Kwanzaa is an annual celebration of African heritage that is celebrated for a full week by many African-Americans living in the U.S. and abroad. The holiday was the first to ever celebrate Black history and is named after the Swahili phrase that describes the first fruits gathered during the harvest season.
When Is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 every year. Many people who celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate Christmas and combine traditions from both holidays into the winter holiday season.
History of Kwanzaa
Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies, came up with the idea for Kwanzaa back in 1966 during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States. His goal was to create a holiday that would allow African-Americans to pay tribute to their roots and to bring some of the traditions and values of cultures from the African continent to everyday living.
Originally, Kwanzaa was considered a part of counterculture, but has become more mainstream in recent years. The holiday is not an official holiday in the United States; however, because it coincides with the Christmas season, some people may have days off from work during the celebration.
How Kwanzaa Is Celebrated
The key tradition of the annual observance of Kwanzaa is the lighting of a symbolic candelabra called the kinara that holds three red candles, three green candles and one black candle. Families light one candle each night to remind them of an important value from African culture. The candles are:
- Umoja. This candle symbolizes the value of unity and is a reminder to try and exist peacefully with family and within one’s community.
- Kujichagulia. This candle is a reminder of self-determination or identity and is meant to encourage people to be themselves and be proud of who they are.
- Ujima. This candle represents collective work or collaborating with neighbors and family members to find answers to problems and do good works.
- Ujamaa. This candle is a reminder of cooperative economics or helping other members of the community prosper by doing business with one another.
- Nia. This candle symbolizes the idea of living with the purpose of helping to elevate the African-American community and fight for equality.
- Kuumba. This candle represents creativity, the goal of beautifying a community and leaving the world in a better state for the next generation.
- Imani. This candle symbolizes the importance of maintaining faith when faced with struggles and oppression.
In homes where Kwanzaa is celebrated, the kinara is placed on a mat known as a mkeka. A number of items are placed around it, including:
- Corn and crops to symbolize the harvest
- A cup called the ikombe cha Umoja that honors one’s African ancestors
- Gifts called Zawadi for friends and family
Many families create elaborate displays that also include flags that represent their African roots and African works of art and handicrafts. Often, each night is marked with a special meal. Communities may stage productions of African dance, host African poetry readings or showcase African art during Kwanzaa.