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A woman lights kinara candles on a table decorated with the symbols of Kwanzaa
Observed by Americans.
Type Cultural and ethnic
Significance Celebrates Black heritage, unity and culture.
Date December 26 until January 1
Celebrations Unity
Collective Work and Responsibility
Cooperative Economics
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Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration held in the United States honoring universal African heritage and culture, marked by participants lighting a kinara (candle holder).[1] It is observed from December 26 to January 1 every year.

Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. It was created by Ron Karenga and was first celebrated from December 26, 1966 to January 1, 1967.


History and etymology

Ron Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as the first specifically African American holiday.[2] Karenga said his goal was to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."[3] The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits of the harvest.[4] The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s.

Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its roots in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions and common humanist principles.

The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service on October 22, 1997, with artwork by Synthia Saint James.[5] In 2004, a second Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Daniel Minter, was issued; this has seven figures in colorful robes symbolizing the seven principles.[6]

During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that Jesus was psychotic, and that Christianity was a white religion that black people should shun.[7] However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."[8]

The origins of Kwanzaa are not secret and are openly acknowledged by those promoting the holiday.[9] Many Christian African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.[10]

Principles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba—the seven principles of blackness), which Karenga said "is a communitarian African philosophy," consisting of what Karenga called "the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world." These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to 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 make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems, and to 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.


In his 2004 Presidential Kwanzaa Message, George W. Bush said, "During Kwanzaa, millions of African Americans and people of African descent gather to celebrate their heritage and ancestry. Kwanzaa celebrations provide an opportunity to focus on the importance of family, community, and history and to reflect on the Nguzo Saba or seven principles of African culture. These principles emphasize unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith."[11]

In 2004, BIG Research conducted a marketing survey in the United States for the National Retail Foundation, which found that 1.6% of those surveyed planned to celebrate Kwanzaa. If generalized to the US population as a whole, this would imply that around 4.7 million Americans planned to celebrate Kwanzaa in that year.[12] In a 2006 speech, Ron Karenga asserted that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa. He has always maintained it is celebrated all over the world.[1] Lee D. Baker puts the number at 12 million.[13] The African American Cultural Center claims 30 million.[4]

According to Keith Mayes, the author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, the popularity within the US has "leveled off" as the black power movement there has declined, and now between half and two million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the US, or between one and five percent of African Americans. Mayes adds that white institutions now celebrate it.[14]

Pan-African topics
African American
Black people
African philosophy
Black conservatism
Black leftism
Black nationalism
Black orientalism
African Topics
African art
George Padmore
Walter Rodney
Patrice Lumumba
Thomas Sankara
Frantz Fanon
Chinweizu Ibekwe
Molefi Kete Asante
Ahmed Sékou Touré
Kwame Nkrumah
Marcus Garvey
Nnamdi Azikiwe
Malcolm X
W. E. B. Du Bois
C. L. R. James
Cheikh Anta Diop


Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art; colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women; and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa.[14] The holiday greeting is "Joyous Kwanzaa".[11][15][16]

A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast (Karamu). The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani?[17] which is Swahili for "What's the News?"[18]

At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, many African American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African American roots, share space in kwanzaa-celebrating households. To them, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.

Cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.[19][20]

Evolution in Kwanzaa's observance

In 1977, in Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice, Karenga stated that Kwanzaa "was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."[21]

In 1997, Karenga and the community evolved, stating that while Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday, it can be celebrated by people of any race: "Other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans."[22]

Currently, according to the Official Kwanzaa Web Site (written by Karenga and maintained by Organization US, which Karenga chairs), "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity, and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one."[23]

Karenga's most recent interpretation emphasizes that while every people has its own holiday traditions, all people can share in the celebration of our common humanity: "Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world."[24]

In the late 2000s, Kwanzaa has been observed less commonly, with its popularity fading. For some people the holiday no longer holding the same significance it had in the 1970s.[25]

See also

  • The Black Candle – a film about Kwanzaa
  • Dashiki – A shirt or suit worn during Kwanzaa celebrations
  • Kaftan (boubou) – A dress worn by women during Kwanzaa celebrations
  • Kufi – A cap worn during Kwanzaa celebrations

Further reading

  • A program to raise the faith level in African-American children through Scripture, Kwanzaa principles, and culture, Janette Elizabeth Chandler Kotey, DMin, Oral Roberts University,1999
  • The US Organization: African American cultural nationalism in the era of Black Power, 1965 to the 1970s, Scot D. Brown, PhD, Cornell University, 1999
  • Rituals of race, ceremonies of culture: Kwanzaa and the making of a Black Power holiday in the United States,1966—2000, Keith Alexander Mayes, PhD, Princeton University, 2002
  • Interview: Kwanzaa creator Ron Karenga discusses the evolution of the holiday and its meaning in 2004, conducted by Tony Cox. Tavis Smiley (NPR), 26 December 2003
  • Tolerance in the News: Kwanzaa: A threat to Christmas? By Camille Jackson | Staff Writer,, 22 December 2005


  1. ^ a b ""Why Kwanzaa Video"". "Ron Karenga". 
  2. ^ "The Evening Hours". New York Times". 1983-12-30. Retrieved 2006-12-15. 
  3. ^ Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice p. 21
  4. ^ a b Megan K. Scott, "Kwanzaa celebrations continue, but boom is over", Buffalo News, 17 December 2009. Accessed 25 December 2009.
  5. ^ Bringing Good Into the World
  6. ^ Kwanzaa featured on this year's holiday U.S. postage stamp
  7. ^ Karenga, Ron (1967). "Religion". in Clyde Halisi, James Mtume. The quotable Karenga. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. pp. 25. 23769.8. 
  8. ^ J. Lawrence Scholer, "The story of Kwanzaa", Dartmouth Review, 15 January 2001.
  9. ^ "The Official Kwanzaa Website - Founders Message". Retrieved 2005-12-30. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b Bush, George W. (2004-12-23). "Presidential Kwanzaa Message, 2004". Office of the Press Secretary. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  12. ^ "2004 Holiday Spending by Region", 'Survey by BIGresearch, conducted for National Retail Foundation', 14 October 2004
  13. ^ Manning Marable, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower, p. 224.
  14. ^ a b Keith Mayes, cited by Megan K. Scott, "Kwanzaa celebrations continue, but boom is over", Buffalo News, 17 December 2009. Accessed 25 December 2009.
  15. ^ "Clinton offers holiday messages". CNN. 1997-12-23. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  16. ^ Gale, Elaine (1998-12-26). "Appeal of Kwanzaa continues to grow; holidays: today marks start of the seven-day celebration of African culture, which began in Watts 32 years ago and is now observed by millions.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2007-12-24. 
  17. ^ Kwanzaa Greeting
  18. ^ A Model Kwanzaa Ceremony
  19. ^ The Spirit of Kwanzaa
  20. ^ The Dance Institute of Washington
  21. ^ Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice, p. 21, cited at "". Retrieved 2005-12-29. 
  22. ^ Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, p. 110, cited at "". Retrieved 2005-12-29. 
  23. ^ "The Official Kwanzaa Web Site". Retrieved 2005-12-29. 
  24. ^ "The Official Kwanzaa Website FAQ". Retrieved 2005-12-29. 
  25. ^ "Kwanzaa popularity wanes", "Detroit Free Press"

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’, meaning “first fruits”. The additional “a” was added to “Kwanza” so that the word would have seven letters, one for each of the Seven Principles “Nguzu Saba” of Blackness.


  • IPA: /ˈkwɑnzə/

Proper noun


  1. A week-long African-American cultural holiday held between December 26 and January 1.

Simple English

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration held in the United States honoring universal African heritage and culture, marked by people lighting a kinara (candle holder).[1] It takes place from December 26 to January 1 every year.

Kwanzaa has seven days of celebration, having activities such as candle-lighting and libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. It was made by Ron Karenga and was first celebrated from December 26, 1966 to January 1, 1967.


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