10 Things You Might Not Know About Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, a time for people around the world to celebrate African-American history and culture, lasts from December 26 to January 1 each year. If you've never participated in the holiday before, you may be confused about its traditions, symbols, and true meaning. Here's what every American needs to know about the holiday.

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Kwanzaa began in the United States

Since Kwanzaa is a pan-African and African-American holiday, some people incorrectly assume it originated in Africa. In actuality, it has American roots—though people in Africa celebrate it today as well. Maulana Karenga, born Ronald McKinley Everett in Parsonsburg, Maryland, founded the holiday in 1966 during the civil rights movement. Then just 25 years old, Karenga was a Black nationalist and activist intent on liberating African Americans from racial oppression, in part by building pride and unity around their cultural origins. Karenga went on to earn two PhDs and is currently chair of the department of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach.

The holiday is modeled after harvest festivals

Although celebrated in the winter, Kwanzaa is patterned after harvest festivals traditionally celebrated by many African cultures and tribes. The word “Kwanzaa” comes from “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Like other harvest festivals, Kwanzaa includes a feast called Karamu on day six of the holiday. Read about why Black History Month shouldn’t be just a month in America.

The number 7 carries symbolism for Kwanzaa

Seven is an important, even mystical, number in many cultures and traditions. In fact, according to Karenga himself, the additional “A” in “Kwanzaa,” which comes from the Swahili kwanza, was added so that the name would have the symbolic seven letters! Seven was a central number for the Rosicrucians and ancient Egyptians; there are seven deadly sins in Catholicism; there are seven days in a week. Seven also features prominently in Kwanzaa. Not only does the holiday last for seven days—December 26 through January 1—but there are also seven symbols, including seven candles to be lit, and seven principles. The seven basic symbols of Kwanzaa are: mazao (the crops), mkeka (the mat), kinara (the candle holder), muhindi (the corn), mishumaa saba (the seven candles), kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup), and zawadi (the gifts).

The seven principles reinforce values of African culture

Each day of Kwanzaa has a specific principle that participants are meant to talk about, celebrate, and reflect upon: unity (umoja in Swahili), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). “I don’t think there will ever be a time when the principles of Kwanzaa will not be important or timely,” Kellie Carter Jackson, PhD, assistant professor in the department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and co-editor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memorytells Reader’s Digest.“It’s a great time for reflection and now more than ever our country needs to be reminded of unity.”

Lighting candles is a big part of the celebration

The ceremonial lighting of candles is a rite of focus and remembrance in many traditions around the world. Seven candles are lit during the seven days of Kwanzaa, representing the seven key principles of the holiday. They are placed in a candle-holder called a kinara. There are three green candles, three red, and one black. The black candle—representing the people, collectively—is lit each day, then an additional candle that coincides with that day’s specific principle.

The colors of Kwanzaa have specific meanings

The green candles and green parts of the Kwanzaa flag stand for hope and the future, two appropriate and universal themes for the end of the year. The red candles and the red in the Kwanzaa flag represent the struggle of the people. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.’ All progress is contingent upon struggle,” says Dr. Carter Jackson. “I tell my students all the time that the abolition of slavery, the right to vote, and even the end of Jim Crow was not inevitable. People actively resisted and fought against oppression for change to come. Hope is not a strategy on its own. I’m always encouraged for the future when I see people taking a stand for what is right and pushing to make it happen.” Learn what anti-racism means and what it means to be anti-racist.

The Kwanzaa feast is steeped in tradition

During the Karamu, or Karamu Ya Imani (feast of feasts), everyone present drinks from the unity cup. After everyone has a sip of water, juice, or wine from the cup, the oldest person at the celebration asks for a blessing from God or from the ancestors of those who are present. At large feasts, rather than family dinners, people may sip from their own small cups, but at the same time. This is also a time to honor the elders in the family. According to Muhammad Mateen Khan, Digital Marketing Strategist at PureVPN, plenty of celebrities celebrate the holiday every year: “Celebrities who have been known to celebrate Kwanzaa every year include Oprah, Maya Angelou, [rapper] Chuck D, Angelina Jolie, and [artist] Synthia Saint James (who designed the first Kwanzaa postage stamp).”

You can get a Kwanzaa postage stamp

kwanzaa postage stampvia usps.com

This year, the USPS has issued a beautiful Kwanzaa forever stamp, which debuted in October. Designed by Antonio Alcala and created by Andrea Pippins, the stamp shows a woman with a lit kinara against a colorful backdrop of blues and greens. Alcala and Pippins’ stamp continues a long tradition of Kwanzaa stamps. The first-ever Kwanzaa-themed postage stamp debuted in 1997. Artist Synthia Saint James designed it; it’s profiles of four African family members In 2015, the USPS commissioned her to design another one in anticipation of 2016, the 50th anniversary of the holiday. Get a look at the work of some incredible Black artists who have been flying under the radar.

Kwanzaa gifts are often homemade

On the last day of the holiday, people exchange gifts. In line with the principle of creativity, Kwanzaa gifts are traditionally homemade. But families also buy creative gifts such as books, music, and art, or—in line with the principle of cooperative economics—they are purchased from Black-owned businesses.

For example, many artisans and crafters sell beautiful handmade kinara and other Kwanzaa gifts on Etsy. “We give meaningful zawadi (gifts) to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement, and success,” writes Dorothy Winbush Riley, author of The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest. “We exchange the gifts with members of our immediate family, especially the children, to promote or reward accomplishments and commitments kept…Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift; it obliges the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift cements social relationships, allowing the receiver to share the duties and the rights of a family member. Accepting a gift makes the receiver part of the family and promotes Umoja.” Find out the gifts from Black-owned businesses that are on our wish lists this year.

It’s not a religious holiday

Kwanzaa tends to get lumped together with Hanukkah and Christmas as “the winter holidays”; there’s a bit of an assumption that people only celebrate one. But Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration! “You can celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, as the latter is not a religious holiday but a cultural one,” explains Anna Nielsen, Marketing Director at Our Good Living Formula. “As such, it doesn’t matter what religion you [are]. You can celebrate Kwanzaa whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or if you belong to other religions.”