Kwanzaa Day: Date, History, Meaning, Symbols & Activities

July 11, 2022 4 min read

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration in which families praise their African heritage. Throughout the seven days, a candle is lit to honor one of the seven core values, or Nguzo Saba - which will be explained later. Let us find out some information about this special holiday!

1. When is Kwanzaa Day celebrated? 

Kwanzaa is an annual event of African-American culture that takes place from December 26 to January 1, eventually resulting in a communal feast known as Karamu, which is typically held on the sixth day. Maulana Karenga, an activist, created it based on African harvest festival traditions from many parts of West and Southeast Africa. In 1966, this was the first time people celebrated Kwanzaa. 

2. History of Kwanzaa Day

Maulana Karenga, a Black nationalist who later became a college professor, established Kwanzaa in the aftermath of the deadly Watts Rebellion to unite and empower the African American community. Karenga stated that his goal was to "give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and allow blacks to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." He took the name "Kwanzaa" from the Swahili phrase " matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits," having modeled his holiday on traditional African harvest festivals. The extra "a" was added, Karenga has said, simply to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, each of whom wanted to represent a letter. Karenga stated in the early years of Kwanzaa that it was intended to be a replacement for Christmas. He thought Jesus was psychotic and that Christianity was a "White" religion that Black people should avoid. After its initial creation in California, Kwanzaa spread outside the United States.

3. What is the meaning of Kwanzaa for people, especially for the Black community? What should we know about Nguzo Saba - The seven principles? 

Kwanzaa is a time of learning, family, and celebration. During a week-long holiday Kwanzaa, families, and communities gather to share a feast, honor the ancestors, affirm their bonds, and celebrate African and African American culture. Kwanzaa commemorates what its founder referred to as the seven Kwanzaa principles, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba - the seven principles of African Heritage). They were created in 1965, a year before Kwanzaa. The Kawaida or "common" philosophy is a synthesis of nationalist, pan-Africanist, and socialist values based on these seven Swahili principles.

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles:

- 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 solve them together.

- Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our 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 to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

- Kuumba (Creativity): To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, 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.

4. Some of Kwanzaa's symbols: 

Kwanzaa celebratory symbols include a mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed:

-  A Kinara (candle holder for seven candlesticks)

-  Mishumaa Saba (seven candles)

-  Mazao (crops)

- Mahindi (corn), represents the children celebrating (and corn may be part of the holiday meal).

- A Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) for commemorating and giving shukrani (thanks) to African Ancestors

- Zawadi (gifts).

- A Nguzo Saba poster, the black, red, and green bendera (flag), and African books and artworks are also included to represent values and concepts reflective of African culture and to contribute to community building and reinforcement.

5. What do people do on the Kwanzaa Holiday? 

Families are going to celebrate Kwanzaa by decorating their homes with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially kaftans worn by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is common practice to also include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to pay respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are usually shared with a popular chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, which is passed around to all participants. Non-African Americans also observe Kwanzaa. "Joyous Kwanzaa" can be used as a greeting during the holiday.

Drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter on African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast of faith are all part of a Kwanzaa ceremony (Karamu Ya Imani). Habari Gani?, Swahili for "How are you?" is the greeting for each day of Kwanzaa.

Initially, Kwanzaa observers avoided combining the holiday or its symbols, values, and practices with other holidays because doing so would offend the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus the integrity of the holiday, which is intended in part to be a reclamation of important African values. Today, some African American families observe Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas and New Year's.

The Spirit of Kwanzaa is an annual event held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that features interpretive dance, African dance, song, and poetry.

Each day, they light a candle to highlight one of the seven principles of the day and to give the principles meaning through various activities such as repeating the sayings or writings of great black thinkers and writers, memorizing original poetry, African drumming, and sharing a meal of African diaspora-inspired foods. The table is decorated with the essential symbols of Kwanzaa, such as the Kinara (Candle Holder), Mkeka (Mat), Muhindi (corn to represent the children), Mazao (fruit to represent the harvest), and Zawadi (gifts). The colors of the Pan-African flag, red (the struggle), black (the people), and green (the future) may also be seen throughout the space and on participants' clothing. Marcus Garvey first declared these colors to be the colors of all African diaspora people.

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