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What Is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday held annually from December 26 to January 1.

Fundamentally, it celebrates family, culture, community, and the harvest. The word “Kwanzaa” itself comes from the Kiswahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits [of the harvest].”

Kwanzaa is the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African-American author, activist, professor, and then chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach in 1966.  Kwanzaa is an annual week-long celebration that is observed from December 26th to January 1st.

Following the Watts Riots that took place in LA Dr Karenga was keen to create an event that would unite African-Americans. He wanted African-Americans to have an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history instead of imitation of participation of the dominant society. He founded US, a cultural organization, and started to research African first fruit (harvest) celebrations. Karenga combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu, to form the basis of Kwanzaa.


It was created with the community and cultural spirit of traditional African harvest festivals in mind, but Kwanzaa itself is uniquely North American, being celebrated mainly in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. 

Kwanzaa focuses on seven essential principles, known as the Nguzo Saba, which are each represented by one day of the seven-day celebration.


These principles are unity(umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative, economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani).


During Kwanzaa, people traditionally decorate their homes with straw mats, ears of corn, and a candleholder called a kinara, which is adorned with red, green, and black candles. Red is said to represent ancestry and unity; black, the people; and green, the fertile land (Africa). A candle is lit for each day of Kwanzaa and celebrants may also exchange gifts. The entire celebration is capped with a feast on December 31, which is usually held at a community center and features traditional music and dancing.

The Kiswahili phrase Habari gani—meaning “what is the news?”—is used as a greeting among family and friends. (The response to this phrase should be whichever of the seven principles is associated with the current day.)

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