or Kwan·za

[ kwahn-zuh ]
/ ˈkwɑn zə /
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noun, plural Kwan·zaas.
a harvest festival celebrated from December 26th until January 1st in some African American communities.


These Words Celebrate The Spirit Of Kwanzaa

For seven days from December 26 through January 1, Black Americans across the US celebrate the joyous holiday of Kwanzaa. What are some of this holiday's celebratory words?

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Origin of Kwanzaa

First recorded in 1965–70; from Swahili kwanza “first, firstly”; short for matunda ya kwanza, “first fruits (of the harvest)” (the spelling -za was changed to -zaa to lengthen the word so that each of the seven children who were first taught the festival would have their own letter)
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a holiday in celebration of African heritage and Black culture and values that’s observed from December 26 to January 1.

It is primarily observed by African Americans in the U.S. but is also celebrated in some other countries by members of the African diaspora—those whose ancestors came from Africa. Kwanzaa is an Afrocentric holiday but is not typically observed in Africa itself.

As part of its celebration of the values of family and community, Kwanzaa has seven principles, each of which is named with a word in the African language of Swahili:

  • umoja (unity)
  • kujichagulia (self-determination)
  • ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  • ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  • nia (purpose)
  • kuumba (creativity)
  • imani (faith)

Observation of Kwanzaa often includes the discussion of these principles along with daily lighting of a candle representing one of them. The seven candles (three green, one black, and three red, representing the traditional colors of Africa) are held in a candleholder called a kinara. The kinara and the candles it holds are two of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, which also include a sampling of crops (fruits and vegetables), ears of corn, gifts, a ceremonial cup (kikombe cha umoja), and a mat on which all of these items are usually displayed during the holiday.

Celebrations of Kwanzaa vary, but they often include family gatherings, music, and storytelling. A feast (karamu) is held on December 31.

In the U.S., Kwanzaa is considered part of what’s known as the holiday season—the period that starts on Thanksgiving and continues until New Year’s Day and also includes the holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.

Although it occurs around other religious wintertime holidays, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, though some may observe it as a spiritual one. Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate other holidays that fall around the same time, including Christmas.

Example: Every Kwanzaa, my grandmother tells the story of our ancestors and our homeland in Nigeria.

Where does Kwanzaa come from?

Kwanzaa was created in the 1960s by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African American scholar and activist. He coined the name Kwanzaa from the Swahili word kwanza, meaning “first,” from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits (of the harvest).” The extra a at the end of the word is said to have been added so that the word would have seven letters, one for each of the children who were present at one of the early Kwanzaa gatherings. The seven letters of the word also echo the significance of the number seven in Kwanzaa (seven days, seven principles, seven candles, and seven symbols).

Kwanzaa combines elements from several traditional African harvest celebrations, and the basis of its name reflects these roots. These elements and the values that Kwanzaa celebrates were intended to strengthen the community bonds of African Americans, especially in relation to the struggle for self-determination, equality, and justice. The holiday was conceived as a way to focus on Black culture in contrast to holidays celebrated by the dominant white culture in the U.S. Most people who observe it don’t consider it a replacement for Christmas (which occurs on December 25, the day before Kwanzaa begins).

Did you know ... ?

What are some words that often get used in discussing Kwanzaa?

How is Kwanzaa used in real life?

Kwanzaa is primarily observed by African Americans, many of whom also celebrate the nearby holiday of Christmas. It is considered part of the holiday season in the U.S.



Try using Kwanzaa!

True or False? 

Kwanzaa incorporates elements of several African harvest festivals.

How to use Kwanzaa in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for Kwanzaa

/ (ˈkwænzɑː) /

a seven-day festival beginning on Dec 26 when African-Americans celebrate family, community, and culture

Word Origin for Kwanzaa

C20: from Swahili (matunda ya) kwanza first (fruits)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012