An Introduction to Kwanzaa

I was 8- or 9-years-old the first time my family and I celebrated Kwanzaa. I vividly remember reading about the holiday in my elementary school’s library and asking my parents if we could start a tradition of celebrating it. I thought it so was interesting that a Black American had created a holiday that could be celebrated around the same time that Hanukkah and Christmas took place. Although my family and I no longer celebrate Kwanzaa every year, I have fond memories of the festivities from years ago and am more than happy to give a brief introduction and history to the most beloved holiday of my childhood.

So what exactly is Kwanzaa? In short, Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday created in 1966 by Black American scholar, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach. It is a seven-day long holiday that takes place from December 26 to January 1. At the heart of the creation of Kwanzaa was a desire to create a holiday that tied Black Americans as well as other people of the African diaspora to traditional Pan-African values of community as well as to instill pride in heritage. As such, while Kwanzaa is a Black American creation, Black people throughout the African diaspora also celebrate the holiday.

The word “Kwanzaa” is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” Swahili is a Bantu language spoken in many countries in eastern and southeastern Africa; Dr. Karenga believed its status as a Pan-African language was something African Americans could relate to. As such, Swahili is also the language used for the naming of different principles, symbols, and greetings used throughout the celebration of Kwanzaa.

What are the principles celebrated during Kwanzaa? How is Kwanzaa celebrated? There are seven in total, with each principle corresponding to one of the seven days of the Kwanzaa celebration. The values in order are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

Collectively, the seven principles are known as the “Nguzo Saba.” The Nguzo Saba are also represented by the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) and Kinara (special candleholder). Each of the candles represents a principle and the a candle is lit on the day that the corresponding principle is celebrated and discussed. There are three red candles, one black candle, and three green candles; the colors represent the colors of the Pan-African flag. Each day of Kwanzaa, a person asks “Habari gani (What’s the news)?” The name of the principle being celebrated that day is given as the answer and the principle is discussed. Afterwards, everyone drinks from the Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup) and the candles are blown out only to be lit again the next day.

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About the author

Hilary is a staff writer for The Lighthouse| Black Girl Projects. Her articles focus primarily on literature that illuminates the experiences of people, particularly young girls and women, of the African diaspora. She currently resides in Jackson, Mississippi, and enjoys good books, hot tea, and soulful 70s R&B music.

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