What is Kwanzaa?

I have said Happy Kwanzaa for many years when spreading holiday cheer. However, I admit I didn’t know anything about Kwanzaa, other than that it is celebrated around this time every year. As a story gatherer, I has to ask: What is Kwanzaa? I had so many questions! I started doing my research and figured other folks might be interested to learn as well. So… I am sharing what I learned.

Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday that celebrates African American people. In Swahili, “matunda ya kwanza” means “first fruits”, which is where the name came from. Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966. Dr. Karenga searched for ways to bring African Americans together as a community after the Watts riots (https://www.history.com/topics/1960s/watts-riots). He started to research African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. Karenga combined aspects of several different African harvest celebrations to form the basis of Kwanzaa. These celebrations are a chance to give the first fruits of a harvest to the god or gods who are believed to have provided generously.

There are seven nights of Kwanzaa. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and someone, usually a child, lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed. The principles, called the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili) are values of African culture.

Seven Principles

I really appreciated the seven principles that are represented by each night. They are similar to the themes we have heard over the last few months and are critical to achieving social justice in the U.S.

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle (from Wikipedia).

The Symbols

There are also symbols for the celebration on the table. This article from the History Channel helped me to learn more about what each symbol meant. It reminded me of the symbolism of each piece of the Passover meal.

At the end of the Festivities, there is a feast, called a Karamu, held on December 31st. This brings the celebration to a close and sets the tone for the next year. I love it!

I really enjoyed learning a bit about this holiday and feel comfortable saying, Happy Kwanzaa!