Kwanzaa, the African American Hannukah

This article is also available in: Italiano

Let’s step outside our classic boundaries for a moment to introduce you to one of the key moments of African American culture: the Kwanzaa. A 7-day long festival that celebrates the pride of this people for its origins and its culture.


The festival of Kwanzaa was born in 1966 at the hands of the activist for the rights of African Americans Maulana Karenga. The latter invented the event to celebrate the beauty and richness of African American culture at a time when it was experiencing the height of its struggle, suffocated by a sick system and which still based its beliefs on the superiority of the race, a memory of an infamous past.

Maulana Karenga, in the center of the photo, celebrating Kwanzaa

Precisely for this reason, it bases its symbols above all on the culture of the continent of its ancestors, with an eye to the Swahili and Zulu world. The word Kwanzaa itself comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza which means “the first fruits of the season”. The date chosen instead, i.e. December 26 to January 1, reflects the Zulu festival of Umkhosi Wokweshwama, which is celebrated during the summer solstice for that people.


The main element of Kwanzaa is certainly the Kinara, a characteristic seven-branched wooden candlestick on which 7 candles are inserted: 3 green, 3 red and one black. They symbolize the 7 principles of Nguzo Saba, the 7 principles of African identity: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economy), Nia (the purpose of bringing back one’s own community to its ancient greatness), Kuumba (creativity) and finally Imani (faith).


Other very important symbols of the holiday are corn, the fruits of the last harvest, a cup, gifts and the Kikombe cha Umoja, a particular cup to commemorate one’s African ancestors. It is also customary to use traditional clothes of African culture and share meals with friends and relatives, in order to remember one’s origins with the members of one’s lineage. However, many of the African Americans also celebrate Christmas and New Year in the meantime.

An African American Hannukah

The Kwanzaa, in fact, should not be seen as a religious festival, but as a way to remember, at least once a year, the richness of one’s origins and one’s culture, too often denigrated over the centuries. Precisely by virtue of its artificial nature, however, it is natural to also see many symbols belonging to cultures other than the African one.


Very trivially, the kinara is clearly a direct descendant of the Jewish menorah, also celebrated during a festival, the hannukah, linked to the light; the idea of using specific elements for the table is very similar to the Persian one of the Nowruz but this could easily be a coincidence. Another small mistake of Karenga was to privilege the culture of East Africa which, fortunately for her, was actually less involved in slavery than the western side of the continent, which instead became one of the largest centers in the world. As a celebration of Afro-American identity, from this point of view we would have expected a greater historical-cultural coherence, without however detracting from the beauty and usefulness of the latter.

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