or a family.  You need a place to elevate the Kwanzaa table.  I turn over a box and cover it in African cloth and place the seven symbols on it.  You need seven candles, 1 black, 3 green and 3 red which represent the seven principals and the colors represent our people, land, and our blood.

During the holiday season, these candles are available.  You need a woven mat that you can make which represents our family, woven together in love.  You need a candle holder for seven candles or seven individual candle holders which represents holding our history and culture.  

You need a unity cup to symbolize the continuous circle of life and honors our ancestors.  You need to put your favorite fruits and vegetables on the table to represent harvest, along with dried corn.  The dried corn represents children.  Gifts on your Kwanzaa table should be handmade or items with powerful meaning like books, quilts, or family legacy items.  But the real meaning of Kwanzaa is setting aside time at the end of the year to celebrate the good that has happened in our family, in our community, and for Black people around the world.