What is Kwanzaa? 7 enlightening facts about the holiday

In 2022, Kwanzaa celebrates its 56th anniversary but compared to its more popular counterparts, it is relatively unknown.

Here are a few facts to help anyone that is curious and considering celebrating this holiday.

It was created in 1966 by Pan-African activist and academic Maulana Karenga

Karenga, born Ron Everett, created the holiday during a particularly tumultuous time in American history. Karenga was a member of US Organization, or simply US, a black nationalist group that was providing relief after the Watts riots broke out in 1965. According to TIME, this turbulent season is when Everett created Kwanzaa. "He saw that black people here had no holidays of their own and felt that holidays give a people a sense of identity and direction." Imamu Clyde Halisi, then national chairman of US, told the magazine in 1972.

Kwanzaa is observed for seven days, and there is a different value for each day

On each night, a candle is lit to observe the nguzo saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The principles of Kwanzaa are: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

The candles include one black, three red and three green. The colors red, black and green are important to Pan-Africanists. Black represents "the people" while red is for the blood spilled in the struggle for liberation and green for the future of black liberation.

Credit: JESSICA MCGOWAN / jmcgowan@ajc.com

Credit: JESSICA MCGOWAN / jmcgowan@ajc.com

Kwanzaa is a secular holiday

The holiday draws influence from a variety of African cultures and practices. "Kwanzaa self-consciously avoids theological emphasis, for it is this emphasis that reveals and cultivates differences. What Kwanzaa does stress is the ethical which brings forth the best of African and human thought and practice and offers a basis of common ground," Karenga said in a 2000 interview with Belief Net.

Kwanzaa is open to people of other cultures

There’s a common misconception that Kwanzaa is closed to non-black people because of its radical roots. However, according to the official Kwanzaa website, anyone is welcome to celebrate the holiday, comparing it to other cultural holidays.”Other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans,” Karenga said in an interview with the site.

Credit: Deborah Cannon

Credit: Deborah Cannon

It is often celebrated along with Christmas

In the holiday's early years, it was frowned upon to celebrate Kwanzaa and Christmas. As it became more popular, participants began to observe both holidays. "We definitely had to come to terms with Kwanzaa," Celeste Morris, a mother of two, told the New York Times in 1990. "It was easier when the kids were younger because they didn't really grasp the full meaning of the holidays. As they got older, they wanted Christmas. Kwanzaa was good food; Christmas was toys." Still, the official Kwanzaa website urges families to not mix Kwanzaa with Christmas symbols because it contradicts the principle of kujichagulia.

Kwanzaa’s dates weren’t chosen because of Christmas or Hannukah, according to Karenga

Although Kwanzaa is often observed with Christmas and resembles Hanukkah in format, Karenga claims the dates have a different origin. "A central model for Kwanzaa is umkhosi or the Zulu first-fruit celebration which is seven days and is celebrated about this time," Karenga said in the Belief Net interview. "Other first-fruit celebrations were celebrated at the end of the old year and the beginning of the New Year such as Pert-em-Min of ancient Egypt. So, Kwanzaa's model is older than Christmas and Hanukkah and thus does not borrow from them or seek to imitate them..." This differs from what Halisi told TIME in 1972. "It begins Dec. 26," said Halisi, "so we'll be in a position to benefit from the after-Christmas sales."

Credit: Richard Hartog

Credit: Richard Hartog

At the end of the week, gifts are exchanged and there’s a feast

On the seventh night, gifts are exchanged. Handmade gifts are preferred and the items must relate to the principles. Typically, children are the primary recipients. The gift exchange must always include a book and a “heritage symbol,” or item that represents African history and traditions. Kwanzaa concludes with a feast called the karamu. Hosts are encouraged to display their most beautiful art and African cloths along with fresh fruit and vegetables.

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