Kwanzaa celebration with its founder, Maulana Karenga, and others
Observed by African Americans
Type Cultural and ethnic
Significance Celebrates Black heritage, unity and culture.
Date December 26 to January 1
Celebrations Unity
Collective Work and Responsibility
Cooperative Economics
Related to Black History Month
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Kwanzaa is a week long celebration held in the United States honoring universal African-American heritage and culture, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year. It features activities such as lighting a candle holder with seven candles[1] and culminates in a feast and gift giving. It was created by Maulana Karenga and was first celebrated in 1966–1967.


History and etymology

Maulana Karenga of the US Organization created Kwanzaa in 1966 as the first specifically African American holiday .[2] Karenga said his goal was to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."[3] The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits of the harvest.[4] The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s.

Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its roots in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions and Nguzu Saba, the "seven principles of African Heritage" which Karenga said "is a communitarian African philosophy".

During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that Jesus was psychotic, and that Christianity was a white religion that black people should shun.[5] However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."[6]

Many Christian African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.[7]

In 2009, Maya Angelou narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, the first film about Kwanzaa.

Principles and symbols

A woman lights kinara candles on a table decorated with Kwanzaa symbols

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba—the seven principles of African Heritage), which Karenga said "is a communitarian African philosophy," consisting of what Karenga called "the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world." These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves stand up


  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems, and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (family): The belief in family and general communal understanding.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanzaa symbols include a decorative mat on which other symbols are placed, corn and other crops, a candle holder with seven candles, called a kinara, a communal cup for pouring libations, gifts, a poster of the seven principles, and a black, red, and green flag. The symbols were designed to convey the seven principles.[8]


In 2004, BIG Research conducted a marketing survey in the United States for the National Retail Foundation, which found that 1.6% of those surveyed planned to celebrate Kwanzaa. If generalized to the US population as a whole, this would imply that around 4.7 million people planned to celebrate Kwanzaa in that year.[9] In a 2006 speech, Ron Karenga asserted that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa. He has always maintained it is celebrated all over the world.[1] Lee D. Baker puts the number at 12 million.[10] The African American Cultural Center claims 30 million.[4]

According to Keith Mayes, the author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, the popularity within the US has "leveled off" as the black power movement there has declined, and now between half and two million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the US, or between one and five percent of African Americans. Mayes adds that white institutions now celebrate it.[11]


Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art; colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women; and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa.[11] The holiday greeting is "Joyous Kwanzaa".[12][13][14]

A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast (Karamu). The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani?[15] which is Swahili for "What's the News?"[16]

At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, many African American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African American roots, share space in Kwanzaa-celebrating households. To them, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.

Cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.[17][18]

The first U.S. postage stamp commemorating Kwanzaa, issued in 1997

The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service on October 22, 1997, with artwork by Synthia Saint James.[19] In 2004, a second Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Daniel Minter, was issued; this has seven figures in colorful robes symbolizing the seven principles.[20]

See also

  • The Black Candle – a film about Kwanzaa
  • Dashiki – A shirt or suit worn during Kwanzaa celebrations
  • Kaftan (boubou) – A dress worn by women during Kwanzaa celebrations
  • Kufi – A cap worn during Kwanzaa celebrations

Further reading

  • A program to raise the faith level in African-American children through Scripture, Kwanzaa principles, and culture, Janette Elizabeth Chandler Kotey, DMin, Oral Roberts University,1999
  • The US Organization: African American cultural nationalism in the era of Black Power, 1965 to the 1970s, Scot D. Brown, PhD, Cornell University, 1999
  • Rituals of race, ceremonies of culture: Kwanzaa and the making of a Black Power holiday in the United States,1966—2000, Keith Alexander Mayes, PhD, Princeton University, 2002
  • Interview: Kwanzaa creator Ron Karenga discusses the evolution of the holiday and its meaning in 2004, conducted by Tony Cox. Tavis Smiley (NPR), 26 December 2003
  • Tolerance in the News: Kwanzaa: A threat to Christmas? By Camille Jackson | Staff Writer,, 22 December 2005


  1. ^ a b "Why Kwanzaa Video". "Ron Karenga". 
  2. ^ Alexander, Ron (1983-12-30). "The Evening Hours". New York Times". Retrieved 2006-12-15. 
  3. ^ Kwanzaa celebrates culture, principles
  4. ^ a b Megan K. Scott, "Kwanzaa celebrations continue, but boom is over", Buffalo News, 17 December 2009. Accessed 25 December 2009.
  5. ^ Karenga, Maulana (1967). "Religion". In Clyde Halisi, James Mtume. The quotable Karenga. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. pp. 25. 23769.8. 
  6. ^ J. Lawrence Scholer, "The story of Kwanzaa", Dartmouth Review, 15 January 2001.
  7. ^ Williams, Lena (1990-12-20). "In Blacks' Homes, the Christmas and Kwanzaa Spirits Meet". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-07. 
  8. ^ "The Symbols of Kwanzaa". Retrieved 2010-12-24. 
  9. ^ "2004 Holiday Spending by Region", 'Survey by BIGresearch, conducted for National Retail Foundation', 14 October 2004
  10. ^ Manning Marable, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower, p. 224.
  11. ^ a b Keith Mayes, cited by Megan K. Scott, "Kwanzaa celebrations continue, but boom is over", Buffalo News, 17 December 2009. Accessed 25 December 2009.
  12. ^ Bush, George W. (2004-12-23). "Presidential Kwanzaa Message, 2004". Office of the Press Secretary. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  13. ^ "Clinton offers holiday messages". CNN. 1997-12-23. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  14. ^ Gale, Elaine (1998-12-26). "Appeal of Kwanzaa continues to grow; holidays: today marks start of the seven-day celebration of African culture, which began in Watts 32 years ago and is now observed by millions.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  15. ^ Kwanzaa Greeting
  16. ^ A Model Kwanzaa Ceremony
  17. ^ The Spirit of Kwanzaa
  18. ^ The Dance Institute of Washington
  19. ^ Bringing Good Into the World
  20. ^ Kwanzaa featured on this year's holiday U.S. postage stamp

External links

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