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A guide to the origins of Kwanzaa, and how to honor this ‘new’ holiday

A celebration of cultural heritage

Girl lighting candles to celebrate Kwanzaa
Photo credit: Purestock/Getty Images

The holiday hullabaloo at the end of the year can all seem like one big lump at times, but the truth is that some very distinctive and important celebrations take place. Kwanzaa is one such celebration.

Unfortunately, many Americans do not know a great deal about Kwanzaa. Since it hasn’t been observed in the United States for as long as some of the other end-of-year holidays we know and love so well (looking at you, Christmas), it tends to be overshadowed.

This could also be due to the fact that Kwanzaa is one of the only seasonal holidays not affiliated with a major religion.

But observing Kwanzaa is a good way to learn — and teach your children — a lot about other customs and cultures, and to have fun while doing it. We’ve made it easy to explore Kwanzaa’s origin, meaning and more, so keep reading to get to know this beautiful holiday better.

The origins of Kwanzaa and what it means

Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday that honors the whole of African culture. For Black people living in the United States, it is a great way to reconnect with their African roots and celebrate parts of a heritage that may otherwise be forgotten.

MORE: Why is Thanksgiving in November? 

Per the official Kwanzaa website, “Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in Black people’s [lives] is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.”

The word Kwanzaa actually comes from an African phrase — in Swahili, which is the most widely spoken language on the continent — and it means “first fruits.”

Essentially, Kwanzaa is a celebration of the fruits of the earth as well as the fruit of the human spirit.

Guide to the origins of Kwanzaa Kwanzaa decor
Photo credit: Burke/Triolo Productions/Getty Images

Who celebrates Kwanzaa and when?

Kwanzaa was introduced to our country in the 1960s by a man named Maulana Karenga, and it is a fairly new festival in comparison to Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is observed between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1.

Though it was initially touted as a “Christmas alternative” (Karenga himself is a secular humanist), many Christians now observe Kwanzaa in addition to Christmas.

Although Kwanzaa finds its roots in the African Diaspora, it may be celebrated by people from other racial groups and cultural backgrounds as well.

“The principles of Kwanzaa and the message of Kwanzaa has a universal message for all people of good will,” reads the Kwanzaa website. “It is rooted in African culture, and we speak as Africans must speak, not just to ourselves, but to the world.”

Guide to the origins of Kwanzaa African artwork
Photo credit: SongSpeckels/Getty Images

What are the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa?

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa are self-determination, creativity, faith, unity, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics and purpose. Kwanzaa is a celebration of what is shared within a community, not individual talents and strengths.

MORE: What is Hanukkah, and why is it celebrated?

The festival is a perfect time to collaborate with family and friends and reflect on the good things you collectively share.

Ways Kwanzaa is celebrated

Kwanzaa has a very specific celebration. A central location is chosen in the home to light seven candles (each representing one of the festival’s principles), one for each day over the seven-day period.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are spread to honor bounty, and the festival colors — black, red and green — are represented, typically with some sort of tablecloth or decorative mat.

Any gifts given are usually books to educate children or a symbol of African heritage.

Guide to the origins of Kwanzaa
Photo credit: MIND AND I/Getty Images

How you can honor Kwanzaa

Want to celebrate Kwanzaa but are uncertain how to do so? Start by introducing the concept to your loved ones with literature and music. Light candles on each day of the period and talk about the principle observed on that day.

MORE: The Friendsgiving origin story: When and how did it become a thing

Also take time to talk about African culture, including languages, customs and foods. Make crafts that celebrate the Seven Principles and enjoy clean, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Most importantly, spend time together and celebrate how being together enriches life.

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