Celebrating Kwanzaa

Learn about this holiday that celebrates Black heritage in the United States as well as African culture.

Celebrated every year from December 26 through January 1, Kwanzaa is a week of festivities honoring African American culture and heritage. Friends and family gather each day to give thanks, exchange gifts, and share feasts.

The holiday was created in 1966, during a time period when many Black people faced unfair treatment because of their skin color. The holiday honors African American people, their struggles in the United States, their heritage, and their culture.

Here’s how Kwanzaa got its start and the different ways it's celebrated.

History of Kwanzaa

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the civil rights movement sought to end the practice of treating Black people unfairly because of their race. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation—or teaching Black and white children separately—was illegal. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured more equal rights for African Americans.

But Black people still faced discrimination. In 1965, a white police officer pulled over two African American men in a mostly Black neighborhood called Watts, in Los Angeles, California. Angry at how people in the community were being treated by police, a crowd soon gathered to protest. But the crowd grew bigger—and angrier. This led to six days of protests and rioting all over the city. Thirty-four people died and over a thousand were injured in what’s now called the Watts Rebellion.

The next year, educator and activist Maulanga Karenga wanted to rebuild the neighborhoods affected by the riots and encourage pride within the Black community. As part of his plan, he created Kwanzaa in 1966 to empower African Americans to rediscover and honor their African roots.

Kwanzaa means "first fruits" in Swahili, a language spoken in Africa, and refers to the joy and unity many Africans have when celebrating the harvest season. The holiday encourages people to honor seven principles: unity, self-determination (helping yourself succeed), collective work and responsibility (teamwork), cooperative economics (sharing), purpose, creativity, and faith.

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is not an African holiday, but it’s inspired by many African cultural practices.

Symbols of African heritage decorate homes during Kwanzaa. For instance, families place a traditional woven mat, called a mkeka (muh-KAY-kuh), on tables to represent the traditions—like sharing and faith—that the holiday is based on.

Meaningful items are arranged on the mat, such as a basket filled with fruits and vegetables to represent the harvest, and one ear of corn for each child in the family. A unity cup, called kikombe cha umoja (kee-KOHM-bee cha oo-MOH-jah), is also placed on the mkeka.

Lighting candles

A big part of celebrating Kwanzaa is lighting a candle each night. First, an adult pours a little water or juice from the unity cup onto the ground to remember the family’s ancestors. Then the cup is passed to each family member, who sips while everyone chants harambee (Swahili for "let’s pull together" and pronounced hah-RAHM-beh) seven times.

The kinara (kee-NAH-ruh) holds seven candles: one black, three red, and three green. The black candle in the middle represents unity among people of African descent; the red candles on the left represent the past, and the green candles on the right stand for the future.

Each day, family and friends gather to light a special candle that represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. On the first night, celebrants light the black unity candle. Each night a different candle is lit to reflect on the other six principles.

Big parties

Celebrants enjoy special foods all throughout Kwanzaa. Families often use recipes that have been passed down over many, many years; often those foods have roots in African culture. Meals might include dishes like peanut soup or shrimp gumbo, topped off with tasty desserts like fried bananas, sweet potato pie, and coconut sweets.

Even though Kwanzaa lasts for seven days, the big celebration is on December 31. That’s when family and friends gather in bright African-style clothing and have a large feast, called karamu (kuh-RAH-moo). They play music, dance, and sing.

The last day of Kwanzaa is much quieter. On January 1, people focus on how they want to succeed in the coming year and what kind of person they want to be in the future.

Learn more about Kwanzaa at National Geographic.