Kwanzaa always starts the day after Christmas, meaning that December 26 is the first day of the holiday. It runs a week, ending on January 1. The holiday is not about religion, but rather the shared cultural heritage of African Americans and Africans around the world.
The holiday was created by Maulana Karenga during the 1960s, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. The first Kwanzaa began in 1966, ending on January 1, 1967, so this year marks the 50th anniversary of the holiday. Karenga saw it as the first pan-African holiday.
Here’s a look at the celebration of Kwanzaa and its history.
1. The Name ‘Kwanzaa’ Comes From a Swahili Phrase that Means ‘First Fruits’
According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, the name of the holiday comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza.” In Swahili, it means “first fruits.” A Swahili phrase was chosen because it is the most widely spoken African language.
Celebrations of the first fruits can be traced to ancient Egypt and Nubia. Other African civilizations like Ashantiland and Yorubaland also held similar celebrations. Maulana Karenga wanted Kwanzaa to be about the “five fundamental activities” of African first fruit celebrations. These five fundamentals are “ingathering; reverence; commemoration; recommitment; and celebration.”
As the official Kwanzaa site notes, the holiday is:
- a time of ingathering of the people to reaffirm the bonds between them
- a time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation
- a time for commemoration of the past in pursuit of its lessons and in honor of its models of human excellence, our ancestors
- a time of recommitment to our highest cultural ideals in our ongoing effort to always bring forth the best of African cultural thought and practice
- a time for celebration of the Good, the good of life and of existence itself, the good of family, community and culture, the good of the awesome and the ordinary, in a word the good of the divine, natural and social.
2. Each Day of Kwanzaa Celebrates a Different Principle
Kwanzaa has seven days, which correspond to the “Nguzo Saba” or “Seven Principles” of African heritage. The seven, as Karenga outlined in Karenga’s book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, are:
- Umoja (Unity) – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together
- Ujimaa (Cooperative Economics) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together
- Nia (Purpose) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness
- Kuumba (Creativity) – To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it
- Imani (Faith) – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle
“Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be both African and human in its stress on four pillars of African ethics: the dignity and rights of the human person, the well-being and flourishing of family and community, the integrity and value of the environment, and the reciprocal solidarity and cooperation for mutual benefit of humanity,” Karenga said in a 2000 interview with Belifnet.
3. Karenga Said the Date of Kwanzaa Was Chosen for ‘Cultural Authenticity’ & Had Nothing to Do With Christmas or Hanukkah
In a 2000 interview with Beliefnet, Karenga said that he didn’t pick the day after Christmas because he wanted to compete with the holiday. He stressed that Kwanzaa is not a religious one, so it doesn’t replace Christmas or Hanukkah. The timing has to do with “cultural authenticity” and said that the basis for the holiday pre-dates both popular religious holidays.
“A central model for Kwanzaa is umkhosi or the Zulu first-fruit celebration which is seven days and is celebrated about this time,” Karenga explained. “Other first-fruit celebrations were celebrated at the end of the old year and the beginning of the New Year such as Pert-em-Min of ancient Egypt.”
Later in the interview, Karenga was asked if he thought Kwanzaa would ever become a religious holiday. He stayed steadfast, saying that this must not happen.
“Kwanzaa must and will remain essentially a cultural holiday which celebrates family, community and culture, stresses the producing, harvesting and sharing good in the world and invites us to meditate seriously on the wonder, good and awesome responsibility of being African in the world,” Karenga said.
4. Karenga Developed the Idea for Kwanzaa in the Wake of the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles
The history of Kwanzaa begins in 1965, with the Watts Riots in Los Angeles August 1965. The riots lasted six days and was in response to the arrest of an African American man, Marquette Frye, by a white California Highway Patrol officer. Thirty-four people died during the riots, and over 1,000 were injured. Over $40 million worth of property was destroyed.
Out of this event emerged a community group called “US,” reports Time Magazine. The group was formed by Hakim Jamal, Malcolm X’s cousin, and Karenga. (Karenga was a UCLA Africana Studies doctoral student at the time and was born Ron Everett.) As the group continued to gain influence, Karenga developed the idea of Kwanzaa.
“[Karenga] saw that black people here had no holidays of their own and felt that holidays give a people a sense of identity and direction,” Imamu Clyde Halisi, national chairman of US, told Time Magazine in 1972.
In 1971, Karenga was convicted on count of felony assault and false imprisonment for torturing two women he believed were conspiring against him. He was sentenced to one to 10 years in prison, but was released on parole in 1975. While US was dismantled in 1974, Kwanzaa continued on, with supporters saying that the holiday was more important than the founder.
Molefi Kate Asante wrote in the book Maulana Karenga: An Intellectual Portrait that Karenga denied the claims and considered himself a “political prisoner.”
5. The Popularity of Kwanzaa Is On the Wane, With an Estimated 2 Million People Celebrating it in 2009
The popularity of Kwanza has slowed in recent years. In 2012, NPR even aired a story asking “Is Kwanzaa Still a Thing?”
“Look, if there’s any opportunity for black folks in this country to be able to come together and look backward at what we’ve just achieved in the past year, and have the opportunity to plan for our future, I think there’s always value in that,” Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal told NPR in 2012. “And I’m sure there would be younger generations of black folks who will see some significance in Kwanzaa, even if it’s not practiced with the same intent that it might’ve been created in 1966.”
In 2009, Keith Mayes, who wrote Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, told the Associated Press that he estimates just a half-million to 2 million African Americans in the U.S. celebrate it. The African American Cultural Center estimated in 2009 that just 30 million people worldwide celebrate the holiday.
In 2012, TimeOut reported that a 2012 survey by the National Retail Federation found that just 2.3 percent of Americans said they will celebrate the holiday. Thirteen percent of the U.S. population is African-American though.
“All holidays change over time,” UCLA professor Scot Brown told TimeOut in 2012. “If you ask somebody about celebrating Christmas, that has gone through a tremendous amount of change over time. I don’t think that Kwanzaa’s best years are behind it. Don’t throw out that dashiki just yet.”