10 Things You Might Not Know About Kwanzaa

Updated: May 29, 2024

What is Kwanzaa? Here's what every American needs to know, including Kwanzaa's meaning, principles and who celebrates it.

In addition to Christmas, there’s another end-of-year holiday to celebrate: Kwanzaa. But what is Kwanzaa, exactly? Well, the Pan-African holiday is a time for people around the world to honor African-American history and culture. Those who celebrate the holiday partake in the daily lighting of the kinara while practicing the seven principles that reinforce the values of African culture.

If you’re looking to observe the holiday this year or brush up on Kwanzaa’s history, meanings and traditions, we share a few Kwanzaa facts below. They include insight into the holiday’s origins, food, gifts and celebrators.

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When is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is an annual celebration that lasts from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. In 2023, it starts on a Tuesday and ends the next week, on Monday.

Facts about Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa began in the United States

Maulana Karenga InterviewedRobert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Now that you know the answer to “What is Kwanzaa?” you can learn the first of our Kwanzaa facts: Since Kwanzaa is a pan-African and African American holiday, some people assume it originated in Africa. But actually, 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.

Kwanzaa 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 seven 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 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—Dec. 26 through Jan. 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 Kwanzaa principles reinforce values of African culture

You can’t fully understand “What is Kwanzaa?” without knowing the seven Kwanzaa principles. 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, the assistant professor in the department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and co-editor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory, tells 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 Kwanzaa celebration

Family Lightning Colorful CandlesSeventyFour/Getty Images

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. Jackson. “I tell my students all the time that the abolition of slavery, the right to vote and even the end of Jim Crow were 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.”

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: “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

New Kwanza Stamps via usps.com

In 2022, USPS debuted its ninth Kwanzaa stamp. Designed by Antonio Alcala, with original artwork by Erin Robinson, the stamp shows two children, a boy and a girl, standing with a kinara and the seven lit candles. The first-ever Kwanzaa-themed postage stamp debuted in 1997. Artist Synthia Saint James designed it with the 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.

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, and in line with the principle of cooperative economics, they are often purchased from Black-owned businesses.

For example, many artisans and crafters sell beautiful handmade kinaras 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.”

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday

Kwanzaa tends to get lumped together with Hanukkah and Christmas, and as with those “winter holidays,” there’s a bit of an assumption that people celebrate only one. But Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration! So if you’re wondering who celebrates Kwanzaa, the answer is: anyone. You don’t have to be African American to honor Kwanzaa. “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 [another] religion.”

About the experts

  • Kellie Carter Jackson, PhD is a historian, author and speaker. She is also the assistant professor in the department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and co-editor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory.
  • Dorothy Winbush Riley is the author of The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest, a guide that explains the history of Kwanzaa, along with details about the ceremonies, foods and more.
  • Muhammad Mateen Khan is the digital marketing strategist at PureVPN.
  • Anna Nielsen is the marketing director at Our Good Living Formula, a brand that keeps audiences up to date about products, trends and beauty tips.