What is Kwanzaa?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday that celebrates the origins of the African American. It strives to commemorate those things that help the African American community remain strong. It was born out of the civil rights movement and its inventor, Ron Karenga, at first wanted to give African Americans an opportunity to celebrate a holiday not invented by the dominant culture.

Candles are lit during the seven days of Kwanzaa.
Candles are lit during the seven days of Kwanzaa.

Since its inception in 1966, Karenga’s position has shifted greatly. He now believes that Kwanzaa is an appropriate celebration to many, just as any race in America might celebrate Chinese New Year. Karenga also shifted his position to allow more people of diverse religions to celebrate this holiday without diverging from their religious beliefs.

African clothing and fabric are used to decorate during Kwanzaa.
African clothing and fabric are used to decorate during Kwanzaa.

The Kwanzaa celebration lasts for seven days and is not meant to mimic an African holiday. The word “Kwanza” loosely translates in Swahili to “first fruits.” However, it has never meant to be imitative of a specific pan-African holiday. It is specifically the celebration of African Americans; though many in other parts of the world now also celebrate the holiday.

Kwanzaa celebrates the origins of African Americans.
Kwanzaa celebrates the origins of African Americans.

The seven days of Kwanzaa match the seven principles celebrated during the days. These are ideas that triumph the idea of community of individualism. Each day is dedicated to a specific idea. They are in order:

  • Unity of family, community, race and nation.
  • Self Determination which allows one to define one’s self, and to define one’s community. Self Determination also involves the celebration of creations of the past and present African American.
  • Collective Work and Responsibility refers to all African Americans’ steps toward building a sustainable community together, and turning inward to solve problems.
  • Cooperative Economics relates to African American business leaders showing solidarity in business practices so that all profit from individual accomplishment in business.
  • Purpose is defined as the cooperative effort of all in the community to strengthen and restore the African American community.
  • Creativity means to do as much as one can to beautify and make memorable the African American’s community.
  • Faith refers to faith in one’s people, teachers, community, religious leaders and ultimate success ahead for African Americans.

These principals are each given a day of observation, but all stress unity of the African American people, and the importance of community. Kwanzaa celebrations may have a specific “African” flair. The home may be decorated in colorful African cloth, and people may dress in tradition clothing. It may also be part of the celebration of Christmas and New Year's day.

In these cases, Christians who celebrate Kwanzaa may have the Christmas tree, and the kinara, the special menorah, which holds the seven candles representative of the Kwanzaa principles. On each night of the holiday more candles are lit. On the seventh night all candles blaze forth to symbolize the whole of Kwanzaa.

The Kwanzaa holiday lasts for seven days, with each day devoted to a topic such as family unity.
The Kwanzaa holiday lasts for seven days, with each day devoted to a topic such as family unity.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


So, 50 years ago a guy makes up a holiday, it never catches on but to not acknowledge it makes you racist. We live in strange times. Merry Festivus. - The rest of us.


I don't understand why we have stressed integration and equality for so many years and still have a holiday that is completely devoted to one race of people.


Anon56048-Really that is interesting. I know that the Kwanzaa holiday is not that widespread in the United States but many schools still observe it.

In my children’s private school there is always a Kwanzaa song included in the Holiday program. I think the idea of Kwanzaa traditions really are a blend of Christmas and Hanukkah.

The Kwanzaa candle holder is used for the same purpose as a menorah and while the celebration of the African American culture should be lauded, I think that the Kwanzaa holiday would be better received if it did not take place during the Christmas and Hanukkah seasons because it does not get any attention because these holidays dominate during the month of December.

You do not have to be Christian to get into the Christmas spirit for example. Having the Christmas spirit really means that you are kind to others and are generous with the poor and those in need. These ideals should be applied year round and not in a single holiday.

The same could be said for Kwanzaa. The celebration of African American heritage should live on the entire year not just on a single day.


In spite of the fact that Kwanzaa purports to be a "Pan-African" holiday, after almost two years in South Africa I have yet to encounter anyone familiar with it.

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