Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that is unrelated to Christmas. Nevertheless, its founder, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a University of California at Los Angeles professor from Nigeria, placed the seven-day holiday between Christmas and New Year’s Day. He did so in order to provide an African-American alternative to Christmas, which he viewed as a European holiday. He also wanted to make Kwanzaa easy to celebrate by placing it during a week when many people were already celebrating and had time off from work or school. Kwanzaa begins on December 26 and lasts until January 1.
Dr. Karenga hoped that the new holiday, based on principles and symbols associated with African harvest festivals, would provide an ethnic celebration all African Americans could observe, regardless of religious affiliation. He also sought to create a holiday that emphasized communal and spiritual values, rather than the materialism he found rampant in American Christmas celebrations (see also COMMERCIALISM).
Karenga created the word “Kwanzaa” from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits.” Many African first fruits celebrations, or harvest festivals, last between seven and nine days. Accordingly, Karenga decided to have the new American festival continue for seven days. He added the extra “a” to the Swahili word kwanza so that the name of the new holiday, Kwanzaa, would contain seven letters.
Karenga selected seven principles from among the values most commonly held in high esteem by the peoples of Africa and honored in their harvest celebrations. One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is celebrated on each of the seven days of the festival. The seven principles include umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith). Kwanzaa celebrations also feature a seven-branched candleholder called a kinara. The kinara holds red, green, and black candles — colors symbolic of African identity. One candle is lit on each of the seven nights. On December 31 celebrants participate in a communal feast. On January 1, the last day of the festival, modest GIFTS are exchanged.
Since its founding in 1966 Kwanzaa has steadily grown in popularity. One researcher has estimated that over 18 million Americans observe Kwanzaa each year. Millions more are thought to celebrate the festival in Africa, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe.