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5 Kwanzaa Traditions


There's plenty of food to go around on any given night of Kwanzaa, of course, but the main eating event -- and the most significant Kwanzaa celebration overall -- is the karamu feast, usually held on Dec. 31. The principle for the sixth day of Kwanzaa is kuumba (creativity), so it stands to reason that the karamu is a showcase for creativity of all kinds -- artistic, musical and poetic, as well as culinary.

Karamu feasts vary in formality, but a by-the-book event starts off with a welcoming statement (kukaribisha) and a music, dance or poetry performance. Then comes the kukumbuka, reflections offered by a man, woman and child. After that is a "reassessment and recommitment" ritual, a talk by a guest lecturer and then rejoicing (kushangilia).

The next step, the tambiko ceremony, is the central ritual of the Karamu feast. Everyone passes and drinks a libation (tambiko) from the kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Then the oldest person in the party honors the ancestors by reciting the tamshi la tambiko (libation statement) and pouring some of the drink -- usually water, juice or wine -- to the four winds before asking for a blessing. He then pours some on the ground, to a resounding "amen" from the group. The host or hostess then takes a sip and hands it back to the elder. Then there's a drum performance (ngoma), and it's time to eat!

As part of his original intent to separate Kwanzaa from Americanized events, Dr. Karenga wanted the holiday to be overflowing with traditional African cooking. But as Kwanzaa became more mainstream, African-American dishes inevitably started creeping into the mix. And there are people of African descent all over the world, so the food isn't limited to the African continent. Any given karamu, then, could include Ethiopian, Kenyan and South African fare, along with Caribbean cuisine and Southern comfort food like mac and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken and sweet potato pie.

Finally, the host or hostess gives a farewell speech (tamshi la tutaonana), and the well-fed guests head home.

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