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Kwanzaa - A Cultural Celebration

Updated on March 9, 2015
Kwanzaa | Source

Origin of Kwanzaa

Forty six years ago, following the Watts riots, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a Professor at the California State University and a theorist of the Black Movement in the 1960’s, founded Kwanzaa in an effort to bring the African Americans together as a community. Dr. Karenga felt the need to inspire African Americans who were working for progress by celebrating and honoring the values of ancient African cultures.

Kwanzaa has become the only non-religious, non-political, non-heroic nationally celebrated African-American holiday and is strongly rooted in cultural awareness with the main focus to pay tribute to the rich cultural roots of the People of the African Diaspora.

Kwanzaa is a Swahili word meaning “the first fruits of the harvest”. The non-tribal language of Swahili is commonly used by a large portion of the African continent.

What Kwanzaa means to those that celebrate Kwanzaa

  • A time of gathering together of the African American people to reaffirm the bonds between them
  • A time to give thanks and show respect to the creator for the blessings, beauty, bountifulness of the creation
  • A time to commemorate the past so as to learn and honor its models of human excellence-our ancestors.
  • A time to recommit to our highest cultural ideals in an ongoing effort by bringing forth the best of African cultural thought and practice; and
  • A time to celebrate the good of the divine, natural and social.

1. Unity (Umoja) – to build a community that stands together.

2. Self-determination- (Kujicahgulia)- to define, name, create and speak for ourselves.

3. Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) – to build and maintain our community by helping others in the community

4. Co-operative Economics (Ujamaa) – to support businesses that care about the community

5. Purpose (Nia) - setting goals that best serve the community

6. Creativity (Kuumba) – making the community better and more beautiful.

7. Faith (Imani) - to believe that a better world can be created for communities now and in the future

Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

To fully understand and appreciate the message and meaning of Kwanzaa one must know and appreciate its profound concern with values. Values are the core focus and concern of Kwanzaa and the celebration is based on seven principles or values.

There are seven principles (Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa, each of which is believed to have been a key to building strong, productive families and communities in Africa. During Kwanzaa each day honors a different principle and they are celebrated in the following order:-

Preparing the Table for Kwanzaa
Preparing the Table for Kwanzaa | Source

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

1. Unity Cup – Celebrants drink from this cup in honor of their ancestors

2. Candle Holder – Symbolises the creation of family

3. Fruits, nuts and vegetables –In remembrance of harvest fruits that nourished people of Africa

4. Seven Candles – representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa

5. Mat – Symbolising the foundation on which communities are built

6. Ear of corn – one ear of corn to represent each child present

7. Gifts – educational and cultural gifts are given to children on last day of Kwanzaa

Preparing for Kwanzaa

In Dr Karenga’s book “Kwanzaa : A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture”he urges celebrants to observe certain guidelines when celebrating Kwanzaa to keep these celebrations beautiful and in keeping with tradition. Celebrants are requested to approach these celebrations with the utmost respect for its values, symbols and practices and are told not to mix this holiday or its symbols, values and practices with any other culture.

Celebrants are urged to take time to plan the celebration of Kwanzaa and to select the most beautiful objects that represent the African culture in the best of ways. These objects would include African art, cloth, fresh fruit and vegetables.

At the start of the Kwanzaa celebrations a table is covered with African cloth. A mat (mjeka) is placed on top of the tablecloth and all the other symbols are placed on top or next to the mat. This is done to symbolise the rootedness of the African American tradition.

Firstly the candle holder (Kinara) is placed on the mat and then the seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) are placed in the candle holder. There are three green and three red candles and one black candle. Each candle represents one of the principles of Kwanzaa. The black candle represents unity and is placed in the centre. The red candles represent self-determination, co-operative economics and creativity. The green candles represent collective work and responsibility, purpose and faith and are placed to the right of the black candle.

The black candle is lit on the first day and the remaining candles are lit on the following days from left to right. This is to symbolise that first came the people (black), then the struggle (red) and then the hope (green).

Next the crops and ears of corn are placed on the mat, followed by the Unity cup followed by African Art objects and books on the life and culture of the African people

Kwanzaa takes on a new meaning

Perhaps after reading this hub, you too will appreciate and understand the true meaning of the word Kwanzaa and why these celebrations have such deep meaning to those that approach Kwanzaa with the reverence that it deserves.


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    • Laura du Toit profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura du Toit 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for stopping by Paradise. I am always honored to be read by you! Glad I could enlighten you on this unique celebration.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      We could all use a refresher course in the seven principles outlined here.

      I'm glad you posted this. I wondered about this holiday. It seemed made-up, to me. Now I know more about what it means.

    • Laura du Toit profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura du Toit 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you for the comments Simone and RedElf. I really enjoyed writing this hub and learnt a lot.I did not even know of the existence of Kwanzaa so it really was a learning experience for me.

    • RedElf profile image


      9 years ago from Canada

      Laura, thanks for such a beautiful and timely reply. I had read a bit here and there, but I certainly appreciate your comprehensive explanation of the principles of the holiday, as well as its symbols and their meaning. What a wonderful tribute to the human spirit to create something so meaningful as this holiday.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      What a fabulous, succinct explanation of the holiday! I have only heard about separate aspects of it here and there, so I really enjoyed reading about the background, themes, and traditions all in one place. Lovely Hub!


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