Shayna Gutcho, W&M Libraries Mosaic Fellow, offers an introduction to Kwanzaa, explaining the history, significance, and symbolism of this pan-African celebration through resources available at the Special Collections Research Center.
Some people may assume that December 26 signifies an end to the holiday festivities, but for many people the celebration has only just begun. Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration that begins yearly on December 26 and culminates on January 1.
But what does Kwanzaa celebrate?
Black Power activist Dr. Maulana Karanga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a celebration of pan-Africanism and a commemoration of the different harvest festivals of various cultures in Africa.1 The word “Kwanzaa” derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which roughly translates to “first fruits of the harvest.” Kwanzaa festivities include singing, dancing, a feast on December 31, and lighting the seven candles of the Kinara.2
The Kinara’s candles, or Mishumaa Saba, come in three colors: black, red, and green. One black candle symbolizes the African people and their diasporic descendants. Three red candles represent their struggle, and three green candles exemplify the future and hope that emerge from that struggle. The candles are not lit from left to right nor are they lit from right to left. Rather, the one black candle is lit first and with each day, the red and green candles are alternately lit from the outside of the Kinara inward.3
These seven candles represent the Nguzo Saba, or “Seven Principles”4:
- Unity (Umoja)
- Self Determination (Kijichagulia)
- Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima)
- Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa)
- Purpose (Nia)
- Creativity (Kuumba)
- Faith (Imani)
Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of these principles, which together are known as Kawaida, meaning “common” or “tradition.”
In addition to the candles and Kinara, five other celebratory symbols also commonly appear on a household’s Kwanzaa Table5:
- The Mat (Mkeka): A woven mat, often made of fabric or raffia, upon which the other symbols are laid.
- The Unity Cup (Kikombe cha Umoja): Usually filled with water, juice, or wine, this cup symbolizes family and unity. Some liquid is poured from the cup in remembrance of ancestors.
- The Crops (Mazao): Fruits and vegetables from the harvest.
- The Corn (Muhindi): An ear of corn represents each child in the family. If there are no children, one ear of corn is placed to show the children in the community.
- Gifts (Zawadi): Often educational gifts for children that remind them of their African heritage.
While not all African Americans or people of the African diaspora observe Kwanzaa, its creation and celebration remain powerful signifiers of collective unity, resilience, and remembrance.
To further explore the symbolism of Kwanzaa, check out the Special Collections Research Center’s Kwanzaa Greeting Cards and Stickers from the Racial and Ethnic Ephemera Collection (Mss. 1.05, Series 1). These cards illustrate images of Kwanzaa and serve as reminders of an important, spirited holiday often forgotten or misunderstood in mainstream media. For insight into Kwanzaa celebrations on campus, check out the Center for Student Diversity Records (UA 260). Since 1996, the CSD has hosted an annual "Pre-Kwanzaa Celebration" for students and community members.
If you are interested in learning more about Kwanzaa and Maulana Karanga, The HistoryMakers, an oral history database committed to sharing and preserving the stories of African Americans, has a collection of narratives from people who celebrate Kwanzaa. Lived experiences and first-hand accounts take priority here as The HistoryMakers seeks to compile a more inclusive record of American history and culture.
References and More to Explore:
1. History Channel. (2009, October 14). Kwanzaa. History.com. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/kwanzaa-history.
3. Kwanzaa. (2019). WhyChristmas.com. Retrieved from https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/kwanzaa.shtml.
Finding aid for Kwanzaa Greeting Cards and Stickers (undated) from the Racial and Ethnic Ephemera Collection (Mss. 1.05).
Finding aid for the Center for Student Diversity Records (UA 260).
Explore "A non-black person's guide to Kwanzaa" from Kendall Trammell at CNN.