What is Kwanzaa and how to celebrate this serene cultural holiday

Dec. 8, 2023
A young girl with lit candles showing how to celebreate Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that celebrates the achievements of Africans and African Americans. Learn how to celebrate Kwanzaa. Photo: Getty Images.

Are you craving a calm, non-commercial holiday that helps you to reflect on past accomplishments and prepare for a better future?

Then Kwanzaa is a perfect celebration to add to your December traditions.

What is Kwanzaa and how to celebrate it?

Kwanzaa is the fastest-growing holiday in the world. It’s a non-religious celebration created by African Americans 55 years ago to highlight Black people’s accomplishments throughout history and honor Black leaders here in the U.S. and worldwide. The holiday lasts from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 every year and is not just for Africans and African Americans. People of all races and ethnicities are welcome to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, which is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits, is based on African harvest festivals. And, the good news is that Kwanzaa, by design, is a low-stress affair focused on friends, family and community. Kwanzaa is explicitly not about buying presents or other stuff. You can join in Kwanzaa celebrations at designated Kwanzaa events. Or, you can light some candles at home, eat a good meal and talk with loved ones about the year that has passed and the one that is coming, quietly reflecting on triumphs and disappointments while also setting goals for the future.

Revered poet Maya Angelou narrated a seminal documentary about Kwanzaa called “The Black Candle” and described the holiday this way: “Kwanzaa is a time when we honor our family, our community and our heritage. We give special thanks for the harvest of good in our lives. We remember our glorious past and celebrate the future.”

So, what do people do for Kwanzaa and how can everyone celebrate Kwanzaa? We talked with Kwanzaa leaders in Colorado to answer your questions and highlight how everyone can join in Kwanzaa celebrations.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. African drummers perform at a Kwanzaa celebration.
African drummers perform at a Kwanzaa celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.

Who created Kwanzaa?

Maulana Karenga, a Black professor and chair of the department of African American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa. He wanted to create a positive holiday for Black people after California’s devastating Watts Uprising in 1965.

I hear the number seven is important in Kwanzaa celebrations. Why is that?

Kwanzaa focuses on a Swahili phrase, Nguzo Saba, which means “Seven Principles.”

What are the seven principles?

The seven principles of Kwanzaa (in the order of days that you celebrate them) are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. There are also seven symbols: fruits/nuts/vegetables, placemats, ears of corn, candles, candle holders, communal cups and gifts. These seven symbols are arranged on a table at the beginning of Kwanzaa. On each day, families or communities gather to discuss the principles, read poems or enjoy musical or dance performances.

Colorful candles and colors in general are an important part of Kwanzaa celebrations. What do the colors symbolize?

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. A young man lights a candle during a Kwanzaa celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.
A young man lights a candle during a Kwanzaa celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.

Red, black and green are important symbols for Kwanzaa. Red symbolizes the struggles that Africans and African Americans have faced. Black represents the earth and Black people. And green symbolizes hope and the future. Kwanzaa candles are arranged in a holder, with a black candle in the center and red and green candles on the sides. People celebrate Kwanzaa by lighting one candle each day.

How do people greet each other during Kwanzaa?

On each day of Kwanzaa, participants greet each other with the phrase “havari gani,” a Swahili phrase which roughly translates as “What’s up?” or “What’s the news?” Celebrants answer with that day’s Kwanzaa principle.

Are there gifts for Kwanzaa?

No. Gifts are not necessary. But, if parents give children anything, they focus on small educational gifts, like books.

Is Kwanzaa a religious celebration?

No. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday based on harvest festivals in Africa.

Can people who celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas also celebrate Kwanzaa?

Yes. Kwanzaa is open to everyone, whether people are religious or not. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday like Day of the Dead, Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July. It’s a time when everyone in a community can gather together to celebrate African history and pride in the Black community.

Does anyone celebrate Kwanzaa in Colorado?

Yes. There are vibrant celebrations in Denver and Colorado Springs. Denver recently lost the longtime and much beloved leader of Kwanzaa celebrations, Theodora Jackson. She will be honored at Denver Kwanzaa celebrations this year.

Kwanzaa brings people together, and everyone is welcome to celebrate. .For more information on Kwanzaa celebrations in Denver, please check out the Denver organizers’ Facebook page.

Join the annual Colorado Springs Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration, free and open to the public.

The Colorado Springs celebration is a 6-day community celebration. On the final evening on Jan. 1, people celebrate in their homes.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. A young girl is dressed in traditional African garb. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.
A young girl is dressed in traditional African garb for a celebration. Photo courtesy of the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado.

The Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado (formerly known as the Colorado Springs Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration) sponsors the event. The group has been celebrating Kwanzaa in Colorado Springs since 1989. Kuumba Cultural Collective also sponsors a Pre-Kwanzaa African Marketplace in November every year and hosts Black history lectures, African drumming and dance festivals, Black history film and community discussions and exhibitions of work by African American artists and writers.

Dr. Anthony P. Young, a retired clinical and forensic psychologist, is one of the founders of the Colorado Springs Kwanzaa events.

Young said there’s a great deal of confusion about Kwanzaa. He wants people to know that it’s an inclusive, welcoming event for Black folks and others too.

“We’re celebrating who and what we have been throughout history, not just in the U.S. People of African descent have played an important role all over the planet since time immemorial,” Young said.

“We come together for Kwanzaa with our families and our community to celebrate our heritage,” he said.

Young loves the simplicity of Kwanzaa and starting the new year with joy and resolve.

“The important thing is our relationships with each other. Kwanzaa, at its core, is a celebration of family, culture and community,” Young said. “We reflect on the previous year and identify ways to make the upcoming year more beneficial for the community collectively.”

Learn more about the Kuumba Cultural Collective of Southern Colorado on its website.

Additionally, there are seven symbols associated with Kwanzaa and are also expressed in Swahili. Mazao, (fruits, vegetables, and nuts), mkeka (place mat), the kinara (candleholder), vibunzi (ear of corn), zawadi (gifts), kikombe cha umoja (communal cup of unity), and mishumbaa saba (the seven candles placed in the kinara).

Join in virtual Kwanzaa events sponsored by the Denver Public Library

Virtual Kwanzaa events continue this year. The benefit of the virtual celebration is that many more people can attend.

“Kwanzaa is a wonderful, cross-cultural celebration,” said Hadiya Evans, a librarian at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. “We’re honoring our ancestors, which is important across cultures. We also honor youth. Each day, we light a candle and intentionally think about how to connect with the principle on that day.

How to celebrate Kwanzaa. A woman dances during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library
A woman dances during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library.

“You celebrate the end of the year and welcome the next. The seven principles guide you intentionally into the new year. All of them are very meaningful. They encompass the individual, the family and the community,” Evans said.

Registration for the Kwanzaa events is encouraged, but not required.

Browse the Denver Public Library catalog for books, videos, and more about Kwanzaa.

View the Kwanzaa calendar and sign up in advance to join (recommended, but not required).

Learn about Kwanzaa by watching The Black Candle, which is available to stream online.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.