Kwanzaa (pronounced kwahn-zuh) is a vibrant cultural holiday observed from December 26-January 1 that celebrates the African American community. The holiday serves as a time to gather as a family unit and cultural community to affirm communal values and African heritage.
The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili (Kiswahili) phrase mutaunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits. Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa combines aspects of several African harvest celebrations and focuses on the Nguzo Saba (seven principles) in the Swahili language. Each principle is commemorated in the daily lighting of a candle known as the mishumma saba (seven candles) along with a communal discussion about what the day’s principle means in the African American community.
There is a great emphasis during Kwanzaa on utilizing items that are handmade or harvested to symbolize a connection to African American ancestry and removal of the commercialism that is often incorporated in the Christmas holiday. This emphasis on handmade objects during Kwanzaa is evoked in Kwanzaa Setting on display in the Admissions Lobby at The Corning Museum of Glass, directly connecting with the values of the holiday.
This year, I had the unique experience of consulting with the skilled glass artists of the Museum’s Hot Glass Team to discuss some aspects of traditional Kwanzaa celebrations. These discussions led to the creation of some new, exciting additions to the Museum’s display.
In addition to the existing kinara (candleholder), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), and glass waterfall, designed in 2020 by Jonathan Rowe of Horseheads, New York, and the Rowe Family, this year the Hot Glass Team added some new objects used widely in Kwanzaa celebrations, and in my family’s observance of the holiday.
One aspect of Kwanzaa encapsulated in additions to Kwanzaa Setting is the colorful exuberance of a harvest celebration. The new additions to Kwanzaa Settings: the mazao (crops) apples, oranges, and lemons in a woven basket are symbolic of the African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of collective labor; the mkeka (mat) is a symbol of tradition and history as the foundation to build upon; the muhindi (corn) is a symbol of children and the future they embody, while the husk symbolizes the labors of parents in supporting the growth of children. Each of these beautifully crafted glass objects highlights the communal nature of the Kwanzaa Setting.
Also added this year, the zawadi (gifts) is a symbol of the love of parents and the commitments made and kept by children. The zawadi in Kwanzaa traditions are meant to be handmade gifts or heritage objects. The zawadi in the Kwanzaa Setting holds great personal significance in my family’s celebrations. Modeled after a contemporary wooden akua’ba (female fertility statue) of the Akan people that was gifted to my family by a friend from Ghana—a reminder of African ancestry and the gifts of friendship and family.
I hope many people will get to enjoy the Kwanzaa Setting and ruminate on the principles of Kwanzaa, which speak to the need for umoja (unity) and ujima (collective work and responsibility) in the community.
Visit The Corning Museum of Glass this holiday season to see the Kwanzaa Setting alongside other seasonal displays like the Advent Wreath and Tree of Life Menorah and, of course, our beloved 14-foot-tall Glass Ornament Tree. Plan your visit today!