The History & Origins of Kwanzaa

AAA Print

Now celebrated by more than 15 million people, Kwanzaa is one of the fastest growing holidays ever known. Discover the rich cultural and spiritual and historical significance of this unique African-American festival.

Understanding Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday observed from December 26 through January 1. While not affiliated with any religion, Kwanzaa is a deeply spiritual holiday rooted in cultural/ethnic history and pride. Kwanzaa gets its name from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.”

With roots in traditional African harvest celebrations, Kwanzaa nurtures a connection to African cultural identity and brings an opportunity to reflect on the seven principles that sustained the African peoples throughout history as well as the commitment to a brighter future. These seven principles, along with seven symbols, provide the foundation for this reflection and celebration. BothAfrican-Americansand Africans of all religions are welcomed to celebrate Kwanzaa.

While each family celebrates in their own very personal way, Kwanzaa celebrations generally include some or all of these elements:

  • Candle lighting: Each night a child lights one of the Kwanzaa candles on the Kinara (candleholder) and the family discusses one of the seven principles.
  • Holiday food: Families often prepare and enjoy a large, traditional meal. On December 31, many families take part in an African feast called Karamu.
  • Music: Families may perform traditional songs and dances, and play African drums.

Additionally, many families enjoy storytelling and poetry reading during Kwanzaa.

How Kwanzaa Began

Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University (and their chairman of Black Studies) created Kwanzaa in 1966. After the riots of 1965, Karenga was deeply upset and feltAfrican-Americansneeded a way to come together as a community and build a better tomorrow. He began to research African harvest celebrations, combining elements from many different African cultures including the Zulu and the Ashanti to eventually create the holiday of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is now celebrated across America and around the world. It is joyfully observed in both secular and religious settings including:

  • Homes
  • Schools
  • Community centers
  • Churches
  • Mosques
  • Temples
  • Places of employment.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Each day of Kwanzaa focuses on one of seven principles, also known as Nguzo Saba created by Dr. Karenga:

  • Umoja (Unity): Pronounced oo-MO-jah, the aim of this principle is to work toward unity in the family, community, country and race. This is beautifully expressed in the African sayings, “I am We” and “I am because We are.”
  • Kujichagulia (Self-determination): Pronounced koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah, the goal is self-definition as well as creativity and a voice not influenced or determined by outside sources.
  • Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): Pronouced oo-GEE-mah, this principle encourages collaborative efforts to build and maintain community and work together to help one another and solve problems within the community.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Pronounced oo-JAH-mah, its goal is to establish and maintain shops and other businesses within the community so that the profits and benefits from these businesses remain in the community.
  • Nia (Purpose): Pronounced nee-YAH, this principle expresses a commitment to collectively build and develop the community to restore its historic greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): Pronounced koo-OOM-bah, the promise here is to use creative energy to always do everything possible to leave the community in a better and more beautiful state than the one inherited.
  • Imani (Faith): Pronounced ee-MAH-nee, this principle expresses the heartfelt and undying belief in the worthiness and inevitable success of all the struggles and efforts expressed in the other principles.

Kwanzaa’s Seven Symbols

These seven special symbols are also central to the observance of Kwanzaa:

  • Mazao (crops): Fruits, nuts and vegetables symbolize the foundations of Kwanzaa and the African harvest festivals that inspired it. In order to have a successful harvest and sustain life, traditional African communities worked together as a family unit for the good of all.
  • Mkeka (place mat): The mkeka, an African place mat made from straw or cloth is a symbol of tradition, history and African culture. The mazao is placed on the mkeka.
  • Vibunzi (ear of corn): As a symbol of fertility and hope, one ear of corn is also placed on the mkeka for each child in the family. A single ear is referred to as vibunzi, however multiple ears are referred to as mihindi. If a home is childless, two ears of corn are still placed on the mkeka with an understanding that each adult is responsible for the safety and welfare of all the community’s children.
  • Mishumaa Saba (seven candles): One black candle, symbolizing Umoja is placed in the center of the candleholder and lit on December 26. Three red candles, representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba, are placed to its left. Three green candles, representing Nia, Ujima, and Imani are placed to its right.
  • Kinara (candleholder): The kinara holding the seven candles is placed at the center of the Kwanzaa setting and is a symbol of ancestry. It can be of any shape and made from any material as long as the seven candles are displayed distinctly and separately. Many families enjoy creating their own beautiful and unique kinaras.
  • Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup): During the Karamu feast on Kwanzaa’s sixth day, this cup is used to perform a libation ritual. The libation, honoring the ancestors might be water, juice or wine.
  • Zawadi (gifts): On the last day of Kwanzaa, meaningful gifts are exchanged to encourage the values and achievements expressed in the seven principles. Often these gifts are intricate and handmade.

Although it emerged in response to a painful historic period, Kwanzaa celebration helps inspire unity, pride and the promise of better days to come.



Last Updated: December 13, 2012
AAA Print

About Roberta Pescow Roberta Pescow holds a bachelor's degree in communications from City University of New York, Queens College and is a freelance writer and editor in the NJ area. The author of "A Life In The Service" and "A Monster's Tears," she enjoys writing informative articles, personal essays, fiction and music.  Roberta is a proud mother of two. Her other interests include fitness, photography, sculpture and meditation. She is a voracious reader and holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. Roberta enjoys decorating her hectic, but happy home and garden in original and affordable ways.  

Note: The information provided on this site may be provided by third parties. The owners and operators of this site do not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, and compliance of the content on this site. Such content is not and shall not be deemed tax, legal, financial, or other advice, and we encourage you to confirm the accuracy of the content. Use is at your own risk, and use of this site shall be deemed acceptance of the above.