8 Things You Never Knew 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.

Kwanzaa holiday concept with traditional lit candles, gift box, pumpkins, ears of wheat, grapes, orange, banana, bowl and fruits on wood backgroundAilisa/Shutterstock

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. 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.

The number 7 carries symbolism for Kwanzaa

Seven is an important, even mystical, number in many cultures and traditions. 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 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. Read about other ways to celebrate black culture in America.

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.”

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.” Next, check out these other things you didn’t know about the holiday season.

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