Happy Kwanzaa! The seven-day celebration honors African culture and heritage. The holiday is observed from December 26 through January 1.
It is not a religious observation, but a cultural one. Many people who celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate Christmas.
According to LiveScience, the name is derived from the Swahili term “matunda ya kwanza.” It means “first fruits” in English.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Celebration of Kwanzaa Was Created in 1966 by Civil Rights Activist Maulana Karenga
Kwanzaa is a relatively young holiday. It has been observed for only a few decades in the United States.
Civil rights activist and California State University professor Maulana Karenga is credited with founding the holiday. He was born in Parsonsburg, Maryland in 1941; his birth name was Ronald McKinley Everett. He changed his name while working toward his doctorate at UCLA. According to Biography.com, “Maulana” means “master teacher” and “Karenga” means “keeper of tradition.”
Karenga believed that African-American communities should more fully honor and celebrate their cultural heritage. He created Kwanzaa in 1966 as an outlet for doing so. It is based on traditional harvest festivals celebrated in east Africa.
The word “Kwanzaa” has actually had its spelling altered. According to History.com, Karenga said he added an extra “a” so that the word could have seven letters. At the first Kwanzaa festival, seven children were in attendance and they each wanted a letter to represent them.
2. Kwanzaa is a Non-Religious Holiday & Incorporates Three Colors
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It is a celebration of culture, therefore people of all religions can mark the occasion.
The seven-day festival incorporates three colors, each with its own meaning: red, green and black. The Official Kwanzaa Website explains the colors as such: “Black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle.”
Traditionally, gifts are exchanged on the final day of Kwanzaa. To avoid being swept into the commercialization of other holidays, people are encouraged to create homemade presents. According to Reader’s Digest, Kwanzaa celebrators are also encouraged to purchase gifts from businesses owned by African-Americans.
3. Families Light Seven Candles, Which Represent Seven Core Principles
During Kwanzaa, families light seven candles on a candle-holder called a kinara. There is one black candle, three green, and three red. The black candle is lit every day during the celebration. An additional candle is lit each day to represent each principle.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa are:
• Umoja: Unity
• Kujichagulia: Self-determination
• Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics
• Kuumba: Creativity
• Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility
• Nia: Purpose
• Imani: Faith
4. Kwanzaa Also Has Seven Core Symbols
In keeping with the theme of seven, Kwanzaa has seven symbols used to represent various aspects of the family and the community. The items are traditionally placed around the table.
• Mkeka: A Placemat
• Mazao: Fruits and Vegetables
• Muhindi: Ears of Corn
• Kinara: Candleholder
• Mishumaa saba: Seven Candles
• Kikombe cha umoja: Unity Cup
• Zawadi: Gifts
The mat represents the foundation that a family stands on. The fruits and vegetables signify the harvest. The ears of corn represent children while the candleholder signifies the parents. The unity cup, as explained by the Official Kwanzaa Website, is used to pour a libation to the “ancestors in remembrance and honor of those who paved the path down which we walk and who taught us the good.” According to Interexchange.org, specific gifts are meant to “encourage growth, achievement, and success.”
5. The Number of Americans Who Celebrate Kwanzaa Has a Wide Estimate
Since its inception, a common question has been whether Kwanzaa was designed as an alternative to Christmas. Today, it is not seen as a replacement for Christmas. As explained above, Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration of African roots, not a religious holiday.
It’s unclear exactly how many Americans celebrate Kwanzaa on an annual basis. In 2012, NPR cited a National Retail Federation survey that estimated 2 percent of the U.S. population celebrated Kwanzaa, which would be approximately 6.5 million people.
A separate survey by Public Policy Polling the same year found that 4 percent of Americans mark the festival.