What Is Kwanzaa, and How Do People Celebrate It?

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When it comes to holidays, December might just be the busiest month of the year. From Christmas and Hanukkah to Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, it can feel like the month itself is one big holiday! One special celebration that makes December feel even more festive is a holiday called Kwanzaa, which is a weeklong event that takes place at the end of the year.

Kwanzaa is a time when families and friends gather together to honor African-American heritage and culture with activities, gift-giving and a big feast. Although the holiday is a joyful one, it also incorporates several important traditions and symbols that help people expand their cultural identity and strengthen relationships with loved ones and communities. To understand what makes Kwanzaa such a meaningful holiday, learn more about how it started and how people celebrate today.

What Is the History of Kwanzaa?

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Kwanzaa was officially created in 1966. During the 1960s, Dr. Maulana Karenga, an activist and professor at California State University, Long Beach, wanted to come up with new ways for Black people to celebrate African heritage and culture and come together as a community. Dr. Karenga also wanted to create a non-religious holiday that people of all faiths, and those who didn’t follow any religion, could enjoy together during the winter season.

To get started, he began researching traditional African holidays and learned about First Fruits festivals. In some areas in Southern Africa, people celebrated the first farming harvest of the season with feasts, offerings and ceremonies. First Fruits festivals helped draw communities together to celebrate a successful planting season and the efforts of everyone involved. Dr. Karenga decided to model the new holiday after these festivals. He named it Kwanzaa after the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in the Swahili language. Every year, Kwanzaa takes place from December 26 to January 1.

How Do People Celebrate Kwanzaa?

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Different families celebrate Kwanzaa in their own unique ways, but many people gather to exchange gifts and enjoy meals together. It’s also common for groups to read stories and poems, sing songs, and play African drums. On each of the seven nights, people also participate in a candle-lighting ceremony. Kwanzaa is a time of learning and reflection, too, and in addition to the fun, the holiday focuses on teaching the importance of seven principles using seven symbols to represent them.

One of Dr. Karenga’s goals in creating Kwanzaa was to help families learn about and start practicing traditional African values to maintain cultural ties to their African heritage. There are seven different values, and as a set they’re called “Nguzo Saba” — “seven principles” in Swahili. Each of the seven days of the festival focuses on one of these values. After lighting a candle each night, families talk about the meaning of the day’s value and discuss how they can incorporate it into their lives.

These are the seven principles:

  • Umoja means “unity” and teaches people about the importance of unifying as a family, community, country and race.
  • Kujichagulia is about self-determination. It involves someone learning to speak up for themselves and decide who they want to be and what values they want to represent as a person.
  • Ujima is the principle that people should learn to work together as a community, solve problems together and be there to support each other.
  • Ujamaa means “extended family” and is a form of economic support. It highlights the idea of shopping within one’s community to help other members of the community profit.
  • Nia is about working together to create purpose, set community goals and work towards those goals as a group.
  • Kuumba is the principle of using creativity to make one’s community a more beautiful place.
  • Imani highlights the importance of having faith in members of the Black community and having faith that dreams are within reach.

Different symbols of Kwanzaa also represent key concepts of the holiday and help reinforce the themes of the seven principles. Families display the seven symbols throughout the festival and use them to help kids and others understand the seven values better. The symbols include the following:

  • The mkeka is a placemat made out of straw or cloth from Africa. It symbolizes a strong foundation for building communities and represents African heritage through the materials it’s made from. The other symbols are placed on top of the mkeka in the Kwanzaa display.
  • The mazao are fruits, nuts and vegetables that represent the successful crops of the harvest season. They also symbolize the positive results of working together as a community.
  • The muhindi, which are ears of corn, represent parents and children, along with the positive future they can strive to create. Sometimes families also eat corn as part of their Kwanzaa meals to incorporate the symbol.
  • The kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup, is a wood goblet that represents togetherness in families and communities. It also symbolizes a connection to ancestors. Families fill the kikombe cha umoja and all take turns drinking from it during Kwanzaa feasts.
  • The kinara is one of the most well-known symbols of Kwanzaa. This is a candelabra that holds seven candles. It represents a tree of life and serves as a reminder of people’s ancestors.
  • The mishumaa saba are the seven candles that sit in the kinara and represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Three red candles are placed on the left side of the kinara, three green candles go on the right and a black candle sits in the middle. The black candle symbolizes people with African heritage. The red candles represent sacrifices ancestors made in the past, and the green candles symbolize Earth and hope for the future. Each night, families light one candle until all seven are lit on the final night of Kwanzaa.
  • Zawadi are gifts that families and friends exchange during Kwanzaa feasts. These presents are often handmade to represent the holiday’s focus on self-determination. People also often give zawadi that are meant to encourage personal growth.

On the sixth night of Kwanzaa, December 31, families throw a big dinner called Karamu. Many areas also host larger events where families and communities come together to celebrate with a banquet. Karamu feasts sometimes include formal programs with specific times for dancing, songs, storytelling and guest speakers in addition to the meal. On this night, families also drink from the kikombe cha umoja and pour extra drinks for ancestors and loved ones who have passed on.

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