To help you understand Kwanzaa, its history, and how it’s celebrated, we put together a guide to the winter holiday.
According to a 2019 survey from AP-NORC, 3% of Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. Although it’s less than the 5% of Americans who celebrate Chanukah and much less than the 92% who celebrate Christmas, there are still more than 9 million people celebrating Kwanzaa in the United States.
What is the history of Kwanzaa?
Maulana Karenga, an African-American scholar and activist, created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the civil rights movement. He is pictured below in a 2003 Kwanzaa celebration.
In 1965, a white police officer pulled over two Black men in Watts, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Soon, a crowd gathered to protest how the community was being treated by police, and a series of riots broke out. The riots, now called the Watts Rebellion, lasted for 6 days and resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, and 4,000 arrests.
Following this unrest, Karenga wanted to rebuild the neighborhood and find a way to uplift Black Americans, bring them together as a community, and allow them to celebrate their history. Kwanzaa was the holiday he created to give African Americans the opportunity to honor their African roots.
The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the phrase “mutanda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. The name was chosen to commemorate the joy and unity many Africans feel when celebrating the harvest season.
How is Kwanzaa celebrated?
Kwanzaa is a 7-day festival observed every year from December 26th through January 1st. Many celebrations and festivities take place throughout the week.
On each of the 7 nights of Kwanzaa, a new candle is lit on the kinara (the name for the candleholder).
The candle in the center of the kinara is black, representing African people; the 3 on the left are red, representing their struggle; and the 3 on the right are green, representing their hope for the future. Together, these 7 candles are called the mishumaa saba.
On the 1st night of Kwanzaa, the black candle in the center is the only one lit. On the 2nd night, the red candle to the immediate left of the black candle is added, and on the 3rd night, the green candle to the immediate right. Every night, the candles are lit from left to right.
The pattern of adding candles on each consecutive night continues with alternating candles moving outward until all the candles are lit on the 7th and final night of Kwanzaa, with the last one being the green candle on the far right.
During each of the seven candle-lighting celebrations, families observing Kwanzaa reflect on and discuss one of the 7 principles, called the Nguzo Saba (which means “7 principles” in Swahili). These principles represent values that are important to African culture:
Umoja (Unity) – joining together as a family, community, nation, and race
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) – taking responsibility for yourself and your future
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – coming together to develop a community and solve problems as a group
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) – uplifting the community through building and profiting from its own businesses, especially Black-owned businesses
Nia (Purpose) – setting goals that can benefit not just yourself, but also the community
Kuumba (Creativity) – bringing beauty to the community through art, dance, music, or literature
Imani (Faith) – believing in community leaders, teachers, and loved ones, both past and present
Throughout the Kwanzaa ceremony, seven symbols are used and displayed, including the kinara and the mishumaa saba:
Mkeka – a woven mat, usually made from straw or cloth, which the other symbols are placed on and represents the historical foundation we build our lives on today
Mazao – crops such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables, which represent the traditional African harvest celebrations and honor the laborers who grew them
Muhindi – corn, which represents African children and the promise of their future
Kikombe Cha Umoja – the Unity Cup, which represents the first principle of Kwanzaa and is used to pour water, juice, or wine for family and friends
Zawadi – gifts that are often homemade and/or help educate or enrich children, such as a book or work of art, and represent the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by their children
Families can observe Kwanzaa in many different ways, but common celebrations include singing, dancing, drumming, storytelling, and poetry reading.
The biggest celebration takes place on the 6th day of Kwanzaa, December 31st. On this day, family and friends gather to have a feast, or karamu. The meals served often have roots in African culture and can include dishes like shrimp gumbo, jollof rice, and Jamaican jerk chicken.
The last day of Kwanzaa, January 1st, is a time of quiet reflection and meditation. Those observing Kwanzaa think about how they want to succeed in the coming year and what kind of person they want to be in the future.
Who celebrates Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, which means people of all faiths can and do celebrate it in addition to other holidays, like Christmas or Hanukkah.
Even though it was created by and for Black Americans, people of other races and ethnicities can also celebrate Kwanzaa, similar to how people other than Mexicans sometimes celebrate Cinco de Mayo. The values of pride, unity, and community that are present in Kwanzaa can apply to any group, family, community, or nation.
Kwanzaa is a vibrant celebration of African heritage that encourages unity and pride! We hope this guide has helped you appreciate the celebration of Kwanzaa and reflect on values that can help strengthen your own identity and community.
Learn more about Black culture via our Black Lives Matter page.