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The History & Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

While the stories and history behind Chanukah and Christmas are widely known, Kwanzaa isn't always as familiar to those who don't celebrate the holiday. Take some time to catch up on this celebration of African culture and the rich traditions surrounding it.

Purpose of Kwanzaa 

Kwanzaa is a celebration of African culture. The basis for the Kwanzaa celebration came largely from the Swahili traditions and culture. It is a holiday meant to bring the African American community together and celebrate the best of its culture.

Kwanzaa is a seven day holiday that spans from December 26th through January 1st and each of the seven days honors one of the Kwanzaa principles.

It is important to note that, unlike other holidays, people of all faiths can celebrate Kwanzaa. Since it is a cultural celebration, it does not conflict with any other religion or faith, which makes it one of the most inclusive celebrations to partake in!

History of Kwanzaa

The history of Kwanzaa is very unique to that of other traditional holidays - unlike Christmas or Hannukah, whose beginnings trace back thousands of years, Kwanzaa originated in the mid-20th century.

Really, Kwanzaa is the dream child of Dr. Mualena Karenga, who was the chairman and professor of black studies at California State University, Long Beach. He developed the Kwanzaa holiday as a positive response to the Watts riots.

The Watts riots portrayed some of the worst occurences in black history, and Dr. Karenga thought that there needed to be a way to honor the best in black culture, history and tradition. Kwanzaa was a way to bring families and communities together to support each other, to be thankful for the year's blessings, and to celebrate all that is good.

Although many of the principles and the language used to name the Seven Principles are Swahili, the practices of Kwanzaa draw on a number of different African cultures. The tenets of Kwanzaa have roots in early African culture and many African tribes shared the tradition of celebrating the first fruits, or annual harvest season.

The word Kwanzaa actually comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza", which translates to "first fruits." Thus, the last night of Kwanzaa is marked by a feast called Karamu. Check out the seven principles, next!

Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

The seven principles of Kwanzaa are collectively called Nguzo Saba. Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to celebrating and exploring one of the principles, and a candle is lit in the kinara (candle holder) each night to honor the principle for the day. The seven principles are as follows:

Umoja - Unity
Kujichagulia - Self-determination
Ujima - Collective work and responsibility
Ujamma - Cooperative economics
Nia - Purpose
Kuumba - Creativity
Imani - Faith

The first night a black candle is lit in the center of the kinara to represent the first principle, umoja (unity). Red or green candles are lit the following nights, with the red candles representing nia, kuumba and imani, and the green candles representing kujichagulia, ujima and ujamma.

Food and feasting also plays a large part in the celebration of Kwanzaa. Many families who celebrate Kwanzaa will cook traditional dishes from different African countries to honor and explore the African culture. Thus, Kwanzaa dishes can vary greatly depending on how the family celebrates.

Also, some families who celebrate Kwanzaa either fast or eliminate meat from their diet until the big feast, Karamu, on the final day. However you celebrate Kwanzaa, be sure to check out our article highlighting a few delicious meals to try.

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Meet our Writer
Jennifer Geddes
Celebrations Writer

Jennifer Kelly Geddes has hosted Christmas cookie swaps, New Year's open houses, Thanksgiving for 22, and all manner of dinner parties in her Manhattan and Ghent, NY homes.

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