The holiday Kwanzaa honours African-American history. Here is the history behind it as well as what it signifies now.

Image Via Time and Date

Since Kwanzaa established in 1966, the seven-day holiday has been celebrated with feasts, candle-lighting ceremonies, and meditations on the difficulties of the past and the expectations for the future.

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African-American culture and heritage that was founded at a time of racial upheaval. Every year, from December 26 to January 1, millions of people in the United States and around the world enjoy this secular holiday.

Kwanzaa, which derives its name from the Swahili word for “first,” is inspired by the beginning of the harvest season in Africa, when the first crops are gathered. For many years, people have been celebrating it all over the continent. Families get together during the week to exchange gifts, enjoy meals together, and burn candles in memory of their ancestors and dreams for the future.

Although Kwanzaa gained popularity as a holiday in the 1980s, its customs have since dwindled. Here is a history of Kwanzaa, how it is observed, and how it is currently changing.

Origins of Kwanzaa:

A year following a significant uprising that shook the Watts community of Los Angeles, California, Kwanzaa was established. The community rioted and protested after suffering years of maltreatment at the hands of the police and being crushed by poverty. A week of turmoil resulted in 34 fatalities and 1,000 injuries.

Maulanga Karenga, an activist and key figure in the Black Power Movement, established the Us Organization in the days following the Watts uprising in order to rebuild the neighbourhood and advance a Black cultural revolution that would inspire pride in Black history and accomplishments, long ignored and repressed by the dominant white culture. Creating a holiday for African Americans to celebrate their African heritage and reinforce their cultural ties was always the goal. (In this museum, the history of Black America is told in an unprecedented way.)

Another goal of Kwanzaa was to serve as a secular substitute for the enormously popular Christmas celebration. According to historian Keith Mayes, author of the book Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, “Karanga believed Christmas stood in the way of black cultural advancement because Christmas dominated the calendar at year’s end, engulfing black America in its crass consumerism and its images of a white Christ.”

Karenga relied on a collection of traditional practises and symbols that were shared across all of Africa to create the customs for the new holiday. He thought that the annual harvest festivals, where communities gathered to celebrate the results of their labour, were a good example of how to create a family, community, and culture.

How Kwanzaa is celebrated:

The day after Christmas, a seven-day celebration begins. Ceremony and symbolism permeate every day. A straw mat, symbolic of the traditions at the core of the holiday’s foundation, is used to decorate a table as the first step in the celebration. They also place other significant objects on the mat, such as different fruits and vegetables to reflect their combined labour during the harvest, ears of corn to represent their children, and a candlestick to commemorate their shared African background. The candle holder has a black candle in the middle, three red candles on the left, and three green candles on the right.

Every day during Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba in Swahili, families and communities get together to light a candle and meditate on one of the seven principles. The festival begins on December 26 with a meditation on togetherness (umoja), then moves on to the values of autonomy (kujichagulia), group effort and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (kuumba) (imani).

An elder begins the nightly candle-lighting ceremony by pouring wine or juice into an union cup, part of which is then spilled into the ground in remembrance of the family’s ancestors. The attendees then gather together to chant harambee (Swahili meaning “let’s pull together”) seven times while the elder drinks from the cup and distributes it to them.

The black candle in the holder’s middle is lit on the first day to symbolise all persons of African origin. The crimson candles to the left, which stand for the ancestors’ blood, and the green candles to the right, which represent earth, life, and the promise of the future, are lit alternately over the remaining days. This order signifies that “the people come first, followed by the struggle and the hope that comes from the struggle,” according to the official Kwanzaa website.

On December 31, the penultimate day of Kwanzaa, a banquet called a karamu is often held. This feast, which is accompanied by music and dance, is a time for celebration and reaffirming goals for personal development in the next year. On this day or the final day of Kwanzaa, families frequently give youngsters little gifts.


Image Via The New York Times

The origins and evolution of Kwanzaa:

According to historian Elizabeth Pleck’s article in the Journal of American Ethnic History, the festival struggled in its early years to gain acceptance. Despite its adoption by some urban populations, many Muslims and Christians saw the secular celebration as incompatible with their faith. Kwanzaa’s acceptance also stalled as the Us Organization broke down as a result of internal conflicts, including Karenga’s 1971 trial and imprisonment for torturing two women he thought were attempting to poison him.

But as word of mouth continued to spread, Kwanzaa grew to be known as a celebration of Black family life. Kwanzaa entered the mainstream Black culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s thanks to articles published in significant periodicals. Actor Roger Mosley spoke about discovering Kwanzaa in a December 1976 issue of Jet, claiming it was “more in line with the route I want my children to go” than a commercialised Christmas.

However, most people started to view Kwanzaa as a method to enhance their holiday season rather than as a replacement for Christmas. “Almost all Black Americans are placing extra emphasis on roots and family connection in what some social analysts are calling the New Soul Christmas,” Ebony reported in 1983. Kwanzaa provided people with a fresh set of traditions that allowed them to “express their new sense of somebodiness” in addition to Christmas songs and trees.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Kwanzaa gained widespread recognition. The first American president to recognise Kwanzaa was Bill Clinton, who said in his 1993 message: “At a time when we are seeking ways to revitalise our neighbourhoods and empower those who have been powerless for too long, Kwanzaa encourages us to rebuild and gives us the opportunity to celebrate the strengths of the African American community. The United States Postal Service initially released a Kwanzaa stamp in 1997.

Kwanzaa Today:

The Root and the Associated Press, among other media groups, reported that fewer Black households were celebrating Kwanzaa by the 2010s. Mark Anthony Neal, chair of Duke University’s Department of African & African American Studies, told NPR in 2012 that he thought the reduction was caused by younger generations having access to Black history and culture through African American studies programmes and the internet. (See 13 places to learn about the history and culture of African Americans.)

It was “the only way… to be able to connect to some type of feeling of Black ancestry,” he said, adding that Kwanzaa “was just not the kind of fervour around the holiday that we would have seen in the 1980s, for instance, when I was in college.”

Kwanzaa was very recently created, some people still think of it as a “made-up holiday.” He did, however, point out that Father’s Day and Mother’s Day also share fabricated origins and are well-known holidays.

In recent years, estimates of the number of Americans who observe Kwanzaa have ranged from as low as 500,000 to as much as 12 million. According to a 2019 USA Today report, only 2.9% of people who planned to observe a winter holiday said they would observe Kwanzaa.

The Root investigated if the holiday would experience a revival in 2020—after yet another era of racial upheaval following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many too many others. The historian Mayes, though, told the publication that it was irrelevant how many people observed Kwanzaa. According to him, the fact that slavery is a part of African-American history implies that it will always exist. “It won’t ever go away.”


Black Americans are the ones who developed and observe Kwanzaa. Despite declining in popularity after reaching its height in the 1980s and 1990s, millions of Americans continue to observe the holiday every year. Black people in the Caribbean and Canada also observe

African studies professor Maulana Karenga founded Kwanzaa in 1966. With the advent of the Afrocentrist movement, which put a strong emphasis on Black self-sufficiency in opposition to white imperialist histories and narratives, Kwanzaa became more and more well-known. Despite being widely commemorated by Black Americans in the 1980s and 1990s, the holiday has lost favour in more recent times.

It is only a secular festival, Kwanzaa. It has no link to Judaism, despite the fact that its seven-pronged kinara looks similar to the eight-pronged Jewish menorah. Kwanzaa, which is observed immediately after Christmas, has nothing to do with the Christian celebration and is not meant to take its place.

Kwanzaa is an annual festival that is largely observed in the United States from December 26 to January 1 that celebrates African family and social ideals. Maulana Karenga, an influential figure in Afrocentrism and a professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach, came up with the name and the event in 1966.Karenga added the seventh letter, an extra a, to make the word long enough to include one letter for each of the seven children present at an early celebration. The word kwanza, which means “first,” is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza. (Kwanzaa is not a Swahili term in and of itself.) Kwanzaa is modelled after first-fruits festivals in Southern Africa. From Monday, December 26, 2022, to Sunday, January 1, 2023, Kwanzaa is observed.

Although Kwanzaa is predominantly an African American holiday, it has become popular outside of America, especially in the Caribbean and other nations with sizable populations of African ancestry. It was intended to be a nonreligious and apolitical festival, and it is not seen as a replacement for Christmas.

Each of the seven Kwanzaa principles—unity (Umoja), self-determination  (kujichagulia)collective responsibility (ujamaa), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (Nia), creativity (kumbha), and faith—is honoured on a different day of the festival (Imani). A straw mat, a candleholder, corn (maize) ears, gifts, a community cup denoting unity, seven candles in the African colours of red, green, and black, and the seven principles are the other seven symbols of the occasion.Every day, the family gathers to discuss the day’s lesson and light one of the candles in the kinara, or candleholder. Families participate in the karamu, a communal feast, on December 31. During the festival, several people dress in traditional African attire.


In 1997, the United States Postal Service released the first Kwanzaa stamp, which was created by Synthia Saint James. Bill Clinton also made the first presidential proclamation recognising the festival in 1997. Other presidents who have since taken office include George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.


Image Via The Holy Spirit

A mat (Mkeka) is one of the Kwanzaa holiday emblems, and other symbols are placed on it.

  1. One Kinara (candle holder for seven candlesticks)
  2. Saba Mishuma (seven candles)
  3. Mazao (crops) 
  4. Mahindi (corn), in honour of the partying kids (and corn may be part of the holiday meal).
  5. a Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) to honour and express gratitude to one’s African ancestors
  6. Zawadi (gifts)


You got to learn about a fascinating new culture during this unit. You now know the origins of the African holiday Kwanzaa, the meanings of the symbols employed in its celebrations, and the core principles that underpin it. The extent to which colour is used in African culture has been made clear to you, and perhaps your presentation of your research has communicated this. You have discovered that other people follow various traditions and hold different beliefs as a result of studying this unit. Maybe your newfound understanding will motivate you to institute some new family customs.