5 Kwanzaa Traditions

Kwanzaa candles
The black candle in the center is lit by itself on the first night of Kwanzaa and together with a red or green candle each night thereafter.

Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday that celebrates African-American heritage, is the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach. Karenga created Kwanzaa as a way to help African-Americans remember their roots and also to foster unity during a time of incredible racial strife. It's been observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 every year since 1966.

Karenga, a controversial figure in the black power movement, openly opposed Christian beliefs and originally declared that Kwanzaa should be an anti-Christmas of sorts. By the late-1990s, though, he had backed off, saying "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." Today, about one in seven African-Americans celebrates Kwanzaa, and many of them do it in addition to Christmas [sources: Raskin, Scholer].


The name Kwanzaa is derived from matunda ya kwanza, a Swahili phrase for "first fruits," is based on traditional African harvest festivals, combining customs from a number of different cultures. Each of the seven days represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or nguzo saba. There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa, which celebrants display prominently in their homes throughout the holiday.

The colors of Kwanzaa are red, black and green -- the colors of the Pan-African flag, which symbolizes unity among African people all over the world. Black represents the people, red their blood and green the earth and the future.

Kwanzaa is, of course, a festive time; it has all the feasting and celebrating you'd expect from a weeklong holiday, but it's also an occasion for reflection, conversation, contemplation and camaraderie. And although it's a relatively young holiday, it has its fair share of very specific, detailed traditions. So, if you don't know your vibunzi from your mishumaa saba, this is a good place to start!

We'll start off with the foundation of Kwanzaa: the seven principles.

5: The Seven Principles

Each day of Kwanzaa represents one of the seven principles, or nguzo saba. Taken 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 the 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
  7. Imani (faith): focuses on being positive and believing in the potential of the self and the community as a whole

During the evening candlelighting (which we'll talk about in more detail on the next page), everyone in the group explains what the day's principles means to them and how they tried to apply it that day. There might be an activity based on the principle, like a project, a musical performance or a poetry reading.


There's a specific greeting for each day, too. The answer to the question "Habari gani?" (Swahili for "what's the news?") is always the name of that day's principle. So, for example, on the third day the response would be "ujima."

When Kwanzaa started, the intention was -- as a part of the kujichagulia principle of self-determination -- to keep it separate from non-African holidays. But over the years, more and more African-American families have begun celebrating Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's.

4: The Seven Symbols

Kwanzaa candles with fruit and vegetables
The size and shape of Kwanzaa candles don't matter, but the order of the colors does.
Liquid Library/Thinkstock

Along with the seven principles of Kwanzaa come the seven symbols. This grouping of symbolic items is placed on a mat in a central area of the home and is the focal point of any Kwanzaa celebration:

  1. Mkeka (mat): The mkeka is woven from a traditional African material, probably straw, kente (a silk and cotton blend) cloth or mud (cotton fabric dyed using mud) cloth.
  2. Mazao (crops): The fruits, vegetables and nuts laid on the mkeka symbolize work, the harvest and the nourishment of the tribe.
  3. Vibunzi (ear of corn): Corn represents fertility and community child-rearing. Each child in the family is represented by an ear of corn on the mkeka (if there's more than one ear, the group is called a mihindi). If there aren't any kids in the household, two ears of corn are still placed to show that everyone is responsible for the community's children.
  4. Mishumaa saba (candles): Candles are a major part of celebrations in almost every culture, and Kwanzaa is no exception. The mishumaa saba is a set of seven candles (three red, three green and one black) that are lit every night of Kwanzaa, each representing one of the seven principles. The black candle in the center (which symbolizes umoja) is lit by itself on the first night and together with a red or green candle every night thereafter.
  5. Kinara (candleholder): The kinara -- which symbolizes history and ancestry -- can be of any shape and made of any kind of material, but the candles must be laid out in a specific pattern: black in the center, green on the right and red on the left.
  6. Kikombe cha umoja (unity cup): The unity cup plays a major part in the karamu (feast or party) on the sixth night of Kwanzaa, which we'll talk about on the next page.
  7. Zawadi (gifts): Kwanzaa gifts, which we'll also discuss on a later page, are only for children, and they always have cultural and historical meaning.

There are two supplemental Kwanzaa symbols -- the Pan-African flag and a poster of the seven principles -- that can be displayed in the house but not necessarily on the mkeka.


3: Karamu

There's plenty of food to go around on any given night of Kwanzaa, of course, but the main eating event -- and the most significant Kwanzaa celebration overall -- is the karamu feast, usually held on Dec. 31. The principle for the sixth day of Kwanzaa is kuumba (creativity), so it stands to reason that the karamu is a showcase for creativity of all kinds -- artistic, musical and poetic, as well as culinary.

Karamu feasts vary in formality, but a by-the-book event starts off with a welcoming statement (kukaribisha) and a music, dance or poetry performance. Then comes the kukumbuka, reflections offered by a man, woman and child. After that is a "reassessment and recommitment" ritual, a talk by a guest lecturer and then rejoicing (kushangilia).


The next step, the tambiko ceremony, is the central ritual of the Karamu feast. Everyone passes and drinks a libation (tambiko) from the kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Then the oldest person in the party honors the ancestors by reciting the tamshi la tambiko (libation statement) and pouring some of the drink -- usually water, juice or wine -- to the four winds before asking for a blessing. He then pours some on the ground, to a resounding "amen" from the group. The host or hostess then takes a sip and hands it back to the elder. Then there's a drum performance (ngoma), and it's time to eat!

As part of his original intent to separate Kwanzaa from Americanized events, Dr. Karenga wanted the holiday to be overflowing with traditional African cooking. But as Kwanzaa became more mainstream, African-American dishes inevitably started creeping into the mix. And there are people of African descent all over the world, so the food isn't limited to the African continent. Any given karamu, then, could include Ethiopian, Kenyan and South African fare, along with Caribbean cuisine and Southern comfort food like mac and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken and sweet potato pie.

Finally, the host or hostess gives a farewell speech (tamshi la tutaonana), and the well-fed guests head home.

2: Day of Meditation

Kwanzaa celebrants spend New Year's Day as so many people do around the world -- with a day of intense focus on meditation, self-analysis and renewal. Jan. 1 is the final day of Kwanzaa, known as the Day of Meditation (siku ya taamuli), and the principle for the day is imani (faith). Dr. Karenga noted that, in the tradition of the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Jan. 1 can also be called a Day of Remembrance or Day of Assessment.

As in the karamu feast the night before, there is an aspect of ancestor tribute to the Day of Meditation. Celebrants are primarily called to reflect on themselves, but a central concept of Kwanzaa is that you cannot know yourself without knowing where you came from. To understand the self, you have to pay homage to your heritage and understand your role in your community.


The main task for the Day of Meditation is to contemplate the three kawaida (tradition and reason) questions and answer them honestly:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Am I really who I say I am?
  3. Am I all I ought to be?

The Odu Ifa meditation is recited as an aid to this self-reflection and contemplation:Let us not engage the world hurriedly. Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently. That which should be treated with mature judgment, Let us not deal with in a state of anger. When we arrive at a cool place, Let us rest fully; Let us give continuous attention to the future; and let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things. And this because of our (eventual) passing [source: Official Kwanzaa Web Site].

And with the end of the Day of Meditation comes the end of Kwanzaa. The hope is that the renewed sense of self, heritage and community will last throughout the coming year.

1: Gifts

Back in 1966, Dr. Karenga was adamant in his desire that Kwanzaa not go down the overcommercialized path that so many holidays have followed. Kwanzaa is about more than gifts, and he didn't want the holiday's message to be watered down by insignificant presents being given all seven nights. And while time has worn down some of his dictates (about food, for example, and Kwanzaa not being celebrated along with Christmas), his vision for gifts has stayed clear and largely unchanged.

According to Dr. Karenga, children should be the only recipients of presents (known as zawadi) during Kwanzaa. Exchanges between immediate family members are common, but it's mostly for children. And if you're giving your kids PlayStations and DVDs every night of Kwanzaa, you're missing the point. Gifts are given only on the final night, and they should have meaning.


There's always a book -- one that has cultural and historical significance, preferably -- and some sort of heritage symbol. Zawadi are one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, so they're displayed on the mkeka, which is yet another reason to make sure they're appropriate. A box of Legos won't look quite right sitting next to the kinara and kikombe cha umoja.

There are numerous ways to fulfill the heritage symbol part of the equation. A gift that comes from the heart (and hands) is always preferable to a store-bought one; handmade gifts are, in Dr. Karenga's words, "a wall of resistance against commercialization" [source: Official Kwanzaa Web Site]. Create a family photo album, cookbook or framed family tree. Weave a mkeka or make your own kinara. Ideally, the zawadi portion of the evening shouldn't be a big deal -- gifts are not the focal point. They're to be given out quickly and admired, and then it's on to the next activity. Gifts take a backseat after a day of introspection and meditation, and it's more important to focus on winding up the seven-day holiday and getting ready for the new year.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • History. "Kwanzaa." (Aug. 2, 2011) http://www.history.com/topics/kwanzaa-history
  • Official Kwanzaa Web Site. (Aug. 2, 2011) http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml
  • Raskin, Hanna. "History of Kwanzaa Food." Slashfood. Dec. 22, 2009. (Aug. 2, 2011) http://www.slashfood.com/2009/12/22/kwanzaa-food-history/
  • Scholer, J. Lawrence. "The Story of Kwanzaa." Dartmouth Review, Jan. 15, 2001. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://web.archive.org/web/20080401093652/http://dartreview.com/archives/2001/01/15/the_story_of_kwaanza.php