Kwanzaa is a 7-day African American and pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture. The holiday begins on December 26 and continues through January 1, and its name comes from the Swahili words matunda ya kwanza, which mean “first fruits” and indicates the holiday's roots in the first harvest celebrations recorded in African history. These harvest festivals bear various names, which reflect the language of the society in which each is celebrated. Some of these are: Pert-en-Min in ancient Egypt, Umkhosi in Zululand, Incwala in Swaziland, Odwira in Asanteland, and Odu Ijesu in Yorubaland. As a harvest festival, then, Kwanzaa's central message expresses the ancient African model and practice of producing, harvesting, and sharing good in the world. Key to this commitment to bringing and sustaining good in the world is practicing the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles).
Indeed, at the heart of the meaning and activities of this 7-day holiday are the Nguzo Saba, which are aimed at reaffirming and strengthening family, community, and culture. Thus, each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the principles and is organized around activities and discussion to emphasize each principle. These principles are Umoja (Unity)—to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race; Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)— to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves; Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)—to build and maintain our community together and to make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and 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 heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Although it is rooted in an ancient African history and culture, Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 in the modern context of African American life and struggle as a reconstructed and expanded African tradition by Maulana Karenga, an activist scholar, who is currently professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Having emerged during the black freedom movement of the 1960s, Kwanzaa reflects the movement's stress on self-determination, “return to the source,” and the recovery and reaffirmation of African identity and culture. Moreover, Kwanzaa is founded and framed in Kawaida philosophy, which stresses cultural grounding, a values orientation, and an ongoing dialogue with continental and diasporic African culture in pursuit of paradigms of human excellence and human possibility. First celebrated by members and friends of the organization Us (meaning us African people), which Karenga chairs and in which the holiday developed, Kwanzaa is currently celebrated by an estimated 26 million persons throughout the world African community and on every continent in the world.
Kwanzaa, as explained by Karenga in his 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, is organized around five fundamental kinds of activities that originated in ancient African harvest or first fruit celebrations. These activities are (1) the ingathering of the people to reinforce the bonds between them, especially those of family, community, and culture; (2) special reverence for the Creator and creation in gratitude for the bountifulness and goodness of the earth and in commitment to preserving and protecting it; (3) commemoration of the past, to fulfill the obligation to remember and honor the ancestors, and to teach and reaffirm the mission and meaning of African history; (4) commitment to the highest African cultural values—the ethical and spiritual values that bring forth the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense; and (5) celebration of the good—the good of life and the world, of family, community, and culture, of relationships, and of cultivating, harvesting, and sharing good in the world.
Kwanzaa has seven basic symbols that represent its origins and cultural views and values. These are the mazao (crops), symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor; mkeka (mat), symbolic of tradition and history and therefore the foundation on which to build; kinara (candleholder), symbolic of ancestral roots, the parent people, continental Africans; mishumaa (candles), symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, which form a central value system that African people are urged to live by to enrich and expand their lives; muhindi (corn), symbolic of children and the future of African people that they embody; kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity that makes all else possible; and zawadi (gifts), symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by children. There are also two supplemental symbols: a representation of the Nguzo Saba and the bendera (flag), containing the three colors black, red, and green, symbolic respectively of African people, the struggle, and the promise and future that come from the struggle.
Within the framework of the five overarching and general activities of Kwanzaa mentioned above, several specific practices are central to its celebration. These include the Umoja night (or daytime) gatherings at home or in the community to mark the beginning of the holiday, to pay homage to the ancestors by pouring libations and sharing the lessons of their lives and teachings, and to commit to the practice and promotion of the Nguzo Saba. This commitment to the Nguzo Saba (and other fundamental African values) is done on Umoja night, as well as on each of the 7 nights of Kwanzaa, especially at home. At the evening meal, family members light one of the seven candles each night to focus on the principles in a ritual called “lifting up the light that lasts,” that is to say, upholding the Nguzo Saba and all the other life-affirming and enduring principles that affirm the good of life, enrich human relations, and support human flourishing.
Also, a central and culminating event is the gathering of the community on December 31 for an African karamu (feast) featuring libations and ceremonies honoring the ancestors, as well as narratives, poetry, music, dance, and other performances to celebrate the goodness of life, relationships, and cultural grounding.
Finally, central to the celebration of Kwanzaa is the practice of pausing and turning inward as persons and a people and thinking deeply about the wonder and obligation of being African in the world. This is done on January 1, Siku ya Taamuli (The Day of Meditation), which is the last day of Kwanzaa and the first day of the new year. At the heart of this process is the obligation of Africans everywhere to sit down in sober assessment, measure themselves in the mirror of the best of African culture and history, and ask themselves where they stand in relationship to the highest of African and human standards. To do this, each person must ask himself or herself three basic questions: Who am I? Am I really who I am? and Am I all I ought to be? The person then commits or recommits to the Nguzo Saba and other fundamental African values and practices that represent and bring forth the best of what it means to be African and human in the world.



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Further Reading

  • Karenga, Maulana. (1997). Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. This is the authoritative work on Kawaida, Kwanzaa, and the Nguzo Saba.
  • This is the main Web site for information about Kwanzaa.
  • This is the Web site for the organization Us.