A young girl with lit candles showing how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that celebrates the achievements of Africans and African Americans. Photo by Getty Images

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
UCHealth

Are you craving a calm, non-commercial holiday that helps you to reflect on past accomplishments and prepare for a better future?

What is Kwanzaa and how to celebrate it? Kwanzaa is the fastest-growing holiday in the world. It’s a non-religious celebration created by African Americans 55 years ago to highlight Black people’s accomplishments throughout history and honor Black leaders here in the U.S. and worldwide. The holiday lasts from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 every year and is not just for Africans and African Americans. People of all races and ethnicities are welcome to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, which is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits, is based on African harvest festivals. And, the good news is that Kwanzaa, by design, is a low-stress affair focused on friends, family and community. Kwanzaa is explicitly not about buying presents or other stuff. You can join in Kwanzaa celebrations at designated Kwanzaa events. Or, you can light some candles at home, eat a good meal and talk with loved ones about the year that has passed and the one that is coming, quietly reflecting on triumphs and disappointments while also setting goals for the future.

Revered poet Maya Angelou narrated a seminal documentary about Kwanzaa called “The Black Candle” and described the holiday this way: “Kwanzaa is a time when we honor our family, our community and our heritage. We give special thanks for the harvest of good in our lives. We remember our glorious past and celebrate the future.”

So, what do people do for Kwanzaa and how can everyone celebrate Kwanzaa? We talked with Kwanzaa leaders to answer your questions and highlight how everyone can join in Kwanzaa celebrations.

Who created Kwanzaa? Maulana Karenga, a Black professor and chair of the department of African American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa. He wanted to create a positive holiday for Black people after California’s devastating Watts Uprising in 1965.

I hear the number seven is important in Kwanzaa celebrations. Why is that?

Kwanzaa focuses on a Swahili phrase, Nguzo Saba, which means “Seven Principles.”

What are the seven principles? The seven principles of Kwanzaa (in the order of days that you celebrate them) are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. There are also seven symbols: fruits/nuts/vegetables, placemats, ears of corn, candles, candle holders, communal cups and gifts. These seven symbols are arranged on a table at the beginning of Kwanzaa. On each day, families or communities gather to discuss the principles, read poems or enjoy musical or dance performances.

Colorful candles and colors in general are an important part of Kwanzaa celebrations. What do the colors symbolize? Red, black and green are important symbols for Kwanzaa. Red symbolizes the struggles that Africans and African Americans have faced. Black represents the earth and Black people. And green symbolizes hope and the future. Kwanzaa candles are arranged in a holder, with a black candle in the center and red and green candles on the sides. People celebrate Kwanzaa by lighting one candle each day.

How do people greet each other during Kwanzaa? On each day of Kwanzaa, participants greet each other with the phrase “havari gani,” a Swahili phrase which roughly translates as “What’s up?” or “What’s the news?” Celebrants answer with that day’s Kwanzaa principle.

Are there gifts for Kwanzaa? No. Gifts are not necessary. But, if parents give children anything, they focus on small educational gifts, like books.

Is Kwanzaa a religious celebration? No. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday based on harvest festivals in Africa.

Can people who celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas also celebrate Kwanzaa? Yes. Kwanzaa is open to everyone, whether people are religious or not. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday like Day of the Dead, Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July. It’s a time when everyone in a community can gather together to celebrate African history and pride in the Black community.