Learning About Kwanzaa, an African American & Pan-African Celebration

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

While Kwanzaa itself isn't directly linked to knitting, it has been through the knitting community that I have learned about Kwanzaa. I'd always assumed it was a religious holiday, but I'd never taken the effort to look into it.

It was last year (2019) during Caleisha's, of Quirky Monday, Vlogmas videos (Days 26-32) that I first learned about Kwanzaa and the meaning behind it. Like most, if not all, holidays and traditions, individuals and families may celebrate differently, but the core concepts are the same. I appreciate the reflection that is a part of this holiday, and I feel that those of us that are not Black can learn from and appreciate this holiday as well. I also believe that many of the principles and reflections can be applied to the knitting community: listening to and respecting voices of the community for the sake of unity, harnessing creativity, possessing a community over competition attitude, and supporting one another.

Over the next seven days (the duration of Kwanzaa), I will continue to add to this post with any additional stories and resources that come up. I have one story that was shared with me (if you have additional stories or memories, or want to share what Kwanzaa means to you, feel free to share in the Kwanzaa survey here), and otherwise I will link articles and other sources of information from those that celebrate. My goal in this is to highlight and share the Black voices, so we can learn about and appreciate the African American culture.

Note: Photos are from the Happy Kwanzaa collection on Pexels


About the Celebration

Today, Ceci from CreativeCeci on Instagram shared about the meaning behind Kwanzaa and how her family shares. You can find her post here.

Additional information about Kwanzaa, the traditions, and what it means follow.

From Kwanzaa 101: Your User-Friendly Guide:

"[Kwanzaa was] Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa celebrates foundational values of African culture that build and reinforce family, community, and culture among African Americans and Africans throughout the world.

Each day in the seven-day celebration, which runs December 26 to January 1 every year, emphasizes one of seven principles, known as Nguzo Saba. Here they are, in English and Swahili, with a handy phonetic pronunciation guide:

  1. Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–hah): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

  2. Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

  3. Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–man): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

  4. Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–man): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

  5. Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

  6. Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

  7. Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

From Kwanzaa 2020: What to know about the holiday:

"What does Kwanzaa mean?

The name of the holiday comes directly from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" meaning "first fruits." Celebrations surrounding "first fruits" have a deep history in African culture and major religions, although Kwanzaa itself is not a religious holiday.

What do the colors red, green and black symbolize?

[B]lack symbolizes the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle. Black, red and green candles are lit on the Kinara, a candle holder, during the holiday.

What are the seven symbols of Kwanzaa?

The seven symbols of Kwanzaa are the Kinara (candleholder), Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), Mkeka (the mat) Mazao (crops), Muhindi (ears of corn), Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup) and Zawadi (gifts)."

Kwanzaa Traditions

A The Oprah Magazine article discusses eight traditions of Kwanzaa that "Celebrate the Power of Honoring Our Past." The traditions included within the article are Assembling the Kwanzaa display, Lighting the candles, Reflecting on the principle of the day, Preparing and sharing food, Honoring ancestors, Sharing your talents, Giving gifts to children, and Reflecting deeply during Imani. Many of these traditions are specific to one day, but lighting the candles and reflecting happens each day. The article shares, "'We talk about how the different principles have meaning in our lives—what we have been through in the last year, and how we hope to embody the principles in the upcoming year,' says Dr. Monica Coleman, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware."

Learning Resources:

Kwanzaa 101: Your User-Friendly Guide

Children's Kwanzaa Virtual Show & Tell (for ages 2-10)

Kwanzaa 2020: What to know about the holiday

Official Kwanzaa Website

These Kwanzaa Traditions Celebrate the Power of Honoring Our Past

Food, Decor, Traditions: The Meaningful Ways My Family Celebrates Kwanzaa


Day 1: Umoja // Unity

From the Official Kwanzaa Website:

"Umoja (Unity) is the first and foundational principle of the Nguzo Saba for without it, all the other principles suffer. Unity is both a principle and practice of togetherness in all things, good and of mutual benet, It is a principled and harmonious togetherness, not simply a being together."

The Official Kwanzaa Website also indicates that Unity includes Family Unity, Intergenerational Unity, Community Unity, and Pan-African Unity.

Tanya Cauren from YarnGoneWild_yarncraft on Instagram shared (via my Kwanzaa survey) about her experience celebrating Kwanzaa: "The gathering of friends over years, honoring our elders while instilling character building principles in the children as they recite each one and share its meaning," which ties directly to "Umoja, the first day of Kwanza is the principal of Unity. As we gathered in my home, there were heart print moments for all, as we embraced and reflected the tenet “it takes a village”."

Learning Resources:

Official Kwanzaa Website on Umoja

This Quirky Little Vlogmas (2019) Day 26: Umoja by Crafty Monday on YouTube

A Very Quirky Vlogmas (2020): Day 26 - Umoja by Craft Monday on YouTube


Day 2: Kujichagulia // Self-Determination

According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, Kujichagulia, or Self Determination, is "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves." The website outlines three parts: Commitment and Practice, Defining Identity, and Cultural Groundedness. The concept of Kujichagulia "demands that we as an African people define, defend and develop ourselves instead of allowing or encouraging others to do this."

This includes three questions: "Who am I, am I really who I am, and am I all I ought to be?" and the website continues to explain: "To answer the question of "Who am I?" correctly, then, is to know and live one's history and practice one's culture. To answer the question of "Am I really who I am?" is to have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign. And to answer the question of "Am I all I ought to be?" is to self-consciously possess and use ethical and cultural standards which measure men, women and children in terms of the quality of their thought and practice in the context of who they are and must become, in both an African and human sense."

The website also discusses Afrocentricity, what it is, and how it relates to Self-Determination, including that "Afrocentricity, as the core and fundamental quality of our self-determination, reaffirms our right and responsibility to exist as a people, to speak our own special truth to the world and to make our own contribution to the forward flow of human history."

Learning Resources:

Official Kwanzaa Website on Kujichagulia

This Quirky Little Vlogmas (2019) Day 27: Kujichagulia by Crafty Monday on YouTube

A Very Quirky Vlogmas (2020): Day 27 - Kujichagulia by Craft Monday on YouTube


Day 3: Ujima // Collective Work and Responsibility

The third principle of Kwanzaa is Ujima, or Collective Work & Responsibility: "To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

This Collective Work & Responsibility is about working for and as a community, so all can be free, and the Official Kwanzaa Website says it "supports the humanism that begins with commitment to and concern for the humans among whom we live and to whom we owe our existence." The website also shares that "cooperation is another key aspect of Ujima. It is based on the assumption that what one does to benefit others is at the same time a benefit to him/her."

"Such a commitment implies and encourages a vigorous capacity for self-criticism and self-correction which is indispensable to our strength, defense and development as a people." and "We must accept and live the principle of shared or collective work and responsibility in all things good, right and beneficial to the community." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

Learning Resources:

Official Kwanzaa Website on Ujima

This Quirky Little Vlogmas (2019) Day 28: Ujima by Crafty Monday on YouTube

A Very Quirky Vlogmas (2020): Day 28 - Ujima by Craft Monday on YouTube


Day 4: Ujamaa // Cooperative Economics

Like other principles, Ujamaa is also focused on the better good for the community as a whole. According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, Ujamaa means Cooperative Economics and is "To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together."

The website splits their page on Ujamaa into three categories: Shared Work and Wealth, Economic Self-Reliance, and Obligation of Generosity.

Within the Shared Work and Wealth section, the website states, "it is essential because without the principle and practice of shared wealth, the social conditions for exploitation, oppression and inequality as well as deprivation and suffering are increased."

"President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in his discussion of Ujamaa says, Ujamaa is "based on the assumption of human equality, on the belief that it is wrong for one (person) to dominate or exploit another, and on the knowledge that every individual hopes to live in a society as a free (person) able to lead a decent life, in conditions of peace with his (her) neighbor."44 Ujamaa, Nyerere tells us, is above all human centered—concerned foremost with the well-being, happiness and development of the human person. And the assumption is that the conditions for such well-being, happiness and development are best achieved in a context of shared social wealth." (Official Kwanzaa Website)

Within the Obligation of Generosity section, the website shares, "Also, inherent in Ujamaa is the stress and obligation of generosity especially to the poor and vulnerable," and that "this struggle is not simply to be generous to the poor and vulnerable but ultimately to end their poverty and vulnerability so that they too can live a decent, undeprived and meaningful life. For only in such a context will they be able to pursue the truly human without the limitation imposed by poverty, deprivation or the debilitating struggle for just life's basic necessities. To share wealth and work, then, is to share concern, care and responsibility for a new, more human and fulfilling future."

Learning Resources:

Official Kwanzaa Website on Ujamaa

This Quirky Little Vlogmas (2019) Day 29: Ujamaa by Crafty Monday on YouTube