For the most part, Africans are part of a pastoral society and though many adhere to Christianity or Islam, they still, to a greater or lesser degree, retain elements of totemism and animism, and many of their special occasions revolve around the seasons, planting, and harvesting as well as family-life rituals. The land itself has a quasi-religious value to most Africans. This fact alone helps to explain (in spite of forced religious conversions) many cultural and religious ceremonies and the deep emotions relating to the dignity of work and respect for ancestors.
Land is not only the root of their culture and traditions, it also encompasses the whole realm of social relationships from duty to fellow tribesman to witch-craft. “Work is done as much in honor of ancestors and of the system as it is to provide food…” Knowledge of these deeply embedded traditions may help the westerner to also understand the African’s seemingly stubborn resistance to mechanization and even to tools that are upsetting age-old traditions, that and result in the hateful pitting of one generation against another.
Aside from the cycle of seasons and crops, birth, weddings, puberty and death, visitors alone are reason enough for a “special occasion,” and foods may seem festive merely because of the occasion. Or, depending on the area, the traditions, and the wealth and status, an animal or chickens may be specially slaughtered, special soups may he prepared with special ritual such as the blessing soup or milioku ngozi (a rich, hot chicken soup) of West Africa, or simply a more generous quantity of the usual fare may be offered.
In 1991, Eric Copage brought Kwanzaa to general public appreciation in the United States with his book by that name. This special week of African-American cultural celebration, celebrated the full week after Christmas, has been gaining wide practice since its creation in 1966 by Maulana (Ron) Karenga.
Central to the celebration are seven culturally and historically embedded symbols: fruit and vegetables, a straw place mat, ears of corn, small gifts, a communal drinking cup, a seven-branched candle holder (hinara), and seven candles to be lit on successive days. Each of the candles in turn represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa:
- Collective work and responsibility
- Cooperative economics