Would you agree we could use more Unity in our society today?

Would you agree that Self-Determination leads to creations, inventions?

Would you agree that Collective Work & Responsibility improves communities?

Would you agree that Cooperative Economics encourages prosperity?

Would you agree that having a Purpose is necessary to achieve goals?

Would you agree that Creativity is a positive force towards betterment?

Would you agree that Faith can move mountains?

If you answered “yes” to one or all of the above, then you just ascribed to the principles of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is a festive and meaningful holiday we celebrate each year in my household. Much to my chagrin, for most of my adult life, I never took the time to learn what Kwanzaa was, let alone celebrate it. I don’t have a good answer as to why I didn’t, other than just pure ignorance of how it related to me. That is why I now love sharing the basics of this holiday so others don’t have to remain in the dark as I was for so long.


What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a week-long African American cultural celebration held in the United States from December 26 through January 1. The name is derived from matunda ya kwanza, a Swahili phrase that means “first fruits.”Based on traditional African harvest festivals, combining various cultural customs, this holiday, observed by over 18 million people, has reached its 50th anniversary of existence this year.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor does it replace Christmas. Instead, it was created during the black movement of the mid 1960s to combat the commercialism of Christmas by honoring our African heritage and culture with the seven basic principles, expressed in Swahili as nguzo saba. These principles are actually applicable to everyday life, not just at Christmastime.

How is Kwanzaa observed?

Together, the family observes daily rituals which include lighting candles, making Kwanzaa gifts, planning special theme meals, dressing in traditional garb and honoring ancestors and elders. A table remains set with an array of fresh fruits. In the center of the table is a kinara, a candleholder for seven candles.

In the kinara are three green candles on the right side, three red candles on the left side and one black candle in the center. Green stands for the fertile land of Africa. Red symbolizes the bloodshed spilled in the struggle for freedom. Black is for the color of the people. The family gathers around as one candle is lit each day, beginning with the outer most candles, working inward to the center. As the candle is lit, that day’s corresponding principle is spoken of.


A great gathering of food and guests is held on December 31. It is called the karamu. Celebrants donned in vibrantly-colored traditional African attire enjoy cultural dishes, typically using ingredients brought to the United States from the motherland, such as sesame seeds (benne), peanuts (groundnuts), sweet potatoes, collard greens and spicy sauces.

New Year’s Day is the final day of the Kwanzaa holiday. Traditionally, educational and cultural gifts are given to children on this final day of celebration.

7 Principles of Kwanzaa

Day 1: Umoja! (oo–MO–jah)
Means: Unity

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race. Whether in the home or the workplace, teamwork promotes unity. It is important to the ongoing success and longevity of the family unit or company, the community that family or company serves, and the state and country in which they reside.

Day 2: Kujichagulia! (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah)
Means: Self-determination

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. Instead of being defined, named, created for and spoken for by others. We must plug into our self-worth. We have to be determined and stay determined to make a positive difference in our life’s journey — whether a child or adult; male or female; working at a nine-to-five job or as a self-employed entity.

Day 3: Ujima! (oo–GEE–mah)
Means: Collective Work and Responsibility

To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together. We are all fingers on a hand in this journey called life. There are so many ways we can reach out and help others; doing so is simply easier when organized through group effort.

Day 4: Ujamaa! (oo–JAH–mah)
Means: Cooperative Economics

To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together. What better way to instill pride in something than through ownership? This is important for our global economy and so very empowering to ourselves.

Day 5: Nia! (nee–YAH)
Means: Purpose

To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness. If we don’t ever learn the truth about our history of our ancestors or kings and queens who ruled entire empires, how can we ever set clear, positive goals for our own lives that awaken the greatness within ourselves and the tremendous potential that lies therein? We then can set goals that benefit the whole community.

Day 6: Kuumba! (koo–OOM–bah)
Means: 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. We must use our time, creativity, finances and resources to make our community out of just survival mode and into massive productivity.

Day 7: Imani! (ee–MAH–nee)
Means: Faith

To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. We must believe that a better world can be created both now and in the future

7 Symbols of Kwanzaa

Kikombe cha umoja.
Means: the unity cup

Celebrants drink from this cup in honor of their African ancestors. Before drinking, each person says “harambee,” which means, “let’s pull together.”

Means: the candleholder that holds seven candles

This symbolizes stalks of corn that branch off to form new stalks, the same way the human family recreates and branches off.

Mishumaa saba.
Means: the seven candles that represent the seven principles

Three candles on the left are green; three on the right are red; and in the middle is a black candle. A different candle is lit each day.

Means: fruits, nuts and vegetables

This type of food reminds celebrants of the harvest fruits that nourished the people of Africa.


Means: mat

The mkeka, made of straw or African cloth, symbolizes the foundation upon which communities are built. The various symbols of Kwanzaa are arranged upon it.

Vibunzi. (plural, muhindi)
Means: ear of corn

Traditionally, one ear of corn for each child in the family is placed on the mkeka.

Means: gifts

The gifts that are shared are traditionally only educational in nature and/or handmade.

What’s the Word?

So, there you have it — your crash course in Kwanzaa! One last thing … Kwanzaa participants throughout the week greet each other with this question: “Habari gani?” That is Swahili for “What’s the word?” When asked this question, you excitedly respond with one word: the Swahili principle for that day.

Now that you know, I challenge you to greet a new person each day starting December 26, with “Habari gani?” and let the good news begin!

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