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Kwanzaa: The History, Symbols, and Principles, Explained

Founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black studies at California State University, Long Beach, Kwanzaa is a secular African American and Pan African holiday designed for the celebration of family, community, history, and culture.

Kwanzaa is based on a variety of African harvest celebrations, including those of the Zulu, Ashanti, and Lovedu peoples, and is conducted in part through expressions in Swahili, a non-tribal language spoken throughout much of Africa. Its name is derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits." A seven-day holiday, Kwanzaa is observed annually from December 26 to January 1.

Origins and History of Kwanzaa

Dr. Maulana Karenga reading a book.
Credit: Malcolm Ali/ WireImage via Getty Images

As described in Keith Mayes' Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, Kwanzaa grew from the ashes of the August 1965 Watts Rebellion, which resulted in 4,000 arrests and nearly three dozen deaths over six days of violence in a predominantly Black Los Angeles neighborhood.

Karenga aimed to rebuild the shattered community through the creation of US, an organization that stressed Black empowerment and discipline. Operating on his principles of "kawaida," Swahili for "tradition," Karenga formulated a holiday to emphasize core communal values and celebrate a shared African ancestry with friends and neighbors. The holiday’s chosen name of Kwanzaa was given an extra “a” (from matunda ya kwanza) to represent the seven original members of US; the number seven is important in many aspects of the holiday.

The inaugural Kwanzaa commenced on December 26, 1966, in Los Angeles. According to Hayes, US members were instructed to forego the usual Christmas traditions in the leadup to the celebration. Dr. Karenga has since stressed that Kwanzaa is not meant to serve as an "alternative" to Christmas and that people of all races and faiths are welcome to participate.

Kwanzaa began earning mainstream recognition by the 1980s, when the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., began overseeing annual celebrations. President Bill Clinton commemorated the observance of the holiday during his first year of office in 1993, while the United States Postal Service issued its first special-edition Kwanzaa stamps in 1997.

According to an Associated Press article, up to 2 million people in the United States and approximately 30 million people worldwide were celebrating Kwanzaa by 2009.

Nguzo Saba: The Seven Principles

Kwanzaa is based on the pillars of seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

The Seven Symbols

Candles, crops, corn, and cup to symbolize Kwanzaa.
Credit: antibydni/ Shutterstock

There are seven primary symbols of Kwanzaa that represent the values crucial to community building and are present in physical form during the week-long celebrations: mazao (crops), mkeka (mat), kinara (candleholder), muhindi (corn), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), mishumaa saba (seven candles ​​— three red, three green, one black), and zawadi (gifts).

According to Dr. Karenga, there are two secondary symbols to include as well: the bendera (flag) and a written form of the Nguzo Saba.

Kwanzaa Celebrations

Family lighting kinara candles, celebrating Kwanzaa.
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Kwanzaa celebrations customarily begin after the mkeka is laid on a table and the remaining six primary symbols of the holiday are placed on top. The kinara and mishumaa saba stand as the centerpiece of the setting, the three red candles lined up on the left and the three green candles to the right of the black candle.

Participants gather for a libation conducted by the household elder, who delivers a statement in honor of departed ancestors while pouring wine, juice, or distilled spirits from the kikombe cha umoja into the earth. The elder then drinks from the cup and passes it on to the rest of the celebrants, who repeat the chant of "harambee" ("let's pull together") seven times.

The black candle, representing the people, is lit on the first night to commemorate the principle of umoja. Lighting then alternates between the red candles, representing the struggle, and the green candles, symbolizing the future, on successive evenings, as each principle earns its designated day of attention. Kwanzaa's penultimate night of kuumba is marked by a grand occasion of feasting and dancing, known as karamu, while the final day of imani is a time for exchanging homemade gifts.

Besides partaking in the evening rituals of libations and candle lighting, and the customary Kwanzaa greeting of "Habari gani?" ("What is in the news?"), celebrants are free to honor the holiday's principles through discussions, storytelling, food, music, or any appropriate activity of their choosing.

In many families and communities, children are strongly encouraged to take part in the festivities by way of reciting the principles, assisting with food preparation, or making gifts and cards. Additionally, Dr. Karenga refers to the holiday’s final day as "Siku ya Taamuli" — a time of meditation to reflect and recommit to the highest values of humanity and society.