The History of Kwanzaa
A non-religious holiday, Kwanzaa celebrates African-American
heritage, pride, community, family, and culture. The seven-day festival commences the day
after Christmas and culminates on New Year's Day.
Inspired by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and based on ancient African
celebrations, Kwanzaa has become increasingly popular over the last decade. More than 20
million people celebrate in the United States, Canada, England, the Carribean and Africa.
Kwanzaa's ancient roots lie in African first-fruit harvest celebrations, from which it
takes its name. The word Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya
kwanza," which means "first fruits."
Those roots are the foundation on which the modern holiday was built. Maulana Karenga,
an African-American scholar and activist, conceived Kwanzaa in 1966 following the Watts
Karenga says Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental activities common to other
African first-fruit celebrations:
- the ingathering of family, friends, and community;
- reverence for the creator and creation (including thanksgiving and recommitment to
respect the environment and heal the world);
- commemoration of the past (honoring ancestors, learning lessons and emulating
achievements of African history);
- recommitment to the highest cultural ideals of the African community (for example,
truth, justice, respect for people and nature, care for the vulnerable, and respect for
- celebration of the "Good of Life" (for example, life, struggle, achievement,
family, community, and culture).
Kwanzaa's Seven Principles - Nguzo Saba
The Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, are at the heart of every Kwanzaa celebration. The
Nguzo Saba represent basic values found in traditional African culture, and we devote one
day of Kwanzaa to celebrating and reinforcing each of these principles.
The first principle of Kwanzaa, Umoja, means unity or staying together. On December 26,
the focus is on how to maintain family, community, and racial unity.
Kujichagulia is the second principle, and its translation is
"self-determination". December 27 is dedicated to the need for living and
speaking for oneself the need for personal, family and cultural goals. To celebrate
Kujichagulia, families and communities may explore their African heritage through culture,
language and history. This day is also set aside to reflect on historical events that
helped define the culture (e.g. the civil rights movement in the United States).
December 28 is a day to recognize Ujima, which means collective work and
responsibility. The building and maintaining of community is the focus of day. On this
day, families work together to accomplish family chores, and communities gather to
complete community projects.
Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, is the focus of December 29. On this day it is
important to reinforce the importance of supporting businesses established and maintained
by blacks. Families and communities may honor the day by shopping in black-owned stores or
even by conceiving and planning their own businesses.
Nia means purpose. On December 30, the focus is on the purpose for being --
individual purpose as well as familial or cultural purpose. This day is a day for
goal-setting and for making strides to accomplish those goals, as an individual and as
part of a family, community and cultural tradition.
December 31 is dedicated to Kuumba, or creativity. Individuals, families and
communities work to find ways to creatively make our communities and our world better than
the way we inherited them. Celebrations on this day may include poetry readings, community
beautification projects, preparing African foods, or making up and performing African
On January 1, faith is the principle that's celebrated. This is the last day of
Kwanzaa and is celebrated by having a feast called the karamu. On this day goals for the
new year are set, and those partaking in the feast comment on how they can help achieve
those goals. Zawadi, home-made gifts or books, are given on this day to mark the end of
"Habari gani?" is a traditional Swahili greeting that means "What's
new?" or "What's the news?" The response to this question is the principle
for the day. For example, on December 26, the first day of Kwanzaa, if someone asks
"Habari gani?" the response would be "Umoja."
How Kwanzaa is Celebrated
Some readings during Kwanzaa might include Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christmas sermon on
peace, W.E.B. DuBois' Prayers for Dark People, and the poetry of Lanston Hughes, according
to Paula Woods and Felix Liddell, who have written a book about Kwanzaa, "Merry
One major ritual of Kwanzaa is lighting a candle on each day its seven days. The
candles, called "mishumaa," are the colors of the Black Liberation Flag; there
are three red candles, three green and one black.
After the candle lighting, celebrants might drink from a unity cup in a toast to their
ancestors with the exclamation, "Harambee!" which means "let's all pull
The candles, in a candelabra called a "kinara," and the unity cup sit atop a
straw mat, the "mkeka," that also holds fresh fruit to represent African harvest
festivals. The mkeka is central to Kwanzaa's culminating feast on December 31.
Kwanzaa also includes gift-giving, generally to children. They might receive three
traditional gifts: a book to further a goal or highlight black achievement, a heritage
symbol, and a toy or other present. The gifts are displayed on the mkeka and given on
The Symbols of Kwanzaa
During the Kwanzaa celebration, homes are adorned with African-inspired decorations and
cultural symbols. The decorations may vary from home to home, but all Kwanzaa celebrations
include seven basic symbols which are displayed on a table throughout the seven days of
The Mkeka is a straw mat symbolizing reverence for tradition. Just as
tradition is the foundation on which our culture is built, the Mkeka is the foundation of
the Kwanzaa celebration.
The Kinara, a candleholder with seven branches, is placed on the
Mkeka. It represents the continent and peoples of Africa.
The Kinara holds the Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles one black,
three red, and three green. The Mishumaa Saba represent the Nguzo Saba, or Seven
Principles. We light one new candle on each of the seven nights of the celebration until
all seven are lit. We light the black candle first and place it in the center of the
Kinara, then continue from left to right, with the red candles on the left and the green
on the right.
Muhindi and Mazao are also displayed on the Mkeka.
Muhindi are ears of corn, symbolizing children. Families display one ear for each child in
the family, and when there are no children in the home, one ear is displayed to represent
all children. Mazao, or fresh fruits and vegetables, represent the traditional African
harvest celebrations that Kwanzaa is based on.
During Kwanzaa celebrations, everyone drinks from the Kikombe Cha Umoja,
or cup of unity. Unity is the fundamental principle of Kwanzaa.
Zawadi are the gifts exchanged during Kwanzaa, and they also appear on
the Mkeka. They are usually given to children, though other family or community members
may exchange gifts. Zawadi are usually simple handmade gifts or educational gifts related
to our cultural heritage. They represent the love of parents for their children and the
children's commitment to them.
The Food of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is an important time of the year for friends and family to pass on generations
of good food and recipes that pay tribute to African-American heritage.
Kwanzaa celebrants spend their seven-day festivities preparing for the final feast, or
"karumu," on December 31. This culminating spread of good food and fun includes
African-inspired cuisine and ceremony.
The karumu room or venue might be decorated in the colors of black unity, red, black,
and green. And the holiday table originally outlined by creator Maulana Karenga should
include seven symbolic items:
- a straw placemat (mkeka),
- a holder for seven candles (kinara),
- the candles (mishumaa),
- a variety of fruit (mazao),
- an ear of corn for each child in the home (vibunzi),
- a unity cup (kikombe cha umoja),
- and modest gifts (zawadi).