Kwanzaa may not be a religious holiday, but for those who celebrate it, it remains just as meaningful a celebration, focusing on honoring African American culture and community. 

Founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, Kwanzaa emerged as part of the fight toward equality coinciding with the ongoing civil rights movement at the time. At such a perilous time for the African American community in the United States, the nonreligious holiday was created to celebrate African American familial, social and cultural values. 

Karenga also created Kwanzaa as a cultural response to the commercialism of Christmas. On Karenga’s personal website, he states that it is important “to know our past and honor it, to engage our present and improve it.” It was not intended to replace religious holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah, rather it was seen as a supplemental holiday. 

Kwanzaa experienced a rise in the ‘80s and ‘90s but in recent years, has decreased in popularity. In 2009, Keith Mayes, author of “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition,” estimated that only around half a million to 2 million Americans carry on with Kwanzaa’s annual traditions. 

What is Kwanzaa?

The word “Kwanzaa” translates to the word “first” in the Swahili language, referring to the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning the first fruits of harvest. Karenga was inspired by the first fruits festivals in South Africa, which are celebrated in December and January. The second “a” at the end of Kwanzaa was added to make the word seven letters long, correlating to the holiday’s seven principles and its seven-day run.

Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with each day being dedicated to one of seven principles central to the holiday. Each night, families light a candle on the kinara, a seven-branched candle holder. Typically, the kinara consists of red, green and black colors. Red represents struggles, black represents the people and green represents hope for the future. After lighting the kinara each of the seven nights, families will gather to discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa along with the corresponding principle of the day. 

Candles are lit every night of Kwanzaa, each representing one of the guiding principles. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tim Caldwell

The seven principles established by Karenga, altogether known as “Nguzo Saba” in Swahili, are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Karenga created these as a foundation and reminder of certain values that are beneficial to possess, especially during times of oppression, devastation and disease. 

“Indeed, the Nguzo Saba offer us an African value system that provides morally grounded guidance for our lives and living,” said Karenga in last year’s annual founder’s message. 

Families celebrate Kwanzaa with a variety of foods throughout the week, usually a mix of old and newer African-inspired dishes. On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, a special feast known as the karamu takes place in which families reflect on the Nguzo Saba. Foods at the feast range anywhere from Southern comfort food to Caribbean dishes. Being such a contemporary holiday, there are not a lot of strict rules which leads to a diaspora of dishes. With principles such as creativity and self-determination, it is typical to see a diverse number of approaches in how to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Some staples, however, will always be fruits and vegetables (the mazoa), which represents the bounty of African harvests, as well as ears of corn (the muhindi), which represent fertility and also reflect the number of children. At the karamu, there are also gifts for children and a community cup known as the kikombe cha umoja, which each member traditionally takes turns drinking out of, symbolizing unity. However, this may currently not be recommended, since COVID-19 continues to circulate.

Where to Celebrate in Orange County

As the omicron variant spreads across the nation, mask mandates are being reinstated and public health experts urge O.C. residents to avoid large gatherings. Because of this, community events for Kwanzaa may be hard to come across this year. 

For families still looking to safely learn about or celebrate Kwanzaa in person, Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine welcomes visitors to enjoy weeklong festivities through Dec. 31. Leslie Perovich, chief operating officer at the museum, understands Kwanzaa may not be as well known as other mainstream holidays. She hopes the museum can encourage both children and adults to be open-minded to different worldly perspectives, through activities celebrating an array of holidays such as Kwanzaa.

Families may enjoy crafts and other activities that encourage unity, reflecting a major principle of Kwanzaa. This craft station is set up at Pretend City in Irvine. Credit: CRYSTAL HENRIQUEZ, Voice of OC

“We have a very robust program called Developing and Discovering Diversity,” Perovich said. “It’s an opportunity to share different religions, cultures and backgrounds.” 

A part of the Developing and Discovering Diversity program, Kwanzaa activities at the museum this week include story times explaining the seven principles and traditions, Kwanzaa inspired arts and crafts and more. Masks are required inside the museum for all guests ages 2 and older and advance reservations are recommended.

There are also a few virtual events available to enjoy from home with family.

Kwanzaa 2021 with The Wright

For seven nights, join the Michigan-based Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in celebrating the seven principles of Kwanzaa online through songs, dances, poetry reading, storytelling and more. 

Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Unity

The L.A.-based Robey Theatre Company presents a new play this year, free to watch on Zoom starting Dec. 26. The play follows a Ghanan professor, Dr. Agu, who has traveled back to Africa to explore his roots. Unable to travel back to America, he resorts to teaching his students back home a proper history of Kwanzaa, and in the play he dives into all seven principles of the holiday and more. Performances can be accessed via Zoom every day through Jan. 1.

Crystal Henriquez is a writing fellow for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at

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