One of the best ways to learn about the people around us is to learn about their culture. And an interesting way to do that is to delve into the meaning of their holidays.

Today, we’ll learn about Kwanzaa.

Who celebrates Kwanzaa? And what is the meaning behind the beautiful symbols and traditions of this important holiday.

Who Celebrates Kwanzaa? The Origins of This Special Holiday 

Kwanzaa is celebrated by people of African descent, though not all African Americans choose to celebrate it.

In 1966, California State University, Long Beach professor and department chair of Black Studies, Maulana Karenga created this holiday. After the Watts riots in L.A., Dr. Karenga wanted to find a way to bring African Americans together to form a strong, close-knit community.

It is considered a cultural holiday, as opposed to a religious one.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from a phrase in Swahili – “matunda ya kwanza” – which means “first fruits. The holiday is based on the traditional harvest festivals of Africa and is meant to celebrate African heritage.

This holiday takes place from December 26 through January 1 each year. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa corresponds to seven principles. And during this time, seven Kwanzaa candles are lit as well.

What do these symbols mean?

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa – a Holiday of Traditions and Symbols

Kwanzaa traditions are based in the history of the African people. Each day, families and individuals are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Principes. Then, in the evening, when the candles are lit, the family discusses what the principle means to them and how they’ve tried to apply it throughout their day.

1. Umoja, or Unity

This principle helps people remember that they are a part of a global African family.

2. Kujichagulia, or Self-Determination

This principle helps people honor their inherent ability to speak for themselves, as well as to define, create, and name themselves.

3. Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility

While one person can make a difference, it takes a community to start seeing pronounced change. This principle is one that reminds everyone of the importance of consensus-building and problem-solving on a community basis.

4. Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics

How can we benefit the whole? This principle helps people remember the importance of sharing wealth, as well as work. It is also a reminder that no one benefits when people exploit others in business.

5. Nia, or Purpose

The purpose of this principle is to reinvigorate a commitment made to uphold the history and heritage of the black community. It is also a call to give the culture the prominent place it deserves.

6. Kuumba, or Creativity

The creativity principle is a reminder of the obligation all people have to beautify their environment, their community, for generations to come.

7. Imani, or Faith

Having faith in oneself and the community is beautiful. This principle encourages people to focus on believing in the potential of yourself and the community as a whole, and remaining positive whenever possible.

Each principle corresponds to Kwanzaa symbols, particularly Kwanzaa candles. The colors of this holiday are black, green, and red. Black represents the people, green represents their hope for the future, and red represents their struggle. There is one black candle and three each of the red and green candles.

The black candle is lit on the first day and it is placed in the center of a kinara (candleholder). The green candles are placed to the right of the black candle, while the red are placed to the left. The red and green candles are lit, one each day, from left to right. The purpose for this is to remind celebrators that people come first, then their struggle, and finally, their hope.

The kinara is placed on a table along with other Kwanzaa symbols. These include:

  • The Mkeka – a straw mat symbolizing the foundation on which everything else rests.
  • The Muhindi – ears of corn that represents the offspring of the stalk, or the children of the parents within the household.
  • Zwadi – gifts that represent fruits of labor of both the parents and children.

What We Can Learn from This Meaningful Holiday

Like all holidays, Kwanzaa is one that is full of meaning to each person that celebrates it. Learning about this holiday will help us to better understand the people who hold it dear.

Those of African descent have a rich history that has, unfortunately, been filled with many dark periods and struggles. This holiday is important to them because it reminds them of their heritage, of the struggle, and of what they want to achieve in this world.

This holiday reminds us all – whether we celebrate it or not – that the past is filled with many moments we would rather forget. But they are moments that will repeat themselves if we don’t learn from them. A holiday that has the depth to make us think about our past, both the beautiful times and the sad, and motivates us to want to improve the future is one that should be recognized and respected.