What Is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa Primer
Learn the basics of Kwanzaa, the African American cultural and spiritual celebration.
The First Fruits of the Harvest
When It Falls Kwanzaa is an annual festival that lasts seven days, from December 26 to January 1.
Meaning The word Kwanzaa comes from the phrase, 'matunda ya kwanza,' which means 'first fruits of the harvest' in Swahili. Kwanzaa is modeled on the first fruit celebrations of ancient Africa. It is now a celebration of African-American family, community, and self-improvement.
History Kwanzaa was created as a cultural festival in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, now a black studies professor. The festival was created to encourage African-Americans to think about their African roots and develop a higher African-American consciousness.
Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba)
  • Umoja -- Unity
  • Kujichagulia -- Self-Determination
  • Ujima -- Collective Work and Responsibility
  • Ujamaa -- Cooperative Economics
  • Nia -- Purpose
  • Kuumba -- Creativity
  • Imani -- Faith
  • Ritual Objects & Symbols
  • Mkeka -- straw table mat, on which all other objects are placed
  • Mazao -- crops, symbols of the fruits of collective labor
  • Muhindi -- one ear of corn for each child, symbolizing fertility
  • Kikombe cha umoja -- the unity cup, used to perform the libation ritual
  • Zawadi -- gifts, traditional items that encourage success
  • Kinara -- candleholder, a symbol of ancestry
  • Mishumaa saba -- seven candles, one for each of the seven Kwanzaa principles
  • Customs Each night, the family gathers to light the candles of the kinara, adding one candle for each day of the holiday. A traditional feast is held on the night of December 31.
    Gifts Gifts are usually opened on the last day of Kwanzaa, January 1. Gifts are considered part of the "kuumba," or creativity, principle and are encouraged. Traditional presents are books and heritage symbols.
    Traditional Greeting "Habari gani?", to which one replies with the Kwanzaa principle of the day.
    Traditional Meal Most celebrants have a feast, called a karamu, on December 31.
    Suggested Reading Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture
    By Maulana Karenga
    Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking
    By Eric V. Copage