Kwanzaa is an annual African American celebration of history, pride, and culture. It is observed between December 26 and January 1 of each year. The celebration was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and based on African harvest festival traditions and the Swahili language. Karenga was a major figure in the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, and his goal in creating celebration was to give black people an alternative to the highly commercialized Christmas holiday and provide an opportunity to instill pride, create a sense of identity, purpose, and direction for people of African ancestry. In his 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, he clarified earlier misconceptions stating that “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holidays, but in addition to them.” The clarification was felt necessary so as to not offend or alienate practicing Christians or people of other religious faiths.
Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase “Matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” He also borrowed from the first fruit festivals held in Southern Africa in December and January, in conjunction with the southern solstice. The celebration based on seven principles called Nguzo Saba, with one celebrated each of the seven days:
- Umoja (Unity) – To strive for and to maintain unity in the family community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self Determination) – To define and name ourselves as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – To build and maintain our community together, and make our brothers and sisters problems our own and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to preserve our culture and restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity) – To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith) – To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Families who celebrate Kwanzaa normally decorate their homes with objects of African art, and colorful kente cloth and display fresh fruits. During Kwanzaa celebrations, libations may be shared through a community cup and also poured in remembrance of ancestors. Often a drum circle is formed, there is a reading of the African pledge and the Principles of Blackness, a candle lighting ritual and finally, a feast of faith. The greeting for each day is Habari Gani, the Swahili for “How are you?”. A communal feast called Karamu is usually held on the 6th day of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa celebratory symbols include a mat–Mkeka-on which is placed a Kinara–candleholder; Mishumaa Saba-seven candles; mazao (fruits); Mahindi (corn); Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup or chalice); and Zawadi (gifts). Other displays may include books, artworks, and the red, black, and green flag. The first Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Synthia SAINT JAMES, was issued by the United States Post Office in 1997, the same year former U.S. President Bill Clinton issued the first presidential declaration marking the holiday.