Guide to Kwanzaa Traditions

Celebrating pride in heritage and cultural unity, Kwanzaa is a fast-growing holiday celebrated by African-Americans. This seven-day celebration begins on December 26th and ends on January 1st. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday; rather, Kwanzaa traditions give African-Americans a chance to incorporate customs of cultural reaffirmation into other celebrations.

Furthermore, Kwanzaa did not begin in Africa. Maulana Karenga, a scholar and social activist living in California, created Kwanzaa in 1966. Karenga felt that African-Americans needed a time to celebrate their unique history and heritage and to promote unity within communities.

The word "Kwanzaa" comes from "matunda ya kwanza," which is a Swahili term for "first fruits." The extra "a" in "kwanzaa" came about during an early Kwanzaa celebration in which seven children each wanted to represent a letter in the word, and an extra "a" was added to "kwanza" to make sure all the children were included.

Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
The purpose of celebrating Kwanzaa is to reinforce positive values within the community. The best community thoughts, practices and values are promoted and celebrated during this seven-day holiday. Each of the seven days focuses on one of the principles:

  • Umoja (unity)-Being unified within a family, community and country.
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination)-Choosing your own path rather than having it chosen for you, designed to promote the interests of African people.
  • Ujima (collective work, responsibility)-Sharing burdens and lightening the loads of others within a family or community.
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics)-Share social wealth and commit to work to improve economically.
  • Nia (purpose)-A devotion to promoting the African legacy throughout the world.
  • Kuumba (creativity)-Leave beauty and peace everywhere via actions and art.
  • Imani (faith)-Belief in one's ability to be victorious over struggles and to support others.

Collectively, these principles are known as Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles. It is customary to incorporate these Swahili words into Kwanzaa greetings that show a desire to commit to the principles.

Decorating for Kwanzaa
The symbolic objects for Kwanzaa are mostly based on African harvest motifs.

  • Perhaps the most recognized Kwanzaa symbol, the Kinara (candle holder) and the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) are full of meaning. The seven candles stand for the Seven Principles and are colored black, red and green, the official colors of the holiday. One black candle is in the middle of the Kinara, with three red candles on the left and three green ones on the right. The candle holder symbolizes African ancestry.
  • Corn, or Muhindi, is also used at Kwanzaa along with other harvest foods to represent African harvest celebrations, with the corn specifically representing children and the future. Even if no children are in the household, two ears of corn should appear to indicate that everyone is responsible for one another's children.
  • A cup, known as a Unity Cup or Kikombe cha Umoja, symbolizes unity within the community and for African people throughout the world. After passing the cup from participant to participant, part of the libation in the Unity Cup is poured out in honor of ancestors.
  • A woven mat is often displayed as well. The Mkeka represents the foundation of traditions shared by those of African descent.

Kwanzaa's colors are black, red and green and are also rich in symbolism. Black is for people, red represents their struggles and green stands for a hope-filled future. People celebrating Kwanzaa can also decorate with colored flags, African cloth, baskets or other cultural art objects.

Celebrating Kwanzaa
To start off the celebration of Kwanzaa, the symbols of the holiday must be displayed. Celebrants choose a prominent place in the home to set up the mat, with all other symbols arranged on it. The seven days of Kwanzaa are full of different activities, such as lighting candles, meditation, respecting ancestors, celebrating African traditions and finishing up with gifts and a feast.

Gifts are generally given to the children of the family and, according to tradition, must consist of at least one book and an African cultural item. The idea is to emphasize learning as well as appreciation for their heritage.

Kwanzaa and Other Holidays
For many African-Americans today, Kwanzaa is the chance to celebrate their ethnic heritage, share the common ground of a Pan-African culture and rededicate themselves to improvement.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday and is not intended to be a substitute for Christmas. Kwanzaa celebrates African culture and is therefore similar to Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo and other cultural holidays.

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