What is Kwanzaa? Kwanzaa’s History and Traditions

What is Kwanzaa? Kwanzaa's History and Traditions

Kwanzaa is one of the many holidays that occurs during the winter season, but it tends to be overshadowed by the much more prominent Hanukkah and Christmas traditions. While it appears to have similar practices as Hanukkah, the two holidays are actually quite different. So where did this holiday come from? And what is Kwanzaa in the first place?

The History of Kwanzaa – Origins in the Watts Riots

Kwanzaa was invented in the year 1966. Its creation was in response to the Watts Riots in Los Angeles that occurred during summer of the previous year. The Watts Riots, also known as the Watts Rebellion, broke out after a traffic stop in the Watts suburb of LA. A black motorist was pulled over by two white cops who suspected the driver of being under the influence. The driver was angry and the exchange quickly escalated. Soon a crowd of spectators formed, becoming increasingly more aggressive and angry at what they considered to be police brutality.

A riot broke out covering 50 square miles with people looting stores and starting fires, the culmination of years of frustration within the community. 
The riots lasted 5 days and left 34 dead, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and $40 million worth of property destroyed.

What Is Kwanzaa?

Maulana Karenga wanted to come up with a way to unify the black community following this event. As a professor and chairman of black studies at California State University, Dr. Karena combined several elements of his teaching to create this new holiday. He came up with the name “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Karenga chose a Swahili phrase because it’s a language that isn’t defined by a particular region or tribe in Africa.

Karenga combined aspects of different African harvest celebrations, in particular the Ashanti and the Zulu. While there are similarities between Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the practices are obviously distinct. Kwanzaa lasts 7 days and is represented by a kinara, a 7-candle holder that has 3 green candles on one side, a black candle in the center, and 3 red candles on the other side. Each candle represents one of the 7 principles of Kwanzaa, known as Nguzo Saba; unity (umoja), self determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). The black candle is the first one lit.

The extra ‘a’ at the end of Kwanzaa is typically added so that there are 7 letters total, each representing a different principal. 

When Is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is always from December 26th to January 1st. Christmas can also be celebrated along with Kwanzaa as the two are not mutually exclusive. The last day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to gift giving, but the presents are typically home made instead of store bought.

On December 31st there is a large feast called Karamu. Traditional foods of Kwanzaa are typical of the African diaspora, but there isn’t a set menu like you might expect at Thanksgiving. Some of the foods typically included are jerk chicken, gumbo, accras, okra, and yams. There is typically a mazoa which is a spread of fruits and vegetables that symbolize the bounty of the harvest. 

Kwanzaa is celebrated mainly in the US but also in the Caribbean and other countries with large numbers of African descendants. The holiday is all about community and can be celebrated by anyone, regardless of their heritage.


How much do you really know about Kwanzaa? Test your skills in the quiz below!

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