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What is Kwanzaa? Is it an alternative to Christmas? An ancient African harvest celebration?

Although Kwanzaa is a young holiday tradition, it has become a very meaningful celebration of African-American heritage and culture. Learn more about the history of Kwanzaa and how to celebrate this holiday with family and friends.

History of Kwanzaa

Created by activist Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, when the civil rights movement was in full swing, Kwanzaa has its origins in the first harvest celebrations of ancient Africa. The name of the celebration period comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits.” In the midst of the Black Freedom Movement, Kwanzaa was established to strengthen the African-American community and reaffirm a sense of pride and rootedness in African culture. The modern celebration of Kwanzaa lasts seven days, from December 26 to January 1, and each of the seven days is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Family values

Kwanzaa revolves around the Nguzu Saba, which means Seven Principles in Swahili. Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are the building blocks of every society. The purpose of Kwanzaa is to instill these values in all of humanity and to build a community spirit.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa

During Kwanzaa, families get together, share the feast of Karamu, exchange gifts and participate in a variety of sacred traditions. In the center of the home, each family will arrange a Kwanzaa centerpiece that is not only beautiful, but uses various symbols that convey the principles of Kwanzaa. The table is spread with a colorful African cloth upon which is placed the woven straw Mkeka mat, the Kinara candle holder, ears of corn (traditionally one for each child in the household), a bowl of fruit, the unity cup, and other symbols of African heritage. Lighting the Kinara holds special significance, as each candle represents one of the core values of Kwanzaa. Other activities include singing, dancing, meditation, and making homemade gifts. Many cities now sponsor family-friendly Kwanzaa festivals, which are a great way to celebrate with the entire family.

The meaning of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural celebration. It is not meant to replace Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other traditional religious holy day. Kwanzaa celebrates the need to root oneself in positive values, to revere one’s own heritage and culture, and to remember what it means to be African and human.

Can people of other cultures celebrate Kwanzaa?

Although Kwanzaa is a holiday specially created to uplift people of African heritage, it also contains a broader message of unity of mankind. Just as people of other cultures enjoy celebrating Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, Day of the Dead, and the Native American Pow Wow, anyone is welcome to take part in the beauty of Kwanzaa.

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Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga says, “The principles of Kwanzaa and the message of Kwanzaa have a universal message for all people of good will. It is rooted in African culture, and we speak as Africans must speak, not just to ourselves, but to the world. This continues our tradition of speaking our own special cultural truth and making our own unique contribution to the forward flow of humanity.”

Learn more about Kwanzaa

Best children’s books about Kwanzaa
History of Kwanzaa food
Holiday celebrations beyond the holly

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