Every year, from December 26 to January 1, people in the United States celebrate Kwanzaa, a holiday honoring the African-American family and the achievements of the African diaspora. A professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach, and a major figure in Afrocentrism,
Maulana Karenga came up with both the name and the celebration in 1966. Karenga took the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first,” and made it into the English word kwanza, meaning “party,” by adding an extra a to the end of the word.
This allowed for one letter to represent each of the seven children present at the early celebration. (The word “Kwanzaa” is not a Swahili word.) Kwanzaa was inspired by festivals of the harvest’s first fruits that were held in Southern Africa. On Monday, December 26, 2022, and lasting through Sunday, January 1, 2023, people around the world will be celebrating Kwanzaa.
Although Kwanzaa originated in the United States and is celebrated primarily by African Americans, it is now widely observed in the Caribbean and other regions with sizable African diaspora populations. It wasn’t meant to compete with Christmas and it has nothing to do with any particular religion.
What Is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is a celebration that lasts a full week, from December 26 to January 1. At its core, it is a harvest festival that honors loved ones, customs, and neighbors. The Kiswahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which translates to “first fruits [of the harvest],” is where the English word “Kwanzaa” was derived from.
Each day of the Kwanzaa celebration stands for one of the seven guiding principles (Nguzo Saba) that form the basis of the holiday. Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Nia, Kuumba, Creativity, and Faith are the Seven Principles of African Culture (Imani).
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, despite popular belief that it is a replacement for Christmas or Hanukkah. Instead, many families who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or another religious holiday.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the modern celebration of Kwanzaa is only a few decades old, even though the traditions it celebrates date back many more. Invented by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African-American scholar, educator, and activist, Kwanzaa was first observed by the general public in 1966.
Kwanzaa is a holiday celebrated primarily in North America, particularly in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. It was developed in part to preserve the community and cultural spirit of traditional African harvest festivals.
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History Of Kwanzaa
Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the chairman of the department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, founded Kwanzaa in 1966 during the height of the Black Freedom Movement to address the need for Black people to reconnect with their cultural roots.
Dr. Karenga sought methods to fortify the African-American community after the Los Angeles riots in Watts. He began studying traditional African harvest festivals after establishing the cultural organization US Organization. In creating Kwanzaa, Karenga drew inspiration from a number of different harvest festivals, including the Ashanti and the Zulu.
The Swahili term “matunda ya kwanza,” which literally translates to “first fruits,” is where the name “Kwanzaa” originates. Swahili is the most widely spoken language in Africa and is often referred to as a pan-African language. Having Swahili serve as the foundation for the celebration is a symbol of solidarity between all people of African and Black descent.
Celebrations of the harvest’s first fruits have been documented in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia, and can also be found in Ashanti and Yorubaland, two other classical African civilizations.
The ancient tradition of Kwanzaa was revived and expanded to reflect modern African American life and struggle. Millions of Africans and African Americans across the country celebrate this holiday, which draws from the traditions of many different African peoples.
While the specific traditions of each family’s Kwanzaa celebration will vary, common elements include the sharing of a feast, the recitation of poetry and stories, the playing of African drums, and the singing of traditional songs.
Each night, the family gathers around the kinara, and after a young member lights one of the candles, they discuss one of the seven guiding principles or Nguzo Saba. African cultural values such as these help African Americans strengthen their sense of belonging to a larger group.
Instructions For The Kwanzaa Holiday
When celebrating Kwanzaa, it is customary to decorate one’s home with straw mats, ears of corn, and a kinara, a candleholder decked out in red, green, and black candles.
The color red is associated with bloodlines and brotherhood; the color black with the people; and the color green with the rich soil (Africa). Each night of Kwanzaa is marked by the lighting of a candle, and the festival is often accompanied by the exchange of gifts.
The festivities culminate on December 31 with a feast, which is typically held at a community center and features traditional music and dancing.
Habari Gani, literally “what is the news?” in Kiswahili, is commonly used as a greeting between close friends and family. (The correct answer to this phrase is one of the seven tenets that correspond to the date.)
The Traditional Kwanzaa Colors Are Red, Green, And Black
Marcus Garvey, a civil rights leader, designed the Pan-African flag with the colors red, green, and black. According to NPR, the flag was created with the intention of bringing together people from all over the African diaspora.
The flag’s colors represent different aspects of the Black experience around the world. The color red represents African blood, the color black represents all people of African descent, and the color green represents the land on which they live.
In modern times, the flag has come to represent freedom and solidarity among people of African descent all over the globe.
Kwanzaa’s Seven Principles
- Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture.
- Its principles, or Nguzo Saba, are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
- Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st.
- On the first day of Kwanzaa, families gather and a kinara (candleholder) is lit. One candle is lit on each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa.
- Gifts are often given during Kwanzaa to children and others in the community as a way to reaffirm African traditions and values.
- Families often spend time during Kwanzaa feasting, singing, dancing, and sharing stories about their ancestors.
- The holiday culminates with a communal feast known as Karamu on New Year’s Eve followed by fireworks displays and parties across the country
Many African Americans in the United States observe Kwanzaa as a significant holiday because it is a time to reflect on and honor their history and culture. The first day of Kwanzaa is December 26th, and it has become a time for many people to honor their ancestors and think about where they have come from and where they want to go.
Thanks for reading, and we hope you now have a better understanding of the significance of this holiday to the African-American community and its rich history. We hope that by spreading knowledge about Kwanzaa, more people will come to understand and celebrate its significance.