Kwanzaa History & Traditions

Why do African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa? Does it replace Christmas? What does the celebration involve? You've come to the right place for answers to these questions and more.


Kwanzaa, a relatively new observance in December, dates back just 34 years. The holiday's primary purpose is to link African traditions and American customs.

+ enlarge image Each candle represents a principle the holiday honors.

Founded by Dr. Mualena Karenga, then chairman of black studies at California State University in Long Beach, Kwanzaa focuses on seven core principles, expressed in Swahili as Nguzo Saba (nn-Goo-zoh SAH-bah). Each principle is linked with one of the seven days of the celebration, which runs from December 26 through January 1 each year. Listed in order of observance, the principles are:

  • Umoja (oo-MOH-JAH) -- Unity
  • Kujichagulia (koo-ji-chah-goo-LEE-ah) -- Self-determination
  • Ujima (oo-JEE-mah) -- Collective work and responsibility
  • Ujamma (oo-jah-MAH) -- Cooperative economics
  • Nia (NEE-ah) -- Purpose
  • Kuumba (koo-OO-mbah) -- Creativity
  • Imani (ee-MAH-nee) -- Faith

The holiday's daily ritual begins with the lighting of one of the seven candles placed in the candleholder called the kinara (kee-NAH-rah), by a family member or friend. This candle-lighting is followed by a discussion of the day's principle, a folktale, or a shared recollection of how the principle has influenced the family or friend participating in the celebration.

The first candle lit and placed in the center of the kinara is the black candle, which is symbolic of unity. As the celebration continues in the following days, revelers light a red or green candle daily to commemorate each principle. The three green candles represent self-determination, collective work and responsibility, and cooperative economics. The three red candles are for purpose, creativity, and faith. Often the green candles are placed to the right of the black candle and the three red candles are placed on the left side.

The word Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili word meaning "first" or "first fruits of the harvest." Kwanzaa reflects the traditions of harvest festivals celebrated in many African countries, acknowledging the first fruits of the harvest, and the reward of family and friends working together to produce the season's crop.

As with any holiday, Kwanzaa traditions vary and continue to evolve with each celebration.

+ enlarge image Make your celebration unique and memorable.

Though the holiday is a celebration of African-American heritage and culture, it is important to remember that African-Americans are diverse, reflecting a broad spectrum of experiences and lifestyles. Kwanzaa traditions also reflect this diversity. These traditions include the following:

Making Kwanzaa Gifts

Families set aside time on the first day of Kwanzaa to make handmade gifts to exchange during the karamu (feast). Typically, gifts are handmade and educational, teaching something about the heritage of people of African descent.

Honoring Ancestors and Elders

In local communities or among church youth groups, young people visit nursing homes and senior centers to celebrate Kwanzaa with residents. Thoughtful visitors might bring small gifts for the residents, like bookmarks or socks with Kwanzaa-colored trim.

Wearing Traditional African Clothing

Though traditional African garb can be worn year round, many people wear it during the seven days of Kwanzaa or at the Kwanzaa feast or karamu. By wearing African garb, revelers reinforce cultural identity and the Kwanzaa principles of unity, creativity, and cooperative economics.

Planning Special Meals

Food is an integral part of the celebration. On each day of the Kwanzaa celebration, hosts include a dish from a different country in the African diaspora. By enjoying national dishes from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, Americans can learn more about these foreign cultures and customs. Kwanzaa meals might include Jollof Rice, a traditional West African dish, jerk meats from the Caribbean, and black beans that are popular in Caribbean and South American dishes.

During Kwanzaa, some people abstain from eating meat or fast until the Kwanzaa feast or karamu. This decision is a personal choice, based on willingness to give up something that is enjoyed. The decision to omit meat can also be linked to Kwanzaa principles, such as self-determination and faith. Historically, the choice to omit meat from the diet harks back to the challenges of African slaves to survive in new lands, when meat was not included in their meals.

Enjoying a Kwanzaa Feast

The Kwanzaa karamu can be an intimate event with close family and friends, or a large community celebration. This menu can be a cooperative effort with each person bringing a dish. These dishes can be family favorites or foods of one particular country. In the spirit of Kwanzaa and learning about African heritage, some families and churches select one country, and the entire karamu menu includes dishes and foods from that specified land.

Kwanzaa Menu

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