Most people find this time of year full of holiday traditions, with family and friends, and at home, work, and houses of worship. Festivals, tree-lighting ceremonies, plays, and religious services celebrated by countless faiths dot our calendars. In the African American community, Kwanzaa is one tradition that has gained prevalence and is a mainstay in many families.


What is Kwanzaa, what are its origins, and how is it celebrated?

Kwanzaa’s Origins

Dr. Maulana Karenga, an educator, activist and author of numerous books, is credited with creating Kwanzaa in 1966.


“Kwanzaa” is derived from matunda ya kwanza, which is a Kiswahili phrase for first fruits.


Karenga chose Swahili because it is the most widely spoken out of 1,500-2,000 African languages. Karenga’s purpose for creating Kwanzaa was to foster unity and help African Americans remember their roots during a time of racial strife in the 1960s.


Based on traditional African harvest festivals

The number seven is an integral part of Kwanzaa (seven letters): it is celebrated for seven days from December 26 to January 1, uses seven primary symbols, and emphasizes seven key principles.


How is Kwanzaa Celebrated?

With a focus on family, community, and culture, the Kwanzaa holiday involves all ages. Even though its roots are in Africa, people from all races and ethnic backgrounds are invited to share in this rich tradition.

Through the years, it has been frequently integrated with family Christmas and New Year celebrations. The first U.S. postage stamp to commemorate Kwanzaa was issued in 1997. There have been five designs released since then, the most recent being in 2016.


Seven Symbols

  1. First, a mat (Mkeka) is placed down. Typically woven of African fabric or straw, this is a symbol of tradition. All other symbols are placed on top of it.
  2. Next is the candleholder (Kinara) that holds seven candles.
  3. One candle (Mishumaa Saba) for each of the seven principles of Kwanzaa or the Nguzo Saba is placed in the kinara.
  4. The unity cup (Kikombe cha Umoja) is the fourth symbol.
  5. Crops (Mazao) including fruits, vegetables, and nuts represent African harvest festivals and the community’s collective labor.
  6. An ear of corn for each child in the household represents fertility (Muhindi). If there are no children in the household, two ears of corn are displayed, signifying that everyone is responsible for the community’s children.
  7. Finally, gifts (Zawadi) embellish the table. Given on the final night, gifts are specifically reserved for children, and are usually handmade or contain some cultural value, such as a historical book or heritage symbol.


Seven Candles

Similar to other faith traditions, candles represent each day of Kwanzaa and are the focal point of the display. The color as well as the order in which each are lit is important.

  • One black candle represents the people and unity. It is placed in the center and is lit the first night and every night thereafter with the other candles.
  • Three red candles represent the noble blood that unites all people (and was shed in the past). The first red candle is lit on the second night.
  • Three green candles represent the earth or the abundance of possibilities the future holds. The green candle is lit on the third night. Red and green candle lighting alternates until day seven is reached.


Seven Principles – Nguzo Saba

Each day of Kwanzaa represents one of the seven principles, or nguzo saba. Together, the seven principles make up kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Kwanzaa celebrants are encouraged to discuss, meditate on, and dedicate themselves to a different concept every day:

  1. Umoja (unity): commemorates togetherness not only in family, friend and community groups but in the world African population.
  2. Kujichagulia (self-determination): honors the ability to define, create and speak for self.
  3. Ujima (collective work and responsibility): focuses on communal problem-solving and consensus-building.
  4. Ujamaa (cooperative economics): spotlights sharing work and wealth and following non-exploitative business practices that benefit the whole community.
  5. Nia (purpose): a commitment to upholding Black history and heritage and regaining prominence as a culture.
  6. Kuumba (creativity): explores the obligation to beautify the community for future generations. During this time, there is often community exhibitions of dance, poetry, and live African drumming.
  7. Imani (faith): focuses on being positive and believing in the potential of the self and the community as a whole.


As with most holiday traditions, food is central. Karamu is celebrated each day, but most especially on the sixth day, New Year’s Eve. African American delicacies, as well as traditional African, Caribbean, and South American recipes make this tradition one to look forward to.



The last principle, Imani (faith), is celebrated on January 1st

Whatever your faith, Imani is a day of meditation, reverence, and renewal. It is a reflection of lessons learned during the past year and consideration of your path forward into the new year.

As shared by Alison Cooper in 5 Kwanzaa Traditions, a central concept of Kwanzaa is that you cannot know yourself without knowing where you came from. Dr. Karenga notes that, in the tradition of the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, January 1 can also be called a Day of Remembrance or Day of Assessment. To understand self, you must pay homage to your heritage and understand your role in your community.


A holiday tradition

Kwanzaa’s seven principles point the way for remembering ancestors, acknowledging the strengths, talents and gifts in your family, and charting a course for unity, collective responsibility, purpose, and unlimited potential. It is a holiday tradition that is open for everyone to participate.




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Melanie Houston is president of Vision Resources, Inc. with more than twenty years’ grant and proposal writing experience with non-profit and for-profit organizations. Her passion for serving and expertise has garnered $8 million in client awards. Melanie’s other hats include an award-winning author, Indie publisher, and jewelry designer.





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