5 Kwanzaa Traditions


The Seven Symbols

The size and shape of Kwanzaa candles don't matter, but the order of the colors does.
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.