close up photo of wooden candle holder
Interesting Knowledge,  Social Commentary,  Things You Should Know

An Explanation of Kwanzaa

Readers-mine, I have been doing some research into Kwanzaa. I know that it may seem like an odd thing for a middle class white woman to want to learn about, but here’s the thing: I think that the more we know about the cultures around us, the more informed we are and the better we are as a society. Kwanzaa is something that has always been a part of friends’ families, but, as someone who grew up in the Greek American community, it wasn’t part of mine. So, growing up, I knew exactly four things about it:

  1. It started in America and was, therefore, a specifically African American holiday.
  2. It started right after Christmas.
  3. The candle holder looked kind of like the menorah my Jewish friends had, but there were only seven candles
  4. I loved the color combination but had no idea what each one stood for. Being a child, I felt bad being ignorant about a holiday that was so important to others that I didn’t really ask questions and the internet was not widely available at the time.

As I grew from childhood to adulthood, I learned a little bit more here and there, but never really felt like I got the full picture. As a result, while I’ve been stuck in bed recovering from my surgery, I decided to watch The Black Candle–a documentary about Kwanzaa that is narrated by Maya Angelou–on Amazon Prime and do some research. I started brainstorming the concept of doing an entry here and then, as chance would have it, my friend Martine posted a video to Facebook where she explained the sixth day . I asked her if she had videos for each day and, low and behold, she had helped put together just what I was looking for. Universal kismet for the win!

A Quick Overview

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration (26 December – 1 January) that celebrates having African roots and African-American culture. In the U.S., African Americans are often different in their personal histories in that slavery took away their knowledge of exactly who their ancestors are and so, the thing that binds them together through that painful history is knowing that they are of African descent. That said, if their families came to the U.S. post-slavery, they may know exactly where their families are from. However, they will still face many of the same issues that our Black community has to deal with on a daily basis. In 1966, during the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, and after the Watts Riots, Dr. Maulana Karenga–professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach–created Kwanzaa in order to bring African Americans together in celebration of who they are as a community.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili.[1] The extra “a” was added, Karenga has said, simply to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration in 1966, each of whom wanted to represent a letter.[2] The videos that I have below will help you understand the meaning of each day, so I won’t go into that here. What you should know is that every family celebrates differently, but that there is often poetry, song, dance, drums, and food. Each night, one ideal is discussed and the evening focuses on that ideal.

In my search, I discovered a bit about the colors. The colors of Kwanzaa are a reflection of the Pan-African Movement. Please click here, here, here, here, here, or here for more information on that movement. If you don’t know much about it, I really do suggest you check out those resources as it is a truly interesting part of modern history and current life. The idea of these colors comes from that movement and represents “unity” for peoples of African descent worldwide: Black for the people, red for the noble blood that unites all people of African ancestry, and green for the rich land of Africa. 

Just like the seven letters in the name, there are seven principles and seven symbols. The principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The symbols are as follows:

  1. Mazao: crops (like fruits, nuts, and vegetables) to symbolize work and harvest
  2. Mkeka: a straw or cloth placemat to represent history, culture, and tradition
  3. Muhindi: an ear of corn to represent fertility and family
  4. Mishumaa saba: the seven candles to represent the sun and light. Three of the candles are red, representing struggle, three are green to represent both land and hope for the future, and the center one is black to represent people of African descent.
  5. Kinara: the candle holder to represent ancestry
  6. Kikombe cha Umoja: a cup to represent unity
  7. Zawadi: gifts (usually homemade or culturally themed) to reward accomplishments and commitments.

The videos go over each of the seven principles. Please watch them and then read some additional resources here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here to gain more knowledge.


Day 1: Umoja (Unity)

Day 2: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Day 3: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Day 5: Nia (Purpose)

Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity)

Day 7: Imani (Faith)

I hope this has served as a basic introduction to Kwanzaa. If you are interested in more detail than my resources provide, talk to your African American friends and check out your local library.

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