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.
Origins

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.


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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.

Continued on page 2:  Practices