Kwanzaa Traditions and Principles


Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that was initiated and developed by Dr.  Maulana Ron Karenga (a professor with the department of black studies at California State University) in 1966. Kwanzaa is a word that was derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya Kwanza” meaning “first fruits”.  The extra “a” was used to accommodate seven children at the first-ever Kwanzaa celebration party in 1966, where each of them wanted to represent a letter.


Kwanzaa is an ethically-based holiday to celebrate African-American people and their culture. The festival is usually held each year from December 26th to January 1st by African-Americans and descendants of Africa living outside the continent with the focus of the festivities being on community, family, and culture (McClester, 1994).

The holiday period symbolizes a time for the congregation of  people to strengthen and recreate the bonds between them. It is a time to recall the past so as to learn important lessons and honor milestones achieved by the ancestors. It is also a time for  people to recommit themselves to their culture and bring out the best cultural practices; it is also a time to celebrate all good works in the family, community as well as the culture and to celebrate each other. Moreover, the festival’s main aim is to honor traditions that  African ancestors passed down to the people and each of the seven days when it is held focuses on one of seven values (nguzo Saba) on which it is widely believed the African culture is anchored.

Kwanzaa passes a cultural message which shows what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. The holiday was intended to reinforce seven basic principles of the African culture(referred to as nguzo Saba) which served as building blocks i.e. they played a big part in the building and strengthening of the family, community and the overall African culture among African-Americans and African descendants all over the world.  The seven principles of Kwanzaa as laid down by Dr. Karenga are listed below in relation to the seven days (Karenga, 1988).


  • Umoja (Unity) – the unity of family, community, nation and race. This principle puts emphasis on the importance of togetherness.
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination) to create your destiny and speak for yourselves by defining the common interests and making decisions best suited for the family and the community as a whole.
  • Ujima (cooperative work and responsibility) reminds the people to work together in tackling their responsibilities and help one another within the family, community.


  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics) stresses on collective economic strength by encouraging the people to build and maintain their stores, shops, and businesses and profit from them collectively.
  • Nia (purpose) encourages people to look within themselves and strive to build and develop the community so as to restore the people and their traditions
  • Kuumba (creativity) urges people to use their creative minds to do all they can so as to make the community a better place and leave it in a more beautiful and beneficial way than it was before.
  • Imani (faith) encourages  people to believe in themselves, their parents, teachers, and leaders and believe in the victory of their struggle and in their ability to succeed and triumph in the righteous struggle by helping them strive for higher levels of life for humanity.


The kwanza festival involved the use of 7 symbols

  1. Mazao (crops) this symbolizes the harvest celebrations held in Africa as a result of productive labor on the farms. The farmers brought their produce which included nuts, fruits, and vegetables and placed them on the mkeka.
  2. Mkeka (mat) is usually made of straw sourced from Africa, and the Mkeka is considered to be the foundation upon which all other things should be placed. The other six symbols are placed directly.
  3. Kinara (candleholder) represents the ancestry of the Kwanzaa people, and the mishumaa saba is placed on the kinara.
  4. Muhindi (corn) represented the fertility of the Kwanza. It was used to symbolically represent children in a homestead. According to the African beliefs, children were considered to be a sign of fertility. Thus during Kwanzaa festivities, the corn was a representation of their fertility.
  5. Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) was used during the 6th day to perform a tambiko (cultural ritual). The cup was used to pour libations which according to the African beliefs were poured for the living dead to appease their spirits. During the festival, the eldest member pours a portion of the drink in the Kikombe cha Umoja to the floor and invites the gods and ancestors to take part in the festivities.
  6. Zawadi (gifts) are given out on the last day of the celebration to reward accomplishments and strengthen commitments and social relations.
  7. Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) symbolized the 7 Kwanzaa Principles that were lit during the festivities. The candles were divided into three red, three green and one black. The black candle represented the African people and the principle of Umoja; the red candles symbolized their struggle by representing the principles of Kujichagulia, Ujamaa and Kuumba whereas the green candles symbolized their hope for the future by representing the principles of Uzima, Nia and Imani.

The festivity was to be carried out following a carefully crafted plan. This plan involved several carefully crafted steps. During the festivities, people were supposed to decorate their home or the main room with the symbols of Kwanzaa. These involved putting a nice African tablecloth on a centrally located table and place the Mkeka on top of it. Then, place the other six items (mishumaa saba, mazao, muhindi, kikombe cha umoja kinara, and zawadi,) on the mkeka. Decorate the room with Kwanzaa flags (Bendera). The kinara would then be lit daily, and a replacement will be done for each candle that burns out. The people were then to practice the Kwanzaa greetings which involved the use of Swahili Karenga (Maulana, 1977).

Family lighting candles celebrating Kwanzaa --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Family lighting candles celebrating Kwanzaa — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

The greeting would be “habari gani?” (What is the news?) For which the respondent will answer according to the principle of the day. For instance, on the 26th December, the greeting would be “habari gani?” for which the respondent would reply “umoja”. On the 6th day, there would be a karamu (feast). Here drinks will be shared from the “kikombe cha umoja” which will be passed round to everyone at the feast. This drinking from a communal cup reiterated their oneness. The eldest member would then be given the cup where he would pour libations in respect to their ancestors. On the last day (January 1st) the gifts of “Kuumba” (creativity) will be handed out to the people marking the culmination of the festival with all the lit candles extinguished to officially mark the end of the Kwanzaa celebrations.



Karenga, M. (1988). The African American holiday of Kwanzaa: A celebration of family, community & culture. Univ of Sankore Pr. Kolkedy, S. E. Kwanzaa celebrated tonight.

Karenga M. (1977). Kwanzaa: Origin, concepts, practice. Kawaida Publications.

McClester, C. (1994). Kwanzaa: Everything you always wanted to know but didn’t know where to ask. Gumbs & Thomas Pub.


















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