The holiday was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a scholar-activist who is currently professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach. Several cities in the U.S. have issued proclamations in honor of the celebration of Kwanzaa. Among them are Baltimore, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia.
Kwanzaa as an African-American holiday belongs to the most ancient tradition in the world, the African tradition. Drawing from and building on this rich and ancient tradition, Kwanzaa makes its own unique contribution to the enrichment and expansion of African tradition by reaffirming the importance of family, community, and culture.
In his book titled, The African-American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, Dr. Karenga explains that KWANZAA is based on ancient African harvest celebrations. The word KWANZAA comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first fruits." KWANZAA is celebrated seven days, from December 26th through January 1st, a period which represents the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one. This time in African culture is called "the time when the edges of the year meet," which is a time of celebration, focus, and assessment.
African harvest celebrations have five basic aspects which KWANZAA also shares. They are: 1) in gathering of the people; 2) special reverence for the Creator and creation, especially thanksgiving and commitment; 3) commemoration of the past, especially paying homage to the ancestors; 4) re-commitment to our highest ethical and cultural values, especially Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles); and 5) celebration of the Good of life, especially family, community, and culture.
Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa to reaffirm African-Americans' rootedness in African culture, to reinforce the bonds between them as a people, and to introduce and reaffirm the value of the Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. The central reason Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days is to pay homage to The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa which in Swahili are: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani. The principles are also known as The Seven Principles of African American community development and serve as a fundamental value system.
Kwanzaa is represented by seven symbols: Mazao (crops), Mkeka (mat), Kinara (candle holder), Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), Muhindi (ears of corn), Zawadi (gifts), and Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup). The candle holder has seven candles, one black, three red and three green. The colors are black for Black people, red for their struggle and green for the hope and future that come from the struggle.
Each ear of corn represents the children in the family and community. The gifts are primarily for the children, but other family members can also receive gifts. The gifts should include a book and a heritage symbol to stress the ancient and continuing stress on the value of education and reaffirm the importance of culture and tradition. The unity cup is used to pour libation for the ancestors and it is drunk from as a ritual to reinforce unity in the family and community. All seven symbols are put on a Mkeka (straw mat). The Kwanzaa setting piece which includes the seven symbols is placed on a table or any other central location in the home.
The lighting of the candles begins on the first day of Kwanzaa, December 26th. The black candle is the first candle lighted. The second day of Kwanzaa, the black candle is relighted as well as the first candle to the left, a red candle, December 27th. Each day every candle which has been lighted is relighted along with the next candle of that day. Candles are lighted left to right alternately. The lighting practice is ordered to represent first the people (the black candle), then the struggle (the red candle), then the future and hope (the green candle) which comes from the struggle.
Dr. Maulana Karenga is professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He also is the director of the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies, Los Angeles, and national chairman of the organization Us, a cultural and social change organization. Moreover, Dr. Karenga is chair of the President's Task Force on Multicultural Education and Campus Diversity at California State University, Long Beach.
Dr. Karenga is author of numerous scholarly articles and eight books. His latest works are Introduciton to Black Studies, 2nd Edition, the most widely used intro text in Black Studies; his re-translation and commentary on ancient Egyptian texts which is titled, Selections From The Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt; The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture; and The Book of Coming Forth By Day: The Ethics of the Declarations of Innocence.
Dr. Karenga has taught Black Studies at California State University at Los Angeles, Long Beach, Dominguez Hills, San Diego and the University of California at Riverside. Moreover, he has served as Visiting Professor, Black Studies at University of Nebraska, Omaha. An activist-scholar of national and international recognition, he has lectured on the life and struggle of African peoples on the major campuses of the U.S.A. and in Africa, the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Trinidad, Britain, and Canada.
Dr. Karenga is also widely known as the creator of Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday celebrated also in Africa, the Caribbean, South America - especially Brazil, and African communities in Britain and other European countries. His philosophy of Kawaida is an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world. Moreover, he is the recipient of numerous awards for scholarship, leadership and community service including: The National Leadership Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievements in Black Studies from the National Council for Black Studies; The Diop Exemplary Leadership Award from the Department of African-American Studies -- Temple University; and The Citation for Scholarship, Leadership and Creation, Preservation and Promotion of African-American Culture from the City Council of Philadelphia.
Also, Dr. Karenga has recently received his second doctorate in Social Ethics at the University of Southern California. The title of his dissertation was "Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics." Finally, he recently served as a member of the executive council of the National Organizing Committee of the Million Man March/Day of Atonement and authored the Mission Statement for this joint project.
December 31st is the evening upon which the Kwanzaa Karamu (Feast) is held. This special evening is a time for feasting upon a variety of African-influenced meals as well as acknowledging the importance of history, culture, and family. (Check out the Kwanzaa Recipes in our main collection!)
When preparing for this special evening, special items, or symbols, are necessary. There are seven symbols. These items should be displayed as part of the Kwanzaa Karamu:
1) Mazao (fruit and vegetables)
2) Mkeka (place mat)
3) Kinara (candle holder for seven candles)
4) Vibunzi (ears of corn reflective of the number of children in the home)
5) Zawadi (gifts - usually for the children)
6) Kikombe Cha Umoja (community cup)
7) Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles)