The month of December is home to many holidays from different cultures around the world that celebrate coming together as a community – Kwanzaa among them.

Kwanzaa was invented by African American scholar and activist Maulana Ron Karenga in 1966 as a means to celebrate African American culture and community. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which translates to “first fruits.” It represents the African harvest festivals commemorating abundance and community that have taken place from antiquity to the present. 

As a nod to its African roots, much of the language surrounding Kwanzaa is Swahili – one of the most widely spoken languages on the African continent. Kwanzaa is celebrated by millions of people around the world annually Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. 

For each night of Kwanzaa, celebrants light a candle on a candle holder called a kinara, which can come in a variety of different sizes, shapes and materials with variations of artistic flair. 

The defining feature of a kinara is its seven wells for seven candles. The seven candles – three red, one black and three green – reflect the colors of the pan-African flag created by Marcus Garvey in 1920 to unite people of African descent. 

Each candle on each day of Kwanzaa represents one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa (Nguzo Saba) that promotes seven pillars of African culture: 

• Umoja (Unity).

• Kujichagulia (Self-Determination).

• Ujima (Collective Work & Responsibility).

• Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) Nia (Purpose).

• Kuumba (Creativity).

• Imani (Faith).

Caira Spenrath

Families use each day to reflect on the meaning of each principle by reading or reciting poetry and song, telling stories, dancing, feasting, attending community events and honoring past and present community members. On the last day, family members often give each other meaningful zawadi (gifts) that are tied to African culture in some way.  

Ultimately, to celebrate Kwanzaa is to celebrate African heritage, culture, and community. No matter how you celebrate this time of year, the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum wishes you and your family a happy holiday season of cheer!

Caira Spenrath is archivist at the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, a nonprofit grantee of the San Antonio Area Foundation.