by Irma Patterson

Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Karenga, professor and chair of black studies at California State University at Long Beach. He says, "Kwanzaa is a synthesis of both the cultural values and practice of Africans on the Continent and in the United States with strict attention to cultural authenticity and values for a meaningful, principled, and productive life." The origins of Kwanzaa on the African continent are in the agricultural celebrations called the "first-fruit" celebrations or (to a lesser degree) the full or general harvest celebrations. At least five sets of values and practices central to African first-fruit celebrations have influenced the development of Kwanzaa.

  1. Ingathering of the people. The ingathering of the crops become another occasion to pull the people together and to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between them.
  2. Reverence for the Creator and creation. A profound reverence for Creator and creation is a central focus for the ingathering of the people in African first-fruit celebrations. 
  3. Commemoration of the past, especially the ancestors. To honor the ancestors is to honor heritage, roots, and lineage. 
  4. Recommitment to cultural ideals. Recommitment involves a reaffirmation and rededication in thought and practice to cooperation, peace, truth, justice, righteousness, sisterhood, brotherhood, harmony, reciprocity, creativity, collective work, responsibility, sharing, mutual care, and confidence. Self-determination and cultural integrity serve as grounding and social glue for the community. 
  5. Celebration of the good. The celebration is of the Creator and the creation of life, of the people, of their history and culture, of a good harvest, and of the promise of the next year. In a word, it is a celebration of all that is good in the widest sense of the word, i.e., divine, natural, cosmic, and social.

African American Origins

Kwanzaa was created to serve several functions in the African American community. First, Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm and restore the African heritage and culture.

Second, Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce the Nouzo Saba* (the seven principles). These are:umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), yhanai (creativity), and imani (faith). These principles are projected as the minimum set of African moral values that African Americans need in order to rebuild and strengthen family, community, and culture, as well as to become a self-conscious social force in the struggle to control their destiny and daily life.

Third, Kwanzaa was created to address the absence of non-heroic holidays in the national African American community.

Fourth, Kwanzaa was created to serve as a regular communal celebration that reaffirms and reinforces the bonds between African Americans as a people.

Finally, Kwanzaa was created as an act of cultural self-determination, as a self-conscious statement of our cultural truth as an African people.

Symbols of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa symbols serve as instructive and inspirational objects that represent and reinforce desirable principles, concepts, and practices. Kwanzaa has seven basic symbols and two supplementary symbols. These seven basic symbols are:

  1. Mazao (crops). As the central symbols of Kwanzaa, the mazao represent the historical roots of the holiday itself and the rewards of collective productive labor.  
  2. Mkeka (mat). The mkeka is the symbol of tradition and, by extension, history. Tradition and history are foundations for correct knowledge and understanding of self, society, and the world. In recognition of this fact, all other Kwanzaa symbols are placed on the mkeka, and it too becomes a foundation.
  3. Kinara (candleholder). The kinara is symbolic of our parent people, the continental Africans.  
  4. Muhindi (corn). The muhindi represents children and all the hopes and challenges attached to them. Each house or family places in the Kwanzaa set as many ears of corn as it has children. But each house always places at least one ear of corn, whether there are children present or not. In African society, parenthood is both specific and general, biological and social; and whether one is specifically responsible for a child or not, he or she has general and social responsibility for the children of the community.  
  5. Zawadi (gifts). The zawadi are symbolic of the seeds sown by the children (i.e., commitments made and kept) and of the fruits of the labor of the parents.
  6. Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup). The kikombe serves two basic functions: to pour libation for ancestors and to drink from, serving as a ritual to reinforce unity in the family and community. At Kwanzaa, pouring libation for the ancestors is a very important ritual. It is poured for us a) to remember and honor those who walked and worked before us and thus paved the path down which we now walk, b) to reaffirm our link to them and our life through them, c) to raise models before the community that instruct and inspire, d) to express recommitment to the legacy they left by preserving and expanding it, and e) to cultivate and sustain a cultural practice that sets a model of how our children will act toward us.
  7. Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles). The mishumaa saba represent the seven principles that are the heart and spirit of Kwanzaa. The candles are placed securely in the kinara, the symbol of ancestry, to symbolize the rootedness of the principles in the way of the ancestors. The lighting of the candles is a daily ritual during Kwanzaa, which symbolizes the light and life principles themselves and the general ancient African concept of raising up light to lessen darkness in both the spiritual and intellectual sense. To light the candles is to give light and life to the seven principles. This means to bring illumination to them, to make them clear, to explain them, to elucidate them, and to animate them.

Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It is not a reaction to or substitute for anything. It is the outgrowth of a normal need of people to shape their world in their own cultural image and interests.

Kwanzaa is above all a cultural choice, distinct from a religious one. Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa. What Kwanzaa offers is not an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which they all share and cherish. It is this common ground of culture on which they all meet, in which they find ancient and enduring meaning, and by which they are thus reaffirmed and reinforced.

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Let me share with you how we celebrate Kwanzaa at First Reformed Church in Jamaica, New York:

On December 26 we spend the day decorating the fellowship hall of the church with banners, signs, and other decorations, all in black, red, and green. Members of the congregation arrive around 7:30 p.m. Some are dressed in African clothes. We begin with the lighting of the candle for Umoja (unity) and a brief explanation of Kwanzaa. A drop or two of water is sprinkled around. The principle Umoja is then discussed. This is first done in small groups, and then the ideas are brought to the larger group. A prayer is then said and the candle is snuffed out, indicating the end of the celebration for that day. A potluck supper of African or Caribbean dishes ends the evening.

This celebration is continued for the next four evenings with visits to homes of members of the congregation. We take homemade gifts or books for the children.

On December 31 a lavish feast, the Kwanzaa Karamu is celebrated, once again by members of the congregation at the fellowship hall of the church. We all dress in African clothes and bring dishes from the cuisines of the Caribbean, Africa, or South America. The program for the evening consists of the following:

  1. Welcoming: the person in charge welcomes everyone who came and makes introductory remarks about Kwanzaa.
  2. Remembering: someone may read poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar or Langston Hughes or may read about Martin Luther King Jr. or any other black hero. People may dance, sing, form unity circles, or tell traditional stories.
  3. Reassessment or Recommitment: a guest lecturer is introduced. One year we had the Rev. Dr. William Tolbert III, West African regional director for Religions for Peace, from Liberia as our speaker.
  4. Rejoicing: this part of the program may include the passing of the unity cup and the pouring of a libation, forming a circle and recalling names of family ancestors and black heroes, a performance by drummers and dancers, a feast, and group dancing.
  5. Farewell statement: someone may challenge the group about commitment for the following year.

* The Kwanzaa terms are Swahili.

Dr. Maulana Karenga's website: