Why Do We Celebrate Kwanzaa?

The Kwanzaa kinara (candleholder) holds seven candles -- one for each day of the holiday.

Historian Jessica B. Harris says African-American kids need the holiday of Kwanzaa “as a tool for building their future and our own.”

“They need the self-awareness that comes from a knowledge of their past,” she said.

Kwanzaa itself is only 46 years old.

But its roots are planted deep in African-American history – a holiday that reflects “the identity and experience of the Afro-American people,” in the words of the man who created it.

That man’s name is Maulana Ron Karenga.

He created Kwanzaa in 1966.

Since then, people have celebrated Kwanzaa every year from December 26th through January 1st.

The holiday’s name comes from a phrase in the Swahili language —  “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.”

It was created during the height of the Civil Rights Movement here in the United States — a time when African-Americans were just beginning to emerge from centuries of legal discrimination against them.

“Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce seven basic values of African culture,” Karenga wrote – one for each of the holiday’s seven days.

Those principles are:


* Umoja (Unity)

* Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

* Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

* Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

* Nia (Purpose)

* Kuumba (Creativity)

* Imani (Faith).


The symbols of Kwanzaa include a candleholder called a “kinara.”

The kinara holds seven candles – one for each day of the holiday.

Each of the candles is black, red or green – all colors associated with African culture.

Other Kwanzaa symbols include “mazao” (fruits and vegetables from the harvest) and “muhindi” (ears of dry corn).

It’s customary to give kids gifts during Kwanzaa.

But it’s not “the Black Christmas,” as some people have incorrectly assumed.

“It is important to note that Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, not a religious one, thus available to and practiced by Africans of all religious faiths,” Karenga wrote.

The gifts given on Kwanzaa are supposed to educate you about the history and culture of Africans and African-Americans.

But Kwanzaa is not just about reflecting on the past.

As Professor Harris noted, it’s also about building together for the future.

“To do always as much as we can, in the way we can,” Karenga wrote, “in order to leave our community more beautiful.”