What Is the History of Kwanzaa?

Professor Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a response to the lack of a holiday for African-Americans to show unity. Kwanzaa is a combination of various African harvest celebrations and is observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

The name of the holiday was derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits." Dr. Karenga started the holiday after the Watts riots, a milestone in African-American history. The adoption of Swahili and African symbols was a reflection of the Pan-African movement that gained influence in the 1960s.

The holiday was founded upon seven African principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Families that celebrate Kwanzaa use a candleholder known as a kinara and light a candle on each of the seven nights; each candle represents a Kwanzaa principle.

Kwanzaa ceremonies vary by family, but the aim is usually to embrace African culture. Families that celebrate Kwanzaa sometimes wear traditional African clothing or perform African music. The feast usually contains fruits, nuts and vegetables, particularly corn. These symbolize the joy and unity that are the results of group work. Because of the holiday's proximity to Christmas, symbols such as the Christmas tree are kept during Kwanzaa festivities.