The History of Kwanzaa

The holiday season brings with it many traditions and observances both religious and secular in nature. One of these occurrences is Kwanzaa which is observed from December 26th to January 1st every year. A celebration of African-American culture and overall African heritage Kwanzaa has an interesting history as it is a relatively new holiday having been first celebrated in 1966. What follows is a brief historical overview of the celebration and its related practices.  

Kwanzaa: A History

Kwanzaa traces its history to 1965 when it was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga professor of African Studies at Long Beach's California State University. Dr. Karenga wanted to create a holiday to specifically celebrate African heritage, traditions, and to foster a greater sense of community. The name Kwanzaa stems from the Swahili phrase 'matunda ya kwanza' (first fruits of the harvest). As such Kwanzaa bring together several tribal harvest traditions with Zulu and Ashanti being just two examples.      

Kwanzaa Traditions And Practices

When considering practices for the Kwanzaa holiday Dr. Karenga wanted to foster a broader sense of togetherness and community among those of African heritage and background. In this spirit those that follow Kwanzaa celebrate the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles. These principles represent Kawaida a Swahili term meaning reason or tradition. As Kwanzaa is a week long holiday celebration each day is devoted to one of the Seven Principles. These principles are as follows:

  1. Umoja: which when translated means Unity.

  2. Kujichagulia: which when translated means Self-Determination.

  3. Ujima: which when translated means  Collective Work and Responsibility.

  4. Ujamaa: which when translated means  Cooperative Economics.

  5. Nia: which when translated means Purpose.

  6. Kuumba: which when translated means Creativity.

  7. Imani: which when translated means Faith.

Like all celebrations Kwanzaa has symbols representing the holiday itself. These include:

  1. Mazao (Crops) representing hard work and the harvest itself which is the basis for the holiday traditions of ancient harvest celebrations.

  2. Mkeka (Place Mat) representing African culture and history.

  3. Vibunzi (Ear of Corn) represents growth and by extension children and hope for the future.

  4. Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles) representing the Seven Principles.

  5. Kinara (The Candleholder) the forking candleholder represents the branching tree of family history.

  6. Kikombe Cha Umoja (The Unity Cup) the Unity Cup is drunk from by every member of the family during the Karamu feast at the end of Kwanzaa and represents unity and blessings.

  7. Zawadi (Gifts) the giving of gifts represents not only togetherness and giving but also encourages growth and continued success.

Aside from its philosophical meaning and related symbols Kwanzaa also has several related practices and observances. On each day of Kwanzaa the family gathers together and a child lights one of the seven candles representing the Seven Principles. Discussion of what these principles mean and how they can guide you often follow. Other traditions include traditional African clothing, music, dance, poetry, storytelling, and the celebration of ancestors and overall family history. A traditional African feast (Karamu) is held on December 31st.   


As a holiday celebration Kwanzaa continues to be celebrated yearly by millions according to most estimates. Originally intended to be a replacement holiday for Christmas as Kwanzaa gained in overall acceptance this concept was dropped. Kwanzaa is now celebrated alongside Christmas by many. Christmas retains its religious importance while Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture, history, and togetherness.