views updated May 14 2018


KWANZAA. Unlike December holidays steeped in centuries-old traditions, Kwanzaa, the African American year-end feast, was not established until 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a cultural nationalist. The celebration, which occurs annually from 26 December to 1 January, is based on a compilation of several harvest festivals and celebrations from around the African continent. During the holiday week most Kwanzaa celebrants use a menu of traditional African American dishes, foods from the "mother continent," and foods from the African diaspora. The word "Kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili expression "matunda ya kwanza," meaning 'first fruits of the harvest,' but the American Kwanzaa is distinguished from the African one by the addition of a second "a" in the second syllable.

The holiday was originally celebrated by cultural nationalists who wished to express pan-African solidarity. In the intervening years, however, it has become a rapidly growing tradition with over 18 million people of all political leanings and in all walks of life celebrating the week following 26 December as a time of feasting, fasting, and self-examination.

The holiday is not designed as a replacement for or alternative to any of the other year-end festivities like the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, or the Hindu Divali (Festival of Lights, celebrating Laksmi, the goddess of wealth; also called "Diwali" or "Dewali"). Rather, it is a time for reflection and self-examination that can replace or be celebrated jointly with any or all of the year-end holidays.

The celebration of Kwanzaa is guided by the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of self-awareness, so each day of the week-long festival is devoted to the celebration of one of the building blocks of self-awareness.

Collective Work and Responsibility
Cooperative Economics
Creativity (The feast of karamu is held on this day and is a public celebration at which the community gathers to celebrate the holiday.)

The number seven is at the core of the celebration. There are seven days, seven principles, and seven symbols of the holiday. The mazao are the fruits of the harvest that are a part of the celebration table, and the mkeka is the mat on which they are arranged. The kinara, the seven-branched candlestick, holds the mishumaa saba, the seven candles (three red, three green, and one black) that are lit every evening: first the black candle, symbolizing the people, and then, alternating, the red and green candles, symbolizing the principle that without struggle, there is no attainment.

Each Kwanzaa table has a centerpiece. On each centerpiece there are muhindi (also vibunzi ), ears of corn, one for each child in the family who is still at home. If there are no children in the family, there is a single ear to remind the celebrants that, in the words of the proverb, "it takes a village to raise a child." The kikombe cha umoja, the chalice of unity, is the cup that is passed around or from which the ceremonial libation is poured. Finally, there are the zawadi, gifts, which should be educational and emphasize growth and self-knowledge.


Copage, Eric V. Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking. New York: Morrow, 1991.

Harris, Jessica B. A Kwanzaa Keepsake: Celebrating the Holiday with New Traditions and Feasts. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Karenga, Maulana. Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice. Inglewood, Calif.: Kawaida, 1977.

Karenga, Maulana. The African-American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1988.

Jessica B. Harris


views updated May 29 2018


KWANZAA. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created the African American cultural festival of Kwanzaa in 1966. The celebration takes place annually from 26 December through 1 January. Although the American origins of this holiday are found in the struggles for black nationalism that transpired in the 1960s, its African origins are rooted in the historic "first fruits" celebrations that have been associated with successful harvests from time immemorial.

Essential to the celebration are the Nzugo Saba (seven principles), which outline the pan-African origins of African American peoples. The principles are: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). One of the seven principles is featured on each day of the week-long celebration.

Millions of African Americans commemorate Kwanzaa annually in either family-centered or community centered celebrations. These events highlight the reaffirmation of community, a special reverence for the Creator and Creation, a respectful commemoration of the past, a recommitment to lofty ideals, and a celebration of all that is inherently good. During these cultural celebrations Kwanzaa candles are lit, children receive heritage gifts, and a commemorative meal takes place.


Karenga, Maulana. Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1998.

Junius P.Rodriguez

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Holidays and Festivals .


views updated Jun 11 2018

Kwanzaa a secular festival observed by many African Americans from 26 December to 1 January as a celebration of their cultural heritage and traditional values. The name comes from Kiswahili matunda ya kwanza, literally ‘first fruits (of the harvest)’.