Kwanzaa: Celebrate African-American heritage with ‘first fruits’

African-Americans dance in a circle around room, drumming, informal, with colorful hanging papers around room

A Kwanzaa celebration at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo by Reginald James, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 26: Learn the seven principles and gather in the name of unity—for the seven-day commemoration of Kwanzaa. In a message for the holiday, 76-year-old founder of the festival Dr. Maulana Karenga stressed the universal themes of care for each other and our planet. Karenga wrote, in part:

Of all the rich, instructive, uplifting and expansive ways to express the central meaning and message of Kwanzaa, none is more vital or valuable than our seeing and embracing it as a season and celebration of creating and sharing good in the world. Even Kwanzaa’s most essential definition—as a celebration of family and community and culture—is a celebration of the shared good in and of family, community and culture, and ultimately what all this means for the good of the world.

This derives from a righteous reading and emulation of the ancient African model and practice of cultivating, harvesting, and sharing the first fruit of field and forest, i.e., life-sustaining good in the world. It is an ancient model rooted in cooperative agricultural practices that taught us the enduring value of our sowing seeds of goodness everywhere, of cultivating them with loving care, and harvesting and sharing the products in community binding and building ways.

An African American and pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa is—in both conception and practice—a world-encompassing celebration. It is world-encompassing in that it is practiced by millions of Africans throughout the global African community. And it is world-encompassing in its roots in ancient African agricultural celebrations and their concern with the earth and their conception of humans interrelated with the world and their responsibility to it.


To mark the half-century anniversary of the holiday, in 2016, Smithsonian Magazine described Kwanzaa as “one of the most lasting innovations of United States black nationalism of the 1960s.” The Chicago Defender described the arrival of this festival in Chicago half a century ago.

Green background, Kwanzaa candleabra in front with statues, dark unity cup and bowl of fruit

Elements of Kwanzaa. Photo by Joseph LaValley, courtesy of Flickr

Created by Karenga in the mid-1960s as the first completely African-American holiday, Kwanzaa celebrations honor African heritage and culture. Though originally associated with the black nationalist movement, as Karenga today points out that Kwanzaa emphasizes connecting Africans of the Diaspora with their native roots and highlighting the universal themes in those ancient cultures that can build a healthier global community.

Specifically, Kwanzaa’s “seven principles” call to mind what Karenga refers to as a “communitarian African philosophy.”

Did you know? “Kwanzaa” is from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits of the harvest.”


Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a principle, resulting in a total of seven Kwanzaa principles. The principles, though they may vary slightly in spellings, consist of: Umoja (unity); Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kumbaa (creativity); and Imani (faith).

Kwanzaa urges participants to maintain unity in family and race, to define themselves, to build community and profit together, and to always do what is possible at the moment. (Wikipedia has details.) Symbols and decorations aid in the unity of Kwanzaa observances, such as a decorative mat (mkeka), corn, a seven-candle holder (kinara) and a communal or unity cup. Often, an African feast—known as Karamu—is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, and gifts (zawadi) are exchanged on the seventh day.


Did you know? The proper greeting for Kwanzaa is “Joyous Kwanzaa.”

Plate of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cooked collard and other fried foods in dimly lit room

Soul food is common at the Kwanzaa table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Household celebrations for Kwanzaa often include children, as do public Kwanzaa ceremonies.

Teachers and parents: You’ll find a couple of kid-oriented resources from First, there’s a lesson plan on discussing Kwanzaa’s principles and, then, there’s a second plan that also features a mancala game.

Community gatherings may include music, drumming, dancing, libations and the reading of the principles. Artistic performances, storytelling and ritual candle-lighting are also common.

In its nearly half-a-century of observance, Kwanzaa has spread in popularity throughout the United States and into Canada.

Hungry for a taste of Kwanzaa? Find recipes for traditional dishes, from sweet potatoes and collard greens to black-eyed peas, at Food Network and


Kwanzaa: Africans of Diaspora share heritage, culture

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 26: Light candles on the kinara, take a sip from the unity cup and review the seven principles of African Heritage, on the cultural celebration of Kwanzaa. For seven days, Africans in the Diaspora observe Kwanzaa with family and friends. From the Swahili phrase Matunda ya kwanza (“first fruits of the harvest”), Kwanzaa was created to unify those of African heritage and to give African-Americans their own holiday—to commemorate their own history. (Wikipedia has details.)

Did you know? Kwanzaa is based on African harvest festivals, such as those of the Ashanti and Zulu.

In the midst of the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s, Maulana Karenga established Kwanzaa, and the holiday will reach its 50th anniversary year in 2016. This year’s theme is: “Celebrating and Living Kwanzaa: Sowing and Harvesting Seeds of Good.” Most observing families will decorate their homes with African art and colorful cloths, while women wear traditional kaftans. Fresh fruits native to Africa will fill bowls around the home, and even non-African Americans can use the greeting: Joyous Kwanzaa!

Though Kwanzaa was originally intended as an alternative to Christmas, it has evolved to complement it. Elements of Kwanzaa typically include mkeka (a decorative mat), muhindi (corn), a kinara (candle holder) with seven candles, zawadi (gifts) and a unity cup. (Learn more of the history and significance of Kwanzaa at To the beat of drums and traditional music, participants learn about African history and pour libation for ancestors. Communally, artistic performances and a karamu (feast) are common.


Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of its principles. The seven principles include: unity (in the family, community, nation and race); self-determination (to define, create and speak for ourselves); collective work and responsibility (to solve problems communally); cooperative economics (to support each other in business); purpose (to develop the community to its full potential); creativity (to do what we can to leave the community better than we found it); and faith (to believe in one another and the African American leaders).

Red, black and green are the representative colors of Kwanzaa.


Piping-hot corn bread, sweet potatoes, collard greens and grits are the centerpiece foods for a Kwanzaa feast, and Food Network offers full menu recipes.  Children are invited to make Kwanzaa paper dolls, hear a Kwanzaa song or learn more about the holiday, with help from Scholastic; Spoonful, a Disney site, suggests seven ways to celebrate Kwanzaa, including instructions on making a unity cup.

Want Kwanzaa books? ReadTheSpirit has looked at a lot of the Kwanzaa books produced over the last decade and we can recommend: For the youngest readers, My First Kwanzaa; children also love the folktale in Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story that highlights the principles of Kwanzaa; Donna Washington gets high praise for her beautiful illustrations in The Story of Kwanzaa; then Maulana Karenga’s own book, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, is a bit more challenging to find these days but it is available at many local libraries.