Kwanzaa or Kwanza

[ (kwahn-zuh) ]
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A festival, observed by many African-Americans from December 26 to January 1, that celebrates the rich heritage of black culture.

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Words nearby Kwanzaa or Kwanza

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


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.

Kwanzaa is sometimes seen spelled with only one a at the end, as Kwanza, but Kwanzaa is generally considered the proper spelling.

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).

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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.

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True or False? 

Kwanzaa incorporates elements of several African harvest festivals.