8 Facts You Should Know About Kwanzaa

Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels
Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels / Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels

More than 50 years after its inception in 1966, Kwanzaa is still being observed the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day by African people around the world. African American Baby Boomers, who came of age during the fiery times of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, cherish and regularly practice Kwanzaa to celebrate and honor black unity and traditional African values. While many of the younger generation of Black Americans embrace Kwanzaa’s seven principles, they are troubled by its creator’s past. Here are some things you should know about Kwanzaa.

1. Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration, not a religious one.

Gifts are given during Kwanzaa, but there are no deities involved. Instead, Kwanzaa is a seven-day ritual to welcome the first harvests to the home for the New Year. The observance celebrates community rather than reliance on a higher power. Observed from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa is Swahili for “first” and was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, during the height of the Black Nationalist movement.

2. There are seven principles that represent Kwanzaa.

According to the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Center, Karenga designed the seven principles of Kwanzaa, known as Nguza Saba, to connect Black Americans to their African roots by uplifting the community through recognizing and honoring traditional African family values. The foundation of Kwanzaa is built on these concepts, which are (in English and Swahili):

  • Unity (Umoja)
  • Self-determination (Kujichagulia)
  • Collective work and responsibility (Ujima)
  • Cooperative economics (Ujamaa)
  • Purpose (Nia)
  • Creativity (Kuumba)
  • Faith (Imani)

3. Historical and cultural African symbols are also part of Kwanzaa.

For example, crops like corn (mzao) recall Black people’s ties to farming and collective labor. The Kwanzaa mat (mkeka) is the basis for self-actualization. The kinara holds seven candles—three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right, and one black candle in the center—with its colors being evocative of the Black liberation movement. Gifts (Zawadi) represent the bond of parents to their children. The unity (Umoja) cup is used to pour libation offerings to the forefathers and mothers.

4. Kwanzaa is an African-inspired, but American-invented, holiday.

Photo courtesy Robyn M. McGee

Today’s African American Millennials and Gen Zers know little about Kwanzaa and most have never participated in a Kwanzaa celebration. For Black Baby Boomers raised during the tumultuous times punctuated by the 1965 Watts riots, Kwanzaa embodies the pride they felt as young people with their first embrace of Pan-Africanism and social activism.

5. There's an official book for how to celebrate Kwanzaa, as well as a website.

Traditionally, Kwanzaa has been celebrated in family homes, schools, and larger venues where African musicians and dancers, food, poetry, and performances by children were showcased. At home, families gather to discuss the principles and light a candle each day. Seba Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles, says it would be wise for families who are practicing Kwanzaa for the first time to read the authoritative book, Dr. Karenga’s Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, in order to ensure that they know the original vision and values of Kwanzaa and aren't absorbing the false information about Kwanzaa that can be found on the Internet. A second reliable resource for new celebrants of Kwanzaa is the official Kwanzaa website.

6. The principles of Kwanzaa can be practiced throughout the year.

According to Seba Tembo, the Nguzo Saba are observed by millions of African people throughout the world. From Umoja (Unity) to Imani (Faith), these concepts call on celebrants to practice the best of what it means to be African and human in the world. “We can adhere to the principles of Kwanzaa throughout the year by self-consciously embracing them in our heart [and] mind, and practice using them to inform what we think and feel about ourselves, the life we live, the work we do and the struggle we wage for justice, freedom, and good in the world,” Tembo tells Mental Floss.

7. Many people who are not of African descent can and do celebrate Kwanzaa.

Everyone is encouraged to practice the principles of Kwanzaa that stress quality human relationships, strong ties within the family and community, and putting the collective community ahead of the individual.

“Kwanzaa is, above all, a celebration of African people; our lives and history; our family, community and culture; our struggle to free ourselves and be ourselves; and increase and bring good in the world,” Tembo says. Those outside of the African American community who are attracted to the concept of Kwanzaa must recognize the emotional, psychological, and intellectual unity of African people.

8. Kwanzaa creator Dr. Maulana Karenga is a source of controversy and backlash.

Some recent articles about Kwanzaa have focused on the criminal background of Dr. Karenga. Not long after the celebration's founding, Karenga was accused of beating and torturing women he believed were trying to poison him, according to testimony reported in the May 14, 1971 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Karenga maintained his innocence but was convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment and served four years in prison before he was paroled. After his release, Karenga moved away from the Black Nationalist movement and concentrated more on the accessibility of Kwanzaa to everyday African Americans.

Still, in the age of the #MeToo movement, where more people are actively advocating for victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence, some people view Karenga’s conviction nearly 50 years ago as too horrendous to even consider celebrating Kwanzaa—even though they might agree with Kwanzaa’s principles.