Seven candles in a kinara symbolize the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Observed byAfrican Americans, parts of African diaspora
TypeCultural and ethnic
SignificanceCelebrates African heritage, unity, and culture
  • Unity
  • Creativity
  • Faith
  • Giving gifts
DateDecember 26 to January 1
Related toPan-Africanism

Kwanzaa (/ˈkwɑːn.zə/) is an annual celebration of African-American culture from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually on the sixth day.[1] It was created by activist Maulana Karenga, based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of West, East, as well as Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966. 21st century estimates of how many Americans celebrate Kwanzaa are varied, from as few as a half a million to as many as 12 million.[2]

In a 2019 poll by the National Retail Federation, 2.6 percent of people who planned to celebrate a winter holiday said they would celebrate Kwanzaa.[3]

History and etymology

American black separatist[4] Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the aftermath of the Watts riots[5] as a non-Christian,[6] specifically African-American, holiday.[7] Karenga said his goal was to "give black people an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."[8] For Karenga, a figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the creation of such holidays also underscored the essential premise that "you must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction."[9]

According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits".[10] First fruits festivals exist in Southern Africa and are celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice. Karenga was partly inspired by an account he read of the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama.[11] It was decided to spell the holiday's name with an additional "a" so that it would have a symbolic seven letters.[12]

During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas. He believed Jesus was psychotic and Christianity was a "White" religion that Black people should shun.[13] As Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so practicing Christians would not be alienated, stating in the 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture that "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."[14] Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.[15]

After its creation in California, Kwanzaa spread outside the United States.[16] In December 2022, Reverend Al Sharpton, Mayor Eric Adams, businessman Robert F. Smith, Reverend Conrad Tillard, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Elisha Wiesel joined to celebrate Kwanzaa and Hanukkah together at Carnegie Hall.[17][18][19][20]

Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles)

A display of Kwanzaa symbols with fruit and vegetables

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage). They were developed in 1965, a year before Kwanzaa itself. These seven principles are all Swahili words, and together comprise the Kawaida or "common" philosophy, a synthesis of nationalist, pan-Africanist, and socialist values.

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the principles, as follows:[21]

  1. Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
  3. Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  5. Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  6. 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.
  7. Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.


2019 public kinara in New York City

Kwanzaa celebratory symbols include a mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed:

Supplemental representations include a Nguzo Saba poster,[24] the black, red, and green bendera (flag), and African books and artworks—all to represent values and concepts reflective of African culture and contribution to community building and reinforcement.[25]


A woman lighting candles for Kwanzaa.The Black candle in the middle represents unity, the three green candles on the right represent earth and the three red candles on the left represent the struggle of African Americans, or the shedding of blood.[26]

Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa.[27] "Joyous Kwanzaa" may be used as a greeting during the holiday.[28][29][30]

A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast of faith (Karamu Ya Imani).[31][32] The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani?,[33] which is Swahili for "How are you?"[34]

At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, some African American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year.[35]

Cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.[36][37][38]


A Karamu Ya Imani (Feast of Faith) is a feast that typically takes place on December 31, the sixth day of the Kwanzaa period. The Karamu feast was developed in Chicago during a 1971 citywide movement of Pan-African organizations. It was proposed by Hannibal Afrik of Shule ya Watoto as a communitywide promotional and educational campaign. The initial Karamu Ya Imani occurred on January 1, 1973, at a 200-person gathering at the Ridgeland club.[39]

In 1992, the National Black United Front of Chicago held one of the largest Karamu Ya Imani celebrations in the country. It included dancing, a youth ensemble and a keynote speech by NBUF and prominent black nationalist leader Conrad Worrill.[40]

The celebration includes the following practices:


The popularity of celebration of Kwanzaa has declined with the waning of the popularity of the black separatist movement.[41][42][43][44] Kwanzaa observation has declined in both community and commercial contexts.[45][46][47] University of Minnesota Professor Keith Mayes did not report exact figures, noting that it is also difficult to determine these for the three other main African-American holidays, which he names as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Malcolm X Day, and Juneteenth.[48] Mayes added that white institutions now also celebrate it.[27]

A 2003 Kwanzaa celebration with Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga at the center, and others

In a 2019 National Retail Federation poll, 2.6 percent of people who planned to celebrate a winter holiday said they would celebrate Kwanzaa.[3]

Starting in the 1990s, the holiday became increasingly commercialized, with the first Hallmark card being sold in 1992.[49] Some have expressed concern about this potentially damaging the holiday's values.[50]


The first Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Synthia Saint James, was issued by the United States Post Office in 1997, and in the same year Bill Clinton gave the first presidential declaration marking the holiday.[51][52] Subsequent presidents George W. Bush,[53] Barack Obama,[54] Donald Trump,[55] and Joe Biden[56] also issued greetings to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Maya Angelou narrated a 2008 documentary film about Kwanzaa, The Black Candle, written and directed by M. K. Asante and featuring Chuck D.[57][58]

Practice outside the United States

Other countries that celebrate Kwanzaa include Jamaica, France, Canada, and Brazil.[59]

In Canada it is celebrated in provinces including Saskatchewan[60] and Ontario. Kwanzaa week was first declared in Toronto in 2018.[61] There are local chapters that emerged in the 2010s in provinces like British Columbia, where there are much smaller groups of the diaspora, founding members may be immigrants from countries like Uganda.[62]

See also


  1. ^ "Why Kwanzaa Video". Maulana Karenga. Archived from the original on December 11, 2021. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  2. ^ Amy McKeever (December 22, 2020). "Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage. Here's how it came to be—and what it means today". National Geographic. Archived from the original on April 17, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2023.
  3. ^ a b "From Umoja to Imani, Kwanzaa has 'won the hearts and minds of African people around the world". USA Today.
  4. ^ Wilde, Anna Day (December 31, 2020). "7 Mainstreaming Kwanzaa". We Are What We Celebrate: 120–130. doi:10.18574/nyu/9780814722916.003.0009. ISBN 9780814722916.
  5. ^ Wilde, Anna Day. "Mainstreaming Kwanzaa." Public Interest 119 (1995): 68–80.
  6. ^ Blumenfeld, Warren J.; Joshi, Khyati Y.; Fairchild, Ellen E. (January 1, 2009), "Christian Teachers and Christian Privilege", Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States, Brill, pp. 133–149, doi:10.1163/9789087906788_009, ISBN 978-90-8790-678-8, retrieved December 7, 2023
  7. ^ Alexander, Ron (December 30, 1983). "The Evening Hours". The New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2006.
  8. ^ Kwanzaa celebrates culture, principles Archived July 8, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Mayes, Keith A. (2009). Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition. Taylor & Francis. pp. 63–65. ISBN 978-0415998550. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
  10. ^ Holly Hartman. "Kwanzaa – Honoring the values of ancient African cultures". Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  11. ^ Mayes, Keith A. (2009). Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition. Routledge. p. 84. ISBN 9781135284008.
  12. ^ Mayes, Keith A. (2009). Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition. Routledge. p. 228. ISBN 9781135284015.
  13. ^ Karenga, Maulana (1967). "Religion". In Clyde Halisi, James Mtume. The Quotable Karenga. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. pp. 25. 23769.8.
  14. ^ Karenga, Maulana (1997). Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. University of Sankore Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0943412214.
  15. ^ Williams, Lena (December 20, 1990). "In Blacks' Homes, the Christmas and Kwanzaa Spirits Meet". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  16. ^ "Kwanzaa – African-American Holiday". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Retrieved January 6, 2020. Although Kwanzaa is primarily an African American holiday, it has also come to be celebrated outside the United States, particularly in the Caribbean and other countries where there are large numbers of descendants of Africans.
  17. ^ "Mayor Eric Adams, Rev. Al Sharpton, others gather for joint Kwanzaa, Hanukkah celebration". New York Amsterdam News. December 21, 2022.
  18. ^ Stewart Ain and TaRessa Stovall (December 23, 2022). "Kwanzakkah: A way to celebrate dual heritage, and combat hate". The Forward.
  19. ^ "Mayor Eric Adams, Rev. Al Sharpton, Robert F. Smith, Robert F. Smith, Rev. Conrad Tillard, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Elisha Wiesel join together to host '15 Days of Light,' celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa". JNS.
  20. ^ "Black and Jewish Leaders Gather at Carnegie Hall to Take a Stand Against Antisemitism and Racism". Yahoo. December 20, 2022. Archived from the original on December 25, 2022. Retrieved December 27, 2022.
  21. ^ Karenga, Maulana (2008). "Nguzo Saba". The Official Kwanzaa Web Site. Archived from the original on December 31, 2019. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  22. ^ "Definition of KINARA". Retrieved December 20, 2019.
  23. ^ Raabe, Emily (2001). A Kwanzaa Holiday Cookbook. Rosen Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 978-0823956296.
  24. ^ Angaza, Maitefa (2007). Kwanzaa – From Holiday to Every Day: A complete guide for making Kwanzaa a part of your life. New York: Dafina Books. p. 56. ISBN 978-0758216656.
  25. ^ "The Symbols of Kwanzaa". The Official Kwanzaa Website. Archived from the original on December 4, 2016. Retrieved January 9, 2016.
  26. ^ "The Principles and Meaning of Kwanzaa". Oprah Daily. December 7, 2020. Retrieved November 16, 2023.
  27. ^ a b Scott, Megan K. (December 17, 2009). "Kwanzaa celebrations continue, but boom is over, popularity fading". The Plain Dealer. Associated Press. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
  28. ^ Bush, George W. (December 23, 2004). "Presidential Kwanzaa Message, 2004". Office of the Press Secretary. Retrieved December 24, 2007.
  29. ^ "Clinton offers holiday messages". CNN. December 23, 1997. Retrieved December 24, 2007.
  30. ^ Gale, Elaine (December 26, 1998). "Appeal of Kwanzaa continues to grow; holidays: today marks start of the seven-day celebration of African culture, which began in Watts 32 years ago and is now observed by millions". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on June 5, 2013. Retrieved December 24, 2007.
  31. ^ Johnson, James W.; Johnson, F. Francis; Slaughter, Ronald L. (1995). The Nguzo Saba and the Festival of Fruits. Gumbs & Thomas Publishers. p. 42. ISBN 9780936073200.
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  33. ^ "The Founder's Message 2000". The Official Kwanzaa Web Site. Archived from the original on December 4, 2016. Retrieved December 27, 2016.
  34. ^ "Useful Swahili phrases". Retrieved December 27, 2016.
  35. ^ "Kwanzaa (until Jan 1) in the United States". Retrieved December 27, 2016.
  36. ^ "The Spirit of Kwanzaa – The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts". Retrieved December 27, 2016.
  37. ^ "Dance Institute of Washington". February 21, 2001. Archived from the original on February 21, 2001. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  38. ^ "Kwanzaa Featured on This Year's Holiday U.S. Postage Stamp". October 19, 2004. Archived from the original on October 19, 2004. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  39. ^ Mayes, Keith (2006). Peniel Joseph (ed.). The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 244–245. ISBN 978-0-415-94596-7.
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  41. ^ Stanley, Sharon (2017). An impossible dream? : racial integration in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0190639976.
  42. ^ Hall, Raymond (1977). Black separatism and social reality : rhetoric and reason. New York: Pergamon Press. ISBN 9780080195100.
  43. ^ Dattel, Gene (2019). "Separatism vs. Integration: Can Separate Ever Be Equal?". Academic Questions. 32 (4): 476–486. doi:10.1007/s12129-019-09822-4 (inactive January 31, 2024). S2CID 214460772.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2024 (link)
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  45. ^ Fantozzi, Madison. "Polk events celebrate values of African culture". The Ledger.
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  48. ^ Mayes, Keith (2009). Kwanzaa : black power and the making of the African-American holiday tradition. New York: Routledge. pp. 210, 274. ISBN 9780415998550.
  49. ^ Martin, Douglas (December 20, 1993). "The Marketing of Kwanzaa; Black American Holiday Earns Dollars, Causing Concern". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
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  51. ^ "William J. Clinton: Message on the Observance of Kwanzaa, 1997". Archived from the original on December 31, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  52. ^ Pleck, Elizabeth (2001). "Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966–1990" (PDF). Journal of American Ethnic History. 20 (4): 3–28. doi:10.2307/27502744. JSTOR 27502744. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 15, 2017.
  53. ^ "Presidential Kwanzaa Message, 2004" (Press release). The White House. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  54. ^ "Statement by the President and the First Lady on Kwanzaa" (Press release). The White House. December 26, 2015. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  55. ^ "Presidential Message on Kwanzaa" (Press release). The White House. December 26, 2019. Retrieved December 29, 2019.
  56. ^ Biden, Joe [@POTUS] (December 26, 2021). "As we begin the seven days of Kwanzaa, Jill and I send our best wishes to everyone celebrating" (Tweet). Retrieved December 24, 2022 – via Twitter.
  57. ^ "Kwanzaa Celebration Captured In 'Black Candle'". National Public Radio. December 15, 2008.
  58. ^ "Chuck D and Maya Angelou in Kwanzaa Documentary". Essence. December 18, 2009.
  59. ^ Lord, Mark (December 22, 2016). "Celebrating the life-affirming tenets of Kwanzaa". Queens Chronicle. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  60. ^ "Sask. African Canadian Heritage Museum celebrates Kwanzaa in Regina – CBC News". CBC. December 28, 2019. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  61. ^ "Proclamations declaring Kwanzaa week in Toronto and Brampton a first for Canada". WBFO. December 27, 2018. Retrieved December 1, 2022.
  62. ^ "Kwanzaa, the 7 most important days of the year, approaching for many African-Canadians". Saanich News. December 14, 2021. Retrieved December 30, 2023.

Further reading