Celebrating Kwanzaa

In keeping with the international spirit of peace and love of this season, I present to you a summary of the holiday of Kwanzaa. America is a melting pot of many peoples but, sadly many of us do not know enough about the other cultures that live with us. Hopefully this article will enlighten and bring more of an understanding to all peoples. I researched this through the internet and found it to be a wonderful holiday and not quite what I thought it was.


Kwanzaa is a unique African American celebration with focus on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement. Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits of the harvest", is more like our Thanksgiving than Christmas. Kwanzaa is neither political nor religious and, despite some misconceptions, is not a substitute for Christmas. It came out of the 60's cultural revolution that set off an interest in African history, music, art and a growing sense of black consciousness and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of "African traditions" and "common humanist principles." Since its founding in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa has come to be observed by more than 18 million people worldwide, as reported by the New York Times. In 1997, Karenga and the community evolved, stating that while Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday, it can be celebrated by people of any race: "other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans."


It is simply a time of reaffirming African-American people, their ancestors and culture. Kwanzaa is based on the Nguzo Saba (seven guiding principles), one for each day of the observance, and is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st.

The Seven Guiding Principles

  • Umoja (oo-MO-jah): Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, "I am We," or "I am because We are."
  • Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah): Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.
  • Ujima (oo-GEE-mah): Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.
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  • Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah): Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.
  • Nia (NEE-yah): Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.
  • Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah): Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.
  • Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. A basic list of what is needed for this celebration are:

  • Kinara: (The candle holder) This is symbolic of thier roots, thier parent people -- continental Africans); The Kinara holds seven candles to reflect the seven principles which are the foundation of Kwanzaa. If you don't have a Kinara and don't know where to get one, it is suggested that you use "kuumba" (creativity) and make one. A 2x4 or a piece of driftwood will do just fine, and screw-in candle holders can be purchased in most hardware stores.
  • Mkeka: (Placemat preferably made of straw) This is symbolic of thier tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which they build. The Mkeka (place mat) shouldn't present a problem. While straw is suggested because it is traditional, cloth makes an adequate substitute. If cloth is used, one with an African print is preferred.

  • Mazao: (Crops, i.e., fruits and vegetables) These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor. A plain straw basket or a bowl will do just fine for holding of the crops..

  • Vibunzi/Muhindi: (Ears of corn to reflect the number of children in the household) This is symbolic of the children and our future which they embody. Even households without any children should place 2 ears of corn on the place mat to symbolize the African concept of social parenthood

  • Kikombe cha umoja: (Communal unity cup) This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible.

  • Mishumaa Saba: (Seven candles, one black, three red, and three green) These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, 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.

  • Zawadi: (Gifts that are enriching) These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children. Kuumba (creativity) is greatly encouraged. The giving of gifts during Kwanzaa should be affordable and of an educational or artistic nature. Gifts are usually exchanged between parents and children and traditionally given on January 1st, the last day of Kwanzaa. However, gift giving during Kwanzaa may occur at any time.

The two supplemental symbols are:

  • Bendera: (The Flag) The colors of the Kwanzaa flag are the colors of the Organization Us, black, red and green; black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle. It is based on the colors given by the Hon. Marcus Garvey as national colors for African people throughout the world.
  • Nguzo Saba Poster: (Poster of The Seven Principles) All seven symbols are creatively placed on top of the place mat, i.e., the symbols should be attractively arranged as they form the Kwanzaa centerpiece

Decorating The Home

The Kinara along with the other symbols of Kwanzaa should dominate the room, The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red and green, black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle. This should be kept in mind when decorating the home. Black, red and green streamers, balloons, cloth, flowers, and African prints can be hung tastefully around the room. Original art and sculpture may be displayed as pride in their African Heritage. There is a traditionally established way of celebrating Kwanzaa.

Guidelines For The Holiday

There are guidelines that many follow to make Kwanzaa the most beautiful and engaging holiday and to keep the tradition. Without definite guidelines and core values and practices there is no holiday.

First, they should come to the celebration with a profound respect for its values, symbols and practices and do nothing to violate its integrity, beauty and expansive meaning.

Secondly they should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture. This would violate the principles of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday.

Thirdly, choose the best and most beautiful items to celebrate Kwanzaa. This means taking time to plan and select the most beautiful objects of art, colorful African cloth, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. so that every object used represents African culture and your commitment to the holiday in the best of ways.

The Kwanzaa Feast or Karumu

The Kwanzaa Karumu is traditionally held on December 31st (participants celebrating New Year's Eve, should plan their Karamu early in the evening). . Prior to and during the feast, an informative and entertaining program should be presented. Traditionally, the program involved welcoming, remembering, reassessment, recommitment and rejoicing, concluded by a farewell statement and a call for greater unity.

First, a central place in the home for the Kwanzaa Set, the symbols of Kwanzaa is chosen. A table is then spread with a beautiful piece of African cloth. Then, the mkeka (mat) is placed down and all of the other symbols are placed on it or immediately next to it to symbolize their rootedness in their tradition. The mazao (crops), and ears of corn are also placed on the mkeka. At least two ears of corn are placed down on the mat regardless of whether there are children in the immediate family or not for the children of the community belong to all of us and every adult in African tradition is considered an immediate or social parent.

Next the Kinara (candle holder) is placed on the mat and the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) are placed in the kinara (candle holder). There is one black candle, three red and three green candles. These are the mishumaa saba (the seven candles) and they represent the seven principles. The black candle represents the first principle Umoja (unity) and is placed in the center of the kinara. The red candles represent the principles of Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics) and Kuumba (creativity) and are placed to the left of the black candle. The green candles represent the principles of Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Nia (purpose) and Imani (faith) and are placed to the right of the black candle.

Next the Kikombe Cha Umoja (the Unity cup) is then placed on the mkeka (mat). It is used to pour tambiko (libation) to the ancestors in remembrance and honor of those who paved the path down which we walk and who taught us the good, the Tamshi and the beautiful in life. Then African art objects and books on the life and culture of African people are also placed on or next to the mat to symbolize our commitment to heritage and learning.

The Ceremony

On the first day of Kwanzaa (December 26), the Mfume (leader or minister) calls the family together. When everyone is present, the Mfume greets them; "Habari Gani", and the family responds "Umoja." Thus the Kwanzaa celebration has begun. The celebration is conducted in the following order, substituting each principle for the response on its respective day.

A prayer is offered by a member of the family (all standing). "Harambee" (Let's Pull Together) is a call for unity and collective work and struggle of the family. Each member raises up the right arm with open hand and while pulling down, closes the hand into a fist. Harmabee is done in sets of seven in honor and reinforcement of the Nguzo Saba. The Kwanzaa Song can be used at this time.

The Kwanzaa Song

Kwanzaa is a holiday
Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa
is an African holiday
Seven Principles
Seven Candles
Seven Black Days for the African

The Mfume briefly talks about the concept of Kwanzaa, using the theme or focus of Kwanzaa as a sense of direction. The Tambiko (Libation) is performed by an elder. The elder should pour the libation using juice or water from the Tambiko set up in honor of our ancestors. Then again the Harambee Symbol is done.

Greeting should be done by the family member (preferably a youth) assigned the lighting of Mshumaa (candle). Lighting Ceremony is performed by the Youth. The Youth should light the Mshumaa (candle) for the principle of the day (i.e. Umoja (Unity) on the first day of Kwanzaa). The black candle is lit first on the first day of the celebration. And the remaining candles are lit afterwards from left to right on the following days. This procedure is to indicate that the people come first, then the struggle and then the hope that comes from the struggle. After the lighting, the principle of the day should be discussed by every member participating in the ceremony. The discussion should focus on each member's understanding of the principle and their commitment and responsibility to practice that principle for the betterment of self, family and Black people. Then again the Harambee symbol is done.

A story, song or an object that is reflective of the principle for the day (i.e. Umoja (Unity) Black Frying Pan) and a Scripture reading related to the principle is essential in reinforcing the meaning of that principle.

Share Zawadi (Gifts). In Kwanzaa gifts are played down and spiritual and social rejuvenation is played up. Hand made gifts are strongly encouraged over commercial purchases. Items related to the Black heritage or items that have a special meaning that will help the person through the next year are strongly recommended. The gifts should be reflective of a commitment to education and the riches of our cultural heritage and a sign of the struggle for liberation for Black people. The gifts can be fruits shared each night by members. The gifts can be given to the children in one of two ways: One gift can be given each day to reinforce the principle for that day, or on December 31 st. during the Karamu (Feast), all gifts can be given. Karamu (Feast) is held on the night of December 31 st. and includes food, music, dance, etc. The Kwanzaa Song can be repeated as often as is wished for elevation of the spirits.

Editor's Note: Happy Kwanzaa from ThriftyFun! Do you celebrate Kwanzaa? Share your favorite memories or traditions here.


About The Author: Debra Frick is a mother of 5 and a grandmother to 8 grandsons and one granddaughter. She is a published author and poetress. Recycling and saving money are her passions. She also loves crocheting and cooking. She is also a pet rescue volunteer and has many pets of her own.

December 30, 20090 found this helpful

Thank you so much for posting this interesting article! I have heard about Kwanzaa on TV & have always wondered exactly what it was. I appreciate you taking the time to inform us. I believe that anything that unites the family & community should be fully supported! Again, a great big thank you!

* And a note to Snotpusher: Africa is a huge continent, with many countries, cultures, religions & practices. What may be practiced in one area, may not be practiced in another.

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January 5, 20100 found this helpful

This was a beautifully written and well researched article. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put in to help bring this wonderful holiday to light for those who didn't know much about it.

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