What is Kwanzaa? It is an Original African American Holiday

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

When someone hears the expression “Happy Holidays!” they may not understand what other “holidays” take place at the end of the year outside of Christmas and the New Year. But there are other holiday traditions that take place during the month of December and January, including the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, the pagan Yule (Winter Solstice) festivals and other Christian holidays besides Christmas, such as St. Nicholas Day, Posadas Navidenas and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In that same spirit, we would like to share information on the African American holiday of Kwanzaa, in an article previously posted last year.

Originally Published December 30, 2021

Diversifying the Curriculum by Learning about Kwanzaa: With Resources for Teachers
In one of our past posts we wrote about cultural diversity during the holiday season in an article entitled Lesson Planning for Diversity in Holiday Celebrations. In this article we would like to expand upon the theme of diversity during the holidays and discuss Kwanzaa, briefly focusing on the history and cultural background of the holiday. 

Sue Barr/Getty Images

History of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is an African American seven-day cultural festival celebrated after Christmas every December 26 to January 1. The holiday began in the US and is now a global, pan African phenomenon. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a major figure in the Black power movement in the US. Karenga developed the holiday subsequent to the tumultuous Watts riots in California, triggered by rising tensions between Blacks and White authorities due to racial discrimination in the Los Angeles area. As a revolutionary, Karenga established Kwanzaa as a sort of cultural revolution for African Americans, which he argued was needed before a physical revolution could take place. That is, a violent revolution needed an ideological foundation on which to build upon. Karenga saw Kwanzaa as helping to fulfill that goal. 

The holiday was originally designed, in Karenga’s own words–  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.” Initially, Karenga had viewed Kwanzaa as a counter to Christmas, viewing Christianity as a “White” religion that should be abandoned by African Americans. But as the holiday grew in popularity he changed his position, arguing that Kwanzaa was inclusive and could be practiced by Christians or persons of any faith or holiday tradition.

Historical/Cultural Origins of Kwanzaa
The name Kwanzaa was taken from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits” in Swahili. The idea for the holiday was inspired by the first fruits festivals that exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice. Specifically, Karenga drew ideas for the holiday from the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama, a popular festival that celebrates the December solstice. The holiday’s name is spelled with an additional “a” so that it would have a symbolic seven letters in accordance with the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Dr. Maulana Karenga

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
The holiday highlights the seven principles of Kwanzaa (or Nguzo Saba). This was originally called Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage. The seven principles are all Swahili words that collectively make up the concept Kawaida or “common” philosophy. Kwaida (Also developed by Karenga) is a mixture of nationalist, pan-Africanist, and socialist values. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa correspond with one of the seven principles. The principles are as follows:

Day One- Umoja (Unity): This is a call for the Black community to strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Day Two- Kujichagulia (Self-determination): This is a call for the Black community to “define and name” themselves, “as well as to create and speak” for themselves. Kujichagulia represents the ability to have control over one’s choices and destiny. 

Day Three- Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): This principle has to do with togetherness and interdependence in the black community. To build and maintain the Black “community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.”

Day Four- Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): Jim Clingman uses the term Blackonomics to describe this phenomenon. The idea is “to build and maintain” African American owned “stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” This is not to create a separatist society but to counteract the fact that many African Americans have been shut out of the American dream.

Day Five- Nia (Purpose): This tenet calls for the Black community to make their “collective vocation the building and developing of their community” in order to restore Black “people to their traditional greatness.”

Day Six- Kuumba (Creativity): This is a call for people of African descent to always do as much as they can, in the way they can, “in order to leave the community more beautiful and beneficial than when it was inherited.” Kuumba is the celebration and advancement of arts in the Black community, including the visual and performing arts as well as the humanities.

Day Seven- Imani (Faith): Imani is the seventh and final day of Kwanza. It calls for people of African descent to “believe with all their hearts in their people, their parents, their teachers, their leaders, and the righteousness and victory of the struggle.” The African American Registry’s website says the following about Imani: “The seventh day focuses on Imani or faith. This principle focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind. Imani affirms our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.”

As the United States moves towards a more socially just society and continues to work to diversify the curriculum, teachers can integrate lessons about kwanzaa and its seven principles into their classrooms. Here are some resources and lesson ideas to assist teachers in this effort.

Resources and Lesson Plans
Click here to learn more from this article, Understanding Kwanzaa.
Cincinnati Public Radio’s Classics for Kids has published information here about the musical aspects of Kwanzaa.
Illinois Public Radio published an informative article about Kwanzaa in 2020 entitled The history and traditions of Kwanzaa that serves as good further reading on the topic.
Here is the official Kwanzaa website for more information.

Lesson Plans/Units on teaching Kwanzaa
7 Kwanzaa Activities for Elementary Students
Celebrate Kwanzaa in the United States by Scholastic
Kwanzaa Teacher Resources
Kwanzaa Lesson Plans
Kwanzaa Lesson Plan: Habari Gani (What’s the News)?
Kwanzaa Homeschool Activities

Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:


  1. This was a very enlightening read! I have heard of Kwanzaa, but if someone had ever asked me to explain what the holiday consisted of I would have had no clue. One of the main reasons I picked this article to read was because I am very ignorant on this matter. I thought it was very interesting to see the backstory behind this holiday, and the fact that this holiday was only created in 1966. For this being a relatively new holiday, you would think it would be talked more about in school. this is just one example of the lack of recognition and coverage of black culture in school.

  2. I find this article very interesting. I never knew Kwanzaa was a thing. I am interested in how different cultures other than my own celebrate holidays and therefore interested in Kwanzaa. I enjoyed learning a bit about it here.

  3. Until reading this article, the only familiarity I had with Kwanzaa was through Kwanzaa-bot on Futurama. I never knew that it was founded in relatively recent times by an American; I always thought it was a traditional holiday among some African nations that was brought over to the U.S. In this age since the advent of the internet, when we are inundated with a deluge of fake “national holidays” like National Hot Dog Day, Kwanzaa really should get more attention. I am an Atheist, so secular holidays are my jam, but I think that a holiday that “give[s] blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society” is worth much more than the celebration of a two thousand year old birthday (that most likely isn’t actually the correct date anyway).

  4. This article was very informative! Before this I didn’t understand what Kwanzaa was and what it meant. I like how it went through the seven principles of Kwanzaa and what each one meant and what they do. I think it is cool how it was found in 1966 and started in the US. Kwanzaa sounds like a really fun holiday and I enjoyed reading this article and learning more about it.

  5. This article was interesting to me because I had never put in any effort to learn about Kwanzaa; the most I ever knew about it was from Kwanzaa-bot in Futurama. In these times where it seems like there is a “National Hot Dog Day” or “National Pet Day” every single day, the founding of holidays seems kind of meaningless. I would say the majority of the National -blank- Day holidays are created by companies to sell products, which is fine as long as they aren’t taken too seriously. On the other hand, the institution of Kwanzaa in 1966 was fueled by a man who saw a people that yearned for something of their own to celebrate that wasn’t just, in his own words, “imitat[ing] the practice of the dominant society.” There is seemingly nothing religious or spiritual about it, which may be a reason for some to discount it as on the same level as those commercial holidays mentioned previously. I’m sure there are many out there that if a holiday isn’t related to religion or nationalism (for example, Memorial Day), the holiday is not valid. However, that misses Dr. Karenga’s point; Kwanzaa is a reason for a marginalized and minoritized group of people to come together to celebrate who they are, their roots, and where they are headed in the future. That, in my opinion, is an even more valid reason for a holiday than anything that celebrates a two thousand year old birthday or death of a saint.

  6. I am very happy I chose to read and react to this article about Kwanzaa because I was looking to research it more. I learned that it was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga. I think its cool that there is an alternative holidays for African Americans if they do not want to celebrate Christmas.

  7. I really enjoyed this article! I have recently started doing research about Kwanzaa to learn more about it and start to practice this tradition. This article did a great job of explaining and breaking down the days and meanings of the days for Kwanzaa. I love how it explained the meaning behind Kwanzaa and why it became a tradition and it really helped me understand this celebration better.

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