Video Of The Day: The Real History Of Kwanzaa

Published December 26, 2015
Updated July 2, 2019

Discover how Kwanzaa became an African-American holiday.

Unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, and is only decades old.

Founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach in 1966, Kwanzaa was created as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and racial disturbances across the United States, Karenga aimed to bridge the gap within the African diaspora with a holiday honoring African heritage, especially in African-American culture. His goal was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, an East African language. Karenga combined aspects of several African harvest celebrations, such as those of Ashanti and Zulu, to shape the holiday’s principles. The rituals of the holiday promote African traditions and Nguzo Saba, a set of ideals created by Karenga that means the Seven Principles.

Families celebrate the first day of Kwanzaa, the day after Christmas, around five fundamental activities, including honoring ancestors in African history and an ingathering of friends, family, and community. They gather to light the kinara, a candle holder with seven candles in the colors of red, black, and green, reflecting the holiday’s Seven Principles.

In recent times, Kwanzaa’s popularity has declined, and University of Minnesota Professor Keith Mayes noted:

It just no longer shows up in some of the places that it did 30 to 40 years ago. You still have people who actually celebrate it. You have third generations of Kwanzaa celebrants…but Kwanzaa no longer has its movement, which brought it forth, which is the black power movement. That movement has waned.

Nonetheless, the holiday has gained popularity in Canada, France, Brazil, and many more nations around the world and continues to be celebrated today!

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