Kwanzaa | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Kwanzaa is an African American cultural holiday that has been adopted around the world, including in Canada, to celebrate African family, community and culture.


Dr. Maulana Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Everett) of the organization Us ― an American Black nationalist group ("Us" refers to "Us Black people") ― created Kwanzaa. It was established to affirm African American culture and unite Black communities after the devastating race riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1965. The first Kwanzaa was celebrated in 1966–67 and has been celebrated from 26 December to 1 January since then. (See also Black Canadians.)

Symbolism and Celebrations

The name Kwanza is derived from a Swahili phrase (matunda ya kwanza) meaning "first fruits." It is a seven-day celebration that comprises traditional African harvest festivals and draws on activities from cultures across Africa. Since "Kwanza"had only six letters, an extra "a" was added to make seven letters to parallel the seven principles of nguzo saba of Kwanzaa: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (co-operative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). The celebrations also last seven days to represent these seven values.

The seven symbols displayed during Kwanzaa represent community values: a straw mat as the community's foundation; fruits and vegetables represent food harvested together by African villagers; corn symbolizes each child in the family; a cup for sharing; a kinara or candle holder for seven candles; and homemade gifts to represent creativity and purpose. The seventh symbol are the candles: three red, three green and a black candle to represent the colours of the Pan-African flag symbolizing unity among African people.

To avoid mixing the values and meaning of Kwanzaa with other holiday festivities, and to ensure the principle of kujichagulia or self-determination, many families celebrate Kwanzaa in addition to other celebrations such as Christmas and other holiday observances.

The practice of celebrating Kwanzaa eventually spread to Canada. It may have been officially celebrated for the first time in 1993. Although it was created, as Karenga has said, 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 celebration may be marked by anyone.