How Kwanzaa Works

Introduction to How Kwanzaa Works
Kwanzaa is a time to celebrate family and African heritage. Purestock/Thinkstock

In late December, the holiday season is in full swing. Christians are celebrating Christmas, which commemorates the birth of Jesus. Jews are observing Hanukkah, which celebrates the reclamation of their holy temple in Jerusalem. These holidays are joyful celebrations in which families and friends come together to share food and gifts.

People of African descent have their own December celebration in which they gather with loved ones to reaffirm the bonds of family and culture, as well as to share food and exchange gifts. It is called Kwanzaa, and, although it is relatively new compared to other holidays, it has become an important facet of practicing African culture on other continents.

In this article, we will look at the roots of Kwanzaa, discover the significance of its symbols and learn about the unique traditions that make up the Kwanzaa celebration.

What is Kwanzaa?

Friends and family join hands to share Kwanzaa blessings before eating special dishes prepared by Maisie McNaught at her home in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Friends and family join hands to share Kwanzaa blessings before eating special dishes prepared by Maisie McNaught at her home in Miami Gardens, Florida.
John VanBeekum/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday, meaning that it is meant to unite people of African descent, wherever in the world they live. It runs from December 26 through January 1. Unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, which are religious holidays, Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday (in fact, many people celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas). Over its seven days, people of African descent come together to celebrate family, community, culture and the bonds that tie them together as a people. They also remember their heritage, give thanks for the good things they have and rejoice in the goodness of life.

Seven is an important theme of Kwanzaa. The holiday lasts for seven days -- one day for each of its seven guiding principals. There are seven basic symbols used in the Kwanzaa ceremony -- one of which consists of seven candles -- and each symbol ties into one or more of the seven guiding principles.

The History of Kwanzaa

Although Kwanzaa has only been around for a few decades, its roots trace back to ancient African harvest celebrations. The name "Kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili phrase, "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits." Many of the first-fruits celebrations -- for example, the Umkhost of Zululand in Southern Africa -- were also seven days long.

Kwanzaa was the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor in and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University and a former civil rights activist. He introduced Kwanzaa in 1966, a time when African Americans were struggling for equal rights, as a means to help them connect with their African values and traditions. Dr. Karenga also wanted Kwanzaa to serve as a bond to unify African Americans as a community and as a people. He chose the dates -- December 26 to January 1 -- to coincide with the Judeo-Christian holiday season, which was already a time of celebration. And he chose a name that comes from the Swahili language because Swahili is spoken by a large number of East African people.

In the days of the early harvest celebrations, Africans would gather to celebrate their crops and reaffirm their bonds as a community. They would offer thanks to their creator for a bountiful harvest and a plentiful life. They would honor their ancestors and stress their commitment to their culture as well as celebrate their culture and community. The harvest ideals inspired Dr. Karenga to come up with the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa centers around Seven Principles, Nguzo Saba (En-GOO-zoh Sah-BAH), which represent the values of family, community and culture for Africans and people of African descent to live by. The principles were developed by Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga based on the ideals of the first-fruit harvests.

The principles are:

  • Umoja (oo-MOE-jah) - Unity - Joining together as a family, community and race
  • Kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) - Self-determination - Responsibility for one's own future
  • Ujima (oo-JEE-mah) - Collective Work and Responsibility - Building the community together and solving any problems as a group
  • Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) - Cooperative Economics - The community building and profiting from its own businesses
  • Nia (nee-AH) - Purpose - The goal of working together to build community and further the African culture
  • Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) - Creativity - Using new ideas to create a more beautiful and successful community
  • Imani (ee-MAH-nee) - Faith - Honoring African ancestors, traditions and leaders and celebrating past triumphs over adversity

The principles are illustrated during the Kwanzaa festivities by the Seven Symbols.

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

Some of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa.
Some of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Seven symbols are displayed during the Kwanzaa ceremony to represent the seven principles of African culture and community.

Mkeka (M-kay-cah) - This is the mat (usually made of straw, but it can also be made of fabric or paper) upon which all the other Kwanzaa symbols are placed. The mat represents the foundation of African traditions and history.

Mazao (Maah-zow) - The crops, fruits and vegetables, represent traditional African harvest celebrations and show respect for the people who labored to grow them.

Kinara (Kee-nah-rah) - The candle holder represents the original stalk from which all African ancestors came. It holds the seven candles.

Mishumaa (Mee-shoo-maah) - In the seven candles, each candle represents one of the seven principles. The candles are red, green, and black -- symbolic of the African people and their struggles.

Muhindi (Moo-heen-dee) - The corn represents African children and the promise of their future. One ear of corn is set out for each child in the family. In a family without children, one ear is set out symbolically to represent the children of the community.

Kikombe cha Umoja (Kee-com-bay chah-oo-moe-jah) - The Unity Cup symbolizes the first principle of Kwanzaa -- the unity of family and of the African people. The cup is used to pour the libation (water, juice or wine) for family and friends.

Zawadi (Sah-wah-dee) - The gifts represent the labors of the parents and the rewards of their children. Gifts are given to educate and enrich the children -- they may include a book, a piece of art or an educational toy. At least one of the gifts is a symbol of African heritage.

The Seven Days of Kwanzaa

On the first day of Kwanzaa, December 26, the leader or minister calls everyone together and greets them with the official question: "Habari gani?" ("What's happening?"), to which they respond with the name of the first principle: "Umoja." The ritual is repeated on each day of the Kwanzaa celebration, but the answer changes to reflect the principle associated with the day. For example, on the second day, the answer is, "Kujichagulia."

Next, the family says a prayer. Then they recite a call for unity, Harambee ("Let's Pull Together"). The libation is then performed by one of the older adults, and one person (usually the youngest child) lights a candle on the Kinara. The group discusses the meaning of that day's principle, and the participants may tell a story or sing a song related to the principle. Gifts may be given one per day, or they may all be exchanged on the last day of Kwanzaa.

The Kwanzaa feast is held on the evening of December 31. The feast is not just about food -- it is also a time to sing, pray and celebrate African history and culture.

January 1, the final day of Kwanzaa, is a time for reflection, both individually and as a group. People ask themselves, "Who am I?" "Am I really who I say I am?" and "Am I all I ought to be?" The final candle in the Kinara is lit, and then all the candles are extinguished, signaling the end of the holiday.

In the following sections, we'll take a closer look at the elements of the Kwanzaa celebration.

Celebrating Kwanzaa - Holiday Traditions

The Markham African Caribbean Canadian Association's Kwanzaa celebration in Toronto includes drumming.
The Markham African Caribbean Canadian Association's Kwanzaa celebration in Toronto includes drumming.
David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Millions of Africans -- not only in America but all over the world -- celebrate Kwanzaa each year. They come together with family and friends to honor African ancestors and traditions and look forward to their future as a people. They gather in homes, in schools, in churches and in community centers.

The official colors of Kwanzaa are black, red, and green. These colors have always had significance to Africans (they are the colors of the African flag), but they were introduced to African Americans by Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader in the early 20th century. The color black stands for the African people; red represents their struggle (blood); and green is a symbol of their future. Most Kwanzaa decorations are made in the holiday's symbolic colors.

People use a variety of decorative items to make their homes feel festive during Kwanzaa. These include baskets, African art, posters, the African flag and harvest symbols. The most prominent feature in the house is a table spread with the mat (Mkeka), upon which are displayed the other symbols of Kwanzaa:

  • The candle holder (Kinara) holds the seven candles (Mishumaa Saba). One candle on the Kinara is lit for each day of the celebration. The black candle in the center is the first to be lit. Then one candle is lit each night, starting at the far left (a red candle) and then alternating between red and green, working from the outside toward the center of the candle holder.
  • The Mazao (fruits and vegetables) are placed in a bowl or basket.
  • Also placed on the mat are the Muhindi (corn), one ear of corn for each child in the home.
  • The Unity Cup (Kikombe cha umoja) is used to pour the libation (water, juice or wine) for each family member.
  • Gifts (Zawadi) of books, videos or other educational items may be placed on the mat.

Now let's see what goes on during the Kwanzaa feast.

The Holiday Feast

On December 31, observers hold a great feast, or Kwanzaa Karamu. The feast is about more than food -- it also is a forum for cultural expression that includes music, dance and readings.

A typical program for a Kwanzaa Karamu might look something like this:

  • Kukaribisha (Welcoming) - Introduction and welcome, followed by music, dancing, poetry and other performances
  • Kuumba (Remembering) - Cultural reflections
  • Kuchunguza Tena Na Kutoa Ahadi Tena (Reassessment and Recommitment) - A short speech by a guest lecturer
  • Kushangilla (Rejoicing) - Reading of the libation statement, followed by a communal drink from the Unity Cup and the reading of the names of black ancestors and heroes, followed by a meal
  • Tamshi la tutaonan (Farewell Statement) - The reading of a farewell statement accompanied by a call for greater unity

The food served during Kwanzaa is a blend of Caribbean, African and South American flavors. Some popular dishes are fried okra, plantains, fried chicken, black bean soup, baked ham and gumbo. A large mat (Mkeka) is placed in the center of the room, and all of the food is prominently displayed on it.

For more information on Kwanzaa and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • The Children's Book of Kwanzaa: A Guide to Celebrating the Holiday, by Dolores Johnson
  • Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, by Maulana Karenga
  • Kwanzaa Crafts, by Judith Hoffman Corwin
  • My First Kwanzaa Book, by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate
  • Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, by Andrea Davis Pinkney
  • Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story, by Angela Shelf Medearis
  • The Gifts of Kwanzaa, by Synthia Saint James


  • Collier, Aldore. "The Man who Invented Kwanzaa," Ebony, January 1998, pages 116-118.
  • Copage, Eric V. Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.
  • Everything About Kwanza
  • Harris, Jessica B. A Kwanzaa Keepsake. New York, New York: Fireside, 1995.
  • Kwanzaa Information Center
  • The Official Kwanzaa Web Site
  • Winchester, Faith. African-American Holidays. Mankato, Minnesota: Bridgestone Books, 1996.