How much do you know about Kwanzaa?

If you’ve ever wondered what this holiday is about beyond the general information typically shared, here is some background that will hopefully increase your Kwanzaa IQ by at least a little, and maybe a lot.

What it is and how it began

Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture. The seven-day holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga.

Karenga, currently a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, created the holiday to celebrate black identity, encourage unity and help people of African descent maintain a connection to their roots. At the time of Kwanzaa’s conception, the United States was experiencing major political upheaval. Black people and their allies from all around the country were demanding equal rights for people of color. Marches, riots, violence, and imprisonment were the norm.

The idea of Kwanzaa was sparked in August of 1965 after the Watts riots, where fighting between police and African-Americans left dozens dead, 1,000 injured and $40 million worth of property damaged.

Dr. Karenga wanted to bring African-Americans together as a community to help alleviate the distress. His solution was to co-found “US” (meaning us “as opposed to them”), a cultural and social change organization. Under the “US” umbrella, he formed Kwanzaa and used the followers of the Black Power movement as a platform to help spread the word about the holiday.

“Karenga saw that black people here had no holidays of their own, and felt that holidays give a people a sense of identity and direction,” said Imamu Clyde Halisi, national chairman of “US” in a 1972 TIME interview.

The Africa Connection

After founding “US,” Karenga researched African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. Harvest celebrations take place in many African countries. Some parts of Africa celebrate good grain harvests while other parts celebrate with a Festival of Yams.

For example, West African tribes celebrate the yam harvest with ceremonies and offerings of yams to their ancestors and the gods as a way of giving thanks to the spirits. Some cultures hold a ceremony called “first fruits” to bless the newly harvested crops and purify people before they eat the food.

Karenga combined characteristics of several different harvest celebrations to form the foundation of Kwanzaa –  a term derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili.

The components of Kwanzaa

 Seven Principles

There are seven principles of Kwanzaa collectively known as Nguzo Saba. Each one is celebrated on a different day in the order below:

Umoja: Unity

Kujichagulia: Self-determination

Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility
Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics

Nia: Purpose

Kuumba: Creativity

Imani: Faith

Seven Symbols

There are also seven symbols:

Fruits/nuts/vegetables

Place mats

Ears of corn

Candles

Candle holders

Communal cups

Gifts

These items are arranged on a table at the beginning of Kwanzaa. On each day of the holiday, those celebrating discuss the principles of the holiday. Some read poems, perform music or dance and carry out other activities representative of the holiday’s core principles.

For more detail about the seven principles and symbols visit History.com.

Other customs and symbolism

On each day of Kwanzaa participants greet each other with the phrase Habari gani, which means “What’s the news?” in Swahili. The answer is that day’s Kwanzaa principle.

The official colors of the holiday are red, black and green. Red symbolizes the struggles of African people, black symbolizes Earth and the African people, and green symbolizes the rich land of Africa. Kwanzaa candles are arranged in a holder, with a black candle in the middle and the red and green ones on the sides. One candle is lit each day of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 – January 1 – culminating in a big feast and gift exchanges. Although it is adjacent to the religious holidays celebrated in December (Christmas and Hanukkah), and though its roots are in African traditions largely rooted in religion, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday.

The state of Kwanzaa today

Last year marked 50 years since the first Kwanzaa celebration in 1966. After 50+ years, the holiday no longer has the radical ties it had when it was founded. Now, families of all socioeconomic backgrounds and even non-black families celebrate Kwanzaa.

Many people who were introduced to the holiday as kids continue with the traditions in their adult lives. Atlanta resident Christopher McMichael celebrated Kwanzaa with his family as a child. “We started when I was in elementary school. It’s one of my favorite celebrations because it promotes positive ideals. It also helps to put a focus back on helping others and the bigger picture while society sometimes focuses more on the consumerism of some other holidays,” says McMichael. He also appreciates the inclusiveness of Kwanzaa. “Because it isn’t tied to any specific religion, anyone can celebrate.”

McMichael, now 31, continues to celebrate Kwanzaa as an adult and plans to continue the tradition when he has his own family.

What’s your Kwanzaa experience? If you celebrate Kwanzaa or plan to start, share your comments in the section below.

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