What Is Kwanzaa and Why Is it Celebrated?

Get the facts on this unique American holiday

Kwanzaa dancers
Dancers celebrate Kwanzaa. Val Photography/Flickr.com

Just what is Kwanzaa? Unlike Christmas, Ramadan or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is unaffiliated with a major religion. One of the newer American holidays, Kwanzaa originated in the turbulent 1960s to instill racial pride and unity in the black community. Now, fully recognized in mainstream America, Kwanzaa is widely celebrated.

The U.S. Postal Service debuted its first Kwanzaa stamp in 1997, releasing a second commemorative stamp in 2004.

In addition, former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush recognized the day while in office. But Kwanzaa has its share of critics, despite its mainstream status.

Are you considering celebrating Kwanzaa this year? Discover the arguments for and against it, whether all blacks (and any non-blacks) celebrate it and the impact of Kwanzaa on American culture.

What is Kwanzaa?

Established in 1966 by Ron Karenga, Kwanzaa aims to reconnect black Americans to their African roots and recognize their struggles as a people by building community. It is observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 annually. Derived from the Swahili term, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first-fruits,” Kwanzaa is based on African harvest celebrations such as the seven-day Umkhost of Zululand.

According to the official Kwanzaa Web site, “Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in black people’s [lives] is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.”

Just as many African harvest celebrations run for seven days, Kwanzaa has seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba. They are: umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and imani (faith).

Celebrating Kwanzaa

During Kwanzaa celebrations, a mkeka (straw mat) rests on a table covered by kente cloth, or another African fabric. On top of the mkeka sits a kinara (candleholder) in which the mishumaa saba (seven candles) go. The colors of Kwanzaa are black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle, according to the official Kwanzaa Web site.

Mazao (crops) and the kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup) also sit on the mkeka. The unity cup is used to pour tambiko (libation) in remembrance of ancestors. Lastly, African art objects and books about the life and culture of African people sit on the mat to symbolize commitment to heritage and learning.

Do All Blacks Observe Kwanzaa?

Although Kwanzaa celebrates African roots and culture, the National Retail Foundation found that just 13 percent of African Americans observe the holiday, or approximately 4.7 million. Some blacks have made a conscious decision to avoid the day because of religious beliefs, the origins of the day and the history of Kwanzaa’s founder (all of which will be covered later). If you’re curious about whether a black person in your life observes Kwanzaa because you want to get him a related card, gift-wrapping or other item, simply ask.

Don’t make assumptions.

Can Non-Blacks Celebrate Kwanzaa?

While Kwanzaa focuses on the black community and African Diaspora, people from other racial groups may join in the celebration. Just as people from a range of backgrounds partake in cultural celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year or Native American pow wows, those who aren’t of African descent may celebrate Kwanzaa.

As the Kwanzaa Web site explains, “The principles of Kwanzaa and the message of Kwanzaa has a universal message for all people of good will. It is rooted in African culture, and we speak as Africans must speak, not just to ourselves, but to the world.”

New York Times reporter Sewell Chan grew up celebrating the day.

“As a child growing up in Queens, I remember attending Kwanzaa celebrations at the American Museum of Natural History with relatives and friends who, like me, were Chinese-American,” he said.

“The holiday seemed fun and inclusive (and, I admit, a bit exotic), and I eagerly committed to memory the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles…”

Check local newspaper listings, black churches, cultural centers or museums to find out where to celebrate Kwanzaa in your community. If an acquaintance of yours celebrates Kwanzaa, ask for permission to attend a celebration with her. However, it would be offensive to go as a voyeur who doesn’t care about the day itself but is curious to see what it’s about. Go because you agree with the principles of the day and are committed to implementing them in your own life and community. After all, Kwanzaa is a day of tremendous significance for millions of people.

Objections to Kwanzaa

Who opposes Kwanzaa? Certain Christian groups who regard the holiday as pagan, individuals who question its authenticity and those who object to founder Ron Karenga’s personal history. A group called the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND), for one, labeled the holiday as racist and anti-Christian.

In a Front Page magazine article, BOND founder the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson takes issue with the trend of preachers incorporating Kwanzaa into their messages, calling the move a “a horrible mistake” which distances blacks from Christmas.

“First of all, as we’ve seen, the whole holiday is made up,” Peterson argues. “Christians who celebrate or incorporate Kwanzaa are moving their attention away from Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the simple message of salvation: love for God through his Son.”

The Kwanzaa Web site explains that Kwanzaa isn’t religious or designed to replace religious holidays. “Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists…,” the site says. “For what Kwanzaa offers is not an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which they all share and cherish.”

Even those who don’t oppose to Kwanzaa on religious grounds take issue with it because Kwanzaa is not an actual holiday in Africa and the customs founder Ron Karenga based the holiday on have roots in Eastern Africa.

During the transatlantic slave trade, however, blacks were taken from Western Africa, meaning that Kwanzaa and its Swahili terminology aren’t part of most African Americans’ heritage.

Another reason people choose not to observe Kwanzaa is the background of Ron Karenga. In the 1970s, Karenga was convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment. Two black women from the Organization Us, a black nationalist group with which he’s still affiliated, were reportedly victimized during the attack. Critics question how Karenga can be an advocate for unity within the black community when he himself was allegedly involved in an attack on black women.

Wrapping Up

While Kwanzaa and its founder are sometimes subject to criticism, journalists such as Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs celebrate the holiday because they believe in the principles it espouses. In particular, the values Kwanzaa gives to children and to the black community at large are why Scruggs observes the day. Initially Scruggs thought Kwanzaa was contrived, but seeing its principles at work changed her mind.

In a Washington Post column, she wrote, “I’ve seen Kwanzaa’s ethical principles work in many little ways. When I remind the fifth-graders I teach that they aren’t practicing ‘umoja’ when they disturb their friends, they quiet down. …When I see neighbors turning vacant lots into community gardens, I’m watching a practical application of both ‘nia’ and ‘kuumba.’”

In short, while Kwanzaa has inconsistencies and its founder a troubled history, the holiday aims to unify and uplift those who observe it. Like other holidays, Kwanzaa can be used as a positive force in the community. Some believe this outweighs any concerns about authenticity.