Exploring the History of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, while it has picked up some greater awareness in the last decade, has never gotten the same attention and excitement as Christmas and Hanukkah. But the story behind Kwanzaa is meaningful and gives recognition to rich black culture and history in a way that seems to have gotten lost in the commerciality of the biblical December holidays.


Meta: Maulana Karenga
Source: San Bernandino Sun

Unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration rather than a religious one. It was created in 1966 by pan-African activist and academic Maulana Karenga in the wake of the Watts riots, to help rebuild community bonds in the wake of the racial injustice that took place. Karenga’s goal was to give black people a meaningful alternative to Christmas that focused specifically on black culture, rather than passively celebrating one cultivated primarily by white people. 

The word ‘Kwanzaa’ comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which translates to “first fruits.” In Southern Africa, First Fruits festivals are held in December and January during the southern solstice. 


Kwanzaa is held from December 26 to January 1 every year. On each day, a candle is lit on the kinara, which is a candle holder for seven candlesticks. The seven candles are either black, red, or green in color. The one black candle represents the people, the three red represent the blood spilled in the struggle for liberation, and the three green represent the hope for the future of black liberation. Each of the candles stands for one of the seven principles of African heritage: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. 

Meta: Kwanzaa mat.
Source: CNN

During Kwanzaa, households decorate with African art and colorful African cloth-like kente. Celebrants wear kaftans and dashikis in bright colors and patterns, and there is plenty of fresh fruit which is representative of African idealism. Children are usually included in Kwanzaa ceremonies to show gratitude and respect for ancestors. On the last night of Kwanzaa, there is an exchange of gifts which is usually accompanied by a feast.

A common visual you’ll see when you look at Kwanzaa celebrations is the mat, which houses the seven celebratory symbols: the kinara, the seven candles, crops, corn, unity cup, and gifts. Occasionally you’ll see other objects on the mat, such as African books and artwork, the purpose of all of which is to represent the core values of the holiday.

Evolution of Kwanzaa

Meta: A family lights the kinara.
Source: San Bernandino Sun

While Karenga took the stance that Christmas was a ‘white’ holiday that should be shunned by black people and replaced, over time Kwanzaa has evolved and is often celebrated alongside Christmas and New Years in many families. 

Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated by upwards of 44 million Americans. However, it’s important to note that after Kwanzaa’s inception, it did carry into other countries. Because it is a non-secular holiday, anyone is welcome to celebrate it. Famous celebrants include Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Jamie Foxx, and Morris Chestnut.

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