Kwanzaa: The December African American Holiday

Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural celebration held in December, but it wasn't introduced to replace Christmas or reject Christianity. As the celebration's inventor, Ron 'Maulana' Karenga said, Kwanzaa should "give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."


Karenga created Kwanzaa in concert with black nationalist political leaders in 1966. At that time, black nationalism became popular among younger members of the civil rights movement who were concerned about emphasizing the positive aspects of African heritage, specifically that African-Americans were not simply descendants of slaves but of people with a rich cultural history.

The word Kwanzaa comes from a Southern African festival, matunda ya kwanza, which means 'first fruits of the harvest.' The seven days of Kwanzaa reflect the seven-day length of the first-fruits celebrations. Each day signifies a different value as expressed in Swahili.

The seven principles of the Kwanzaa celebration are:

  1. Umoja -- unity
  2. Kujichagulia -- self-determination
  3. Ujima -- collective responsibility within the community
  4. Ujamaa -- working together to create a strong financial future
  5. Nia -- determination to improve
  6. Kuumba -- creativity
  7. Imani -- faith

Celebrating the festival

There is no orthodoxy associated with the Kwanzaa celebration. Each person, family or community celebrates the holiday as they see fit. Some families exchange gifts in the tradition of the season, and others have parties to celebrate the festival with friends and family.

Kwanzaa celebrants light candles in a wooden candleholder, or kinara, for each day of the celebration. Traditionalists place three red candles on the left, three green ones on the right and a black one in the center of the candleholder. The colors represent the three colors of the black nationalist flag from the 1960s.

Practitioners of Kwanzaa hold a feast -- karamuon -- on the sixth day. There are no special menus for karamuon, but it would be appropriate to serve food that originates in one of the African nations. Some people also serve food from Jamaica or Haiti, countries with cuisines that have roots in West African countries.

Some celebrants hold off gift giving until the seventh day of the festival. The gifts are called zawadi (precious gift). Gifts given during Kwanzaa are often handmade and representative of what the celebration means to the giver. If a celebrant can't make something himself, he can purchase gifts with an African theme or those that are imported from one of the African nations. Gifts are usually reserved for the kids, but it is appropriate for adults to exchange gifts as well.

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