How Kwanzaa Works

By: Stephanie Watson  | 

The History of Kwanzaa

Although Kwanzaa has only been around for a few decades, its roots trace back to ancient African harvest celebrations. The name "Kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili phrase, "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits." Many of the first-fruits celebrations -- for example, the Umkhost of Zululand in Southern Africa -- were also seven days long.

Kwanzaa was the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor in and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University and a former civil rights activist. He introduced Kwanzaa in 1966, a time when African Americans were struggling for equal rights, as a means to help them connect with their African values and traditions. Dr. Karenga also wanted Kwanzaa to serve as a bond to unify African Americans as a community and as a people. He chose the dates -- December 26 to January 1 -- to coincide with the Judeo-Christian holiday season, which was already a time of celebration. And he chose a name that comes from the Swahili language because Swahili is spoken by a large number of East African people.


In the days of the early harvest celebrations, Africans would gather to celebrate their crops and reaffirm their bonds as a community. They would offer thanks to their creator for a bountiful harvest and a plentiful life. They would honor their ancestors and stress their commitment to their culture as well as celebrate their culture and community. The harvest ideals inspired Dr. Karenga to come up with the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.