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Kwanzaa: History, Principles and Ways You Can Celebrate!

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What is Kwanzaa? 

Kwanzaa is a weeklong Pan-African celebration in the United States that reveres African American culture based on values of family, community and identity. This holiday is observed from December 26 to ends January 1. 

Kwanzaa celebrates the rich cultural roots of Americans of African ancestry. The word “Kwanzaa” is derived from matunda ya kwanza which means “the first” or “the first fruits of the harvest” in Swahili.  Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a Black Studies professor who wanted to bring African-Americans together after the Watts riots in 1965.  Dr. Karenga studied African harvest celebrations and combined elements of several different celebrations from tribes in Africa, such as the Ashanti and  Zulu, to develop the foundation of Kwanzaa.

Nguzo Saba: The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa 

Kwanzaa is based on seven fundamental principles, “Nguzo Saba”, that are prevalent in African cultures and contribute to building connection and empowerment in the African-American community. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed.

The seven principles are:

  1. Umoja (oo–MO–jah): Unity - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah): Self-Determination - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
  3. Ujima (oo–GEE–mah): Collective Work and Responsibility - To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.
  4. Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah): Cooperative Economics - To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  5. Nia (nee–YAH): Purpose - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 
  6. Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah): Creativity - To always do 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. Imani (ee–MAH–nee): Faith - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles) as the matrix and minimum set of values which African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.

The seven symbols are:

  1. Mazao: The Crops - These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.
  2. Mkeka: The Mat - This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.      
  3. Kinara: The Candleholder - This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people - continental Africans
  4. Muhindi: The Corn - This is symbolic of our children and our future which they embody.
  5. Zawadi: The Gifts - These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.
  6. Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup - This is symbolic of the foundational principles and practice of unity which makes all else possible.
  7. Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles - There are seven candles: one black, three red, and three green.


Kwanzaa: How We Celebrate

There are many ways you can celebrate Kwanzaa. Traditionally, each day is set aside to focus on the seven key principles (ex. December 26 starts with Umoja / Unity and January 1 ends with Imani). Every night is observed for lighting one of the seven candles (mishumaa saba) on the candleholder (kinara). 

There are nationwide Kwanzaa celebrations that consist of music, poetry, food and gifts.

Here are some ways you and your family can celebrate Kwanzaa this year:   

  • Buy from Black-owned businesses 
  • Attend a local Kwanzaa celebration or festival 
  • Decorate your home with your favorite African prints 
  • Cook your favorite meals 
  • Watch informative documentaries about the holiday and Black history 
  • Donate to Black organizations 


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