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Kwanzaa is a cultural and reflective holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1 by people of African heritage in the Americas and around the world. In fact, 20 million people worldwide celebrate Kwanzaa today.

Based on ancient harvest festivals, this seven-day celebration honours African heritage and culture, family and community. Although the first Kwanzaa festivals were organized in the United States, this fairly new tradition has gained in popularity in Canada, France, Great Britain, Jamaica and Brazil.

Origin of the word Kwanzaa

The word Kwanzaa entered the English language in 1966. It comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits” or “first fruits of the harvest.” Here, kwanza means first and is spelled with a single final a. However, in keeping with the importance of the number seven (seven days of celebration, seven principles, seven symbols, seven candles), the original spelling was altered so that the word to denote the celebration could be spelled with seven letters.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa

During Kwanzaa week, families gather around a specially arranged table to eat and talk about the Nguzo Saba (pronounced en-GOO-zoh SAH-bah), the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa. Each night, families discuss one of the seven principles and how to apply it to their everyday life.

The Nguzo Saba represent the foundation of the Kwanzaa celebration and contribute to community building:

  • unity (umoja)
  • self-determination (kujichagulia)
  • collective work and responsibility (ujima)
  • economic cooperation (ujamaa)
  • purpose (nia)
  • creativity (kuumba)
  • faith (imani)

The Kwanzaa table

Another integral part of the Kwanzaa celebration is the Kwanzaa table, which displays the seven basic symbols of Kwanzaa. First, to represent the history and traditions of people of African heritage, a mat made of straw or fabric is placed on the table. Then, a seven-branched candle holder, called a kinara, serves as the centrepiece. The kinara represents the Nguzo Saba. Finally, fruits and vegetables, ears of corn, a unity cup and gifts surround the kinara. On each night of Kwanzaa, a new candle is lit, and families discuss one of the seven guiding principles, until all seven candles are lit.

To mark the second-last day of Kwanzaa, people join in a feast, or karamu, and children receive gifts on the last day of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa greetings

To greet others during Kwanzaa, you may use the typical Swahili greeting Habari gani? (pronounced hah-BAR-ee GAH-nee), which means “What is the news?” The person you greet responds with the name of the Nguzo Saba principle for that day.

Another Kwanzaa greeting in Swahili is Harambee!, which means “Let’s all pull together.”

Or you can simply wish someone “Happy Kwanzaa!”