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Not to be confused with the Kwanza River in Angola, or the Angolan currency, "Kwanza".
A woman lights kinara candles on a table decorated with the symbols of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa (Kwaanza) is a week-long secular holiday honoring African-American heritage, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year, almost exclusively by African-Americans in the United States of America, though Africans of the diaspora in many countries have begun to practice its observances as well.

Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift-giving. It was founded by black nationalist Dr. Ron "Maulana" Karenga, and first celebrated from December 26, 1966, to January 1 1967. Karenga calls Kwanzaa the African American branch of "first fruits" celebrations of classical African cultures.


History and etymology

Dr. Ron Karenga

Kerenga, a political activist, created Kwanzaa in California in 1966, during his leadership of the black nationalist United Slaves Organization (also known as the "US Organization"). The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza", meaning "first fruits". The choice of Swahili reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960's, though most African-Americans have West African ancestry.

For two reasons an additional "a" was added to "Kwanza" so that the word would have seven letters. At the time there were seven children in Karenga's United Slaves Organization, each wanted to represent one of the letters in Kwanzaa[1]The name was also meant to have a letter for each of the Seven Principles of Blackness. Kwanzaa is also sometimes spelled "kwaanza", which also has seven letters.

It is a celebration that has its roots in the civil rights era of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study around principles that had their basis not only in African traditions, but in common humanist principles.

According to Karenga's 1977 Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice, the holiday was developed "to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." Later, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his public view of its justification so as not to alienate practicing Christians, then claiming in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." [2]

Principles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa celebrates "The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa", or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba). These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Kwanzaa is an adjunct of Kawaida. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles. In order, they are:


Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth, especially the wearing of the Uwole 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.

A model Kwanzaa ceremony is described at [3]. According to this site, the ceremony includes 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. The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is "Habari Gani"[4], Swahili words for "What's the News?"

At first, observers of Kwanzaa eschewed the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values and practice with other holidays. They felt that 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, many African-American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African-American roots, share space in kwanzaa celebrating households. To them, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.


It is unclear how many people celebrate the holiday. In a 2003 interview with NPR Talk Host Tavis Smiley, Karenga said that some "28 million people throughout the world African community" practice Kwanzaa festivities. According to a survey by the National Retail Foundation, Kwanzaa is celebrated by 1.6% of all Americans[5].

In President George W. Bush's 2004 Presidential Message: Kwanzaa 2004, and in previous years, he has said that during Kwanzaa, "millions of African Americans and people of African descent gather to celebrate their heritage and ancestry." However in the 2005 address, no mention was made as to the number of observers of this tradition.

Evolution in Kwanzaa's observance

In 1977, in Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice, Karenga stated, that Kwanzaa "was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."[6] In 1997, Karenga changed his position, stating that while Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday, it can be celebrated by people of any race: "other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans."[7]

Currently, according to the Official Kwanzaa Website authored by Karenga and maintained by Organization US, which Karenga chairs, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one."[8]

Karenga's most recent interpretation emphasizes that while every people have their various holiday traditions, all people can share in the celebration of our common humanity: "Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world."[9]


Some segments of American society have been critical of Kwanzaa on a number of fronts, challenging its authenticity and relevance, and arguing that it is tainted by the felonious past of its founder. The origins of Kwanzaa are not secret, and are openly acknowledged by those promoting the holiday.[10]

Some claim that Kwanzaa is controversial because it is not a traditional holiday of African people, and because of its recent provenance, having been invented in 1966. In the book Kwanzaa (2005), author Sara McGill states, "there are many people of African descent who do not know the purpose of Kwanzaa or how to celebrate it. Others refuse to celebrate Kwanzaa because it is not a true African tradition." (Jackson, p. 2). Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson wrote, "the whole holiday is made up! You won’t find its roots in Africa or anywhere else."[11].

William Bennetta believes that Kwanzaa is as ill-designed as a holiday representing African-Americans, noting that the Swahili language used in Kwanzaa is spoken in eastern Africa, while most African-Americans are descended from the people of West Africa, over 2700 miles away.[12]

Some are angered by Kwanzaa because they believe that Christians who choose to celebrate Kwanzaa are diluting their love for Christ[13] In contrast, the African American Cultural Center points out that Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one, and that one need not exclude one to celebrate the other.[14].

William Norman Grigg noted the seven-branch candle holder, the "Kinara," was not used in African traditions, and suggested a symbol of Judaism was adapted to match the seven principles of Kwanzaa.[15]


  1. ^ Believers web
  2. ^ The story of Kwanzaa
  3. ^ A Model Kwanzaa Ceremony
  4. ^ Kwanzaa Greeting
  5. ^ "2004 Holiday Spending by Region", 'Survey by BIGresearch, conducted for National Retail Foundation', 14 October 2004.
  6. ^ Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice, p. 21, cited at Template:Web reference
  7. ^ Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, p. 110, cited at Template:Web reference
  8. ^ Template:Web reference
  9. ^ Template:Web reference
  10. ^ Template:Web reference
  11. ^  Template:Web reference
  12. ^ Template:Web reference
  13. ^  Peterson, op. cit.
  14. ^  Official Kwanza Website FAQ, op.cit.
  15. ^  Template:Web reference
  16. ^  Template:Web reference


  • A program to raise the faith level in African-American children through Scripture, Kwanzaa principles and culture, Janette Elizabeth Chandler Kotey, DMin, ORAL ROBERTS UNIVERSITY,1999
  • The US Organization: African-American cultural nationalism in the era of Black Power, 1965 to the 1970s, Scot D. Brown, PhD, CORNELL UNIVERSITY, 1999
  • Rituals of race, ceremonies of culture: Kwanzaa and the making of a Black Power holiday in the United States,1966--2000, Keith Alexander Mayes, PhD, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, 2002
  • Interview: Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga discusses the evolution of the holiday and its meaning in 2004 By: TONY COX. Tavis Smiley (NPR), 12/26/2003
  • Tolerance in the News: Kwanzaa: A threat to Christmas? By Camille Jackson | Staff Writer,, 12/22/2005
  • Should African-Americans Celebrate Kwanzaa? By: Mike Gallagher; Alan Colmes. Hannity & Colmes (FOX News), 12/22/2004
  • Is Kwanzaa a Racist Holiday? By: Sean Hannity; Alan Colmes. Hannity & Colmes (FOX News), 12/06/2005

External links

eo:Kvanzao es:Kwanzaa nl:Kwanzaa nn:Kwanzaa pt:Kwanzaa

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