What You Need To Know About Kwanzaa

by Rachel Slaff

What You Need To Know About Kwanzaa

The seven days in between Christmas and the New Year are a holiday, too!

Let’s get together

Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a cultural festival to unify and celebrate the African-American community. Kwanzaa was designed to be a secular celebration, so that no one would feel excluded: You can (and many families do!) observe both religious holidays like Christmas, and Kwanzaa. Even so, Kwanzaa is sometimes seen as a response to the commercialization of Old St. Nick, since this festival is focused on values.

What’s in a name?

In developing Kwanzaa, Karenga researched many traditional African festivals. He found that most are dedicated to the harvest, so he dubbed this African-American celebration the Swahili word for “first fruits.”

Easy as 1-2-3

Kwanzaa begins on December 26, and continues to January 1—that’s seven days, one for each of the principles of African-American heritage established by Karenga. Those are:

  1. umoja – unity
  2. kujichagulia – self-determination
  3. ujima – collective work and responsibility
  4. ujamaa – cooperative economics
  5. nia – purpose
  6. kuumba – creativity
  7. imani – faith

Picture this

To get the gist of Kwanzaa, you need to understand its symbolism. (Cliff Notes: Most of the symbols are rooted in the idea of community.)  Families celebrating this holiday set out a straw mat, or mkeka, symbolizing how history is a foundation for future generations. A kinara—a candleholder with seven branches – is placed on the mkeka, alongside other symbolic items including corn, representing the value of working together, and a unity cup.

Light my fire

Even the candles in the kinara have special significance for those observing Kwanzaa. The black candle in the center represents the African-American people. Three red candles are placed on the right side of the kinara, symbolizing the culture’s struggles; three green candles are placed to the left, embodying the community’s hope for the future.

Get the party started

To celebrate Kwanzaa, families light the candles in the kinara and exchange gifts. Typically, a feast, or karamu, is held, too. On December 31, a ceremony honoring ancestors takes place, with music and dancing—what a way to ring in the New Year!

Want to learn more about how to have a joyous Kwanzaa? Check out the holiday’s official website