Kwanzaa: Everything to Know About the Holiday

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The 2021 holiday season isn’t over just yet! The end of Christmas marks the beginning of Kwanzaa, an annual weeklong celebration that is observed from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

Kwanzaa began as an opportunity for Black Americans to connect with family and community, as well as a period of reflection to welcome in the new year. The non-religious holiday is rooted in African traditions providing a link between African American culture and the Motherland. 

Because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Kwanzaa celebrations will look different than before, but with widened interest in honoring Black heritage, there could be more people celebrating in Kwanzaa this time around.

If you’re not familiar with the holiday, here are a few things you should know.

1. Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga in 1996 as an alternative celebration for Black Americans. The holiday was born out of the civil rights movement and Black power movements and became popular during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Shows like Black-ish, Rugrats, and Sesame Street have dedicated episodes to understanding the meaning of Kwanzaa. There’s even a Kwanzaa-inspired stamp that was released by the U.S. Post Office in 1997. 

2. The name “Kwanzaa” originates from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” or “first fruit of the harvest.” The extra “a” in “Kwanzaa” represents the seven principles, known as the Nguzo Saba.

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3. The Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles of Kwanzaa, are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

4. There are also seven symbolic items of Kwanzaa: Mkeka, a place mat symbolizing the foundation of the holiday, Mazao which represents crops, and Muhindi, ears of corn that symbolize children, nurturing and fertility. The Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) are placed in a Kinara (candle holder).

Another important Kwanzaa symbol is the unity cup, or Kikombe Cha Umoja. The cup is used to share libation and give thanks to the ancestors. Zawadi, the seventh symbol, are gifts given on the final day of Kwanzaa. 

5. Red, black and green are the main colors of Kwanzaa. Black represents the people, red represents the blood of the people, and green represents the land. The color scheme corresponds with the Pan-African flag, which was designed by activist Marcus Garvey in 1920.  

In observance of the holiday, red, black and green are commonly seen in candles and fabrics.

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6. Kwanzaa celebrations vary, but there are a few must-have items to get you started. Whether it’s an intimate shindig for close friends and family, or a socially-distanced celebration, candles (one black candle, three red and three green) and a candle holder are probably the most important items to pick up. The black candle is placed in the middle of the candle holder, while the red and green candles are placed on the left and right sides of the black candle.  

7. To decorate for Kwanzaa, you’ll need a place mat that can be adorned with dried, plastic, or fresh fruits and vegetables like corn (still in the husk) and pumpkins. The Kinara can be positioned either behind the mat or directly in front of it. 

As for the celebration, people like to get creative when it comes to Kwanzaa. In fact, that’s one of the best parts of celebrating! Kwanzaa ceremonies usually feature artwork, poetry, drumming and other music, dance and, of course, lots of food.

Now that you’re all caught up on the holiday, it’s time to celebrate.  

Happy Kwanzaa!


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