Origin and Background
to the Festivities of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa (KWAN-za) is a seven-day African-American cultural festival that is observed from December 26 to January 1. It is the only nationally celebrated, indigenous, non-heroic African-American holiday in the United States. During this time, families explore, share and celebrate the African-American community, their culture and their history. It's a time for black Americans to recognize their African roots, and honor the achievements of their people throughout history.

People across the globe have observed Kwanzaa since 1966, when Dr. Maulana Karenga founded the cultural event. Dr. Karenga, then a professor at California State University at Long Beach, wanted to create a holiday about bringing black Americans together and strengthening the bonds between black people.

When visualizing a holiday for the African-American community, Dr. Karenga was inspired by Kiswahili, the African language commonly known as Swahili. As the most regularly spoken language in Africa, Swahili represented a cultural and historical bond between African-Americans. Dr. Karenga named the holiday Kwanzaa after the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits of the harvest." The extra "a" was added to the name in order to give the word greater impact.

Dr. Karenga says Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental activities common to other African first-fruit celebrations:

  • the ingathering of family, friends, and community;
  • reverence for the creator and creation (including thanksgiving and recommitment to respect the environment and heal the world);
  • commemoration of the past (honoring ancestors, learning lessons and emulating achievements of African history);
  • recommitment to the highest cultural ideals of the African community (for example, truth, justice, respect for people and nature, care for the vulnerable, and respect for elders); and
  • celebration of the "Good of Life" (for example, life, struggle, achievement, family, community, and culture).

Historians have discovered evidence indicating that African first fruit harvests were celebrated as early as 3000 BC, when the ancient Egyptian empire flourished. Traditions survived over time, and harvest festivals still occur all over the African continent. The African first fruit festivals served as a model for Kwanzaa because Dr. Karenga felt the harvest celebrations embodied several important values he wanted to promote/highlight to the African-American community through Kwanzaa. These harvest principles included: bringing people together for a common purpose; allowing people to give thanks to the Creator for a good life; giving people the opportunity to commemorate the past; permitting people to examine their past and recommit themselves to strengthening their community; and celebrating the Creator, history, culture and the opportunities in the coming year.

The harvest principles formed the basis of the seven principles, called Nguzo Saba, which govern Kwanzaa. The principles foster unity and purpose within the family and community. Each day, African-Americans focus on a different principle, or value. Daily activities and events are often organized to represent the special significance that each day represents. On each evening of Kwanzaa, families light a candle in a special candleholder, called a Kinara. Some families discuss the day’s principle, and share how they found a way to incorporate that value into their daily activities.

Gift giving is an important part of Kwanzaa, however the significance is weighted with equal emphasis on education and entertainment. Unlike other holidays that have become very materialistic, Kwanzaa has not been affected by commercialism. Gift giving symbolizes an exchange of affection between family and friends, so buying or receiving the largest, most expensive gift is not a part of Kwanzaa. Many families give hand-made gifts or present heirlooms and heritage symbols instead of buying gifts. If gifts are purchased, they are intended to teach the receiver about Kwanzaa, or symbolize some aspect of the holiday.