Kwanzaa: Everything You Want to Know


Everything You Want to Know


Dr. Karenga celebrating at the Rochester Institute of Technology on December 12, 2003.
Photo Courtesy of Apavlo
Kwanzaa is a time of reflection, celebration, commitment and hope.  For the African Diaspora, Kwanzaa provides a bridge between our Mother land and ancestral heritage and our present day families and communities.  The seven day celebration begins on December 26th and concludes on January 1st.  Originating in the United States in 1966 Kwanzaa is a relatively young holiday, but as the current year comes to a close and a new one begins millions of African Americans will be celebrating Kwanzaa.
It was during the tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movement, the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Martin Luther King and Black Power, that Dr. Maulana Karenga, who is a professor and the chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, scholar-activist, author, and Founder of The Organization Us, saw a strong need to preserve, promote and revitalize the African American culture in an on-going continual and organized way.   He wanted to create a holiday that brought the African American community together in celebration and solidarity.  A holiday that would preserve our unique culture and heritage, while promoting unity and inspiring hope by nurturing individual strength and self-determination and encouraging commitment to family and the African American community as a whole.
Dr. Karenga turned to the first fruit” or “harvest festivals that were held throughout Africa for inspiration.  In fact, the name "Kwanzaa" comes from the Kiswahili phrase for "first fruit" - matunda ya kwanza.  "Kiswahili", otherwise known as "Swahili", being the most widely spoken language on the African continent made it the most logical choice as the language of Kwanzaa. As an added benefit its pronunciation is rather easy. Vowels are pronounced as they would be in Spanish and consonants, with few exceptions, as they are in English. For example: A=ah as in father; E=a as in day; I=ee as in free; O=oo as in too. One last note, the accent or stress is almost always on the next to last syllable.
These “first fruit” festivals all shared important characteristics that were to become part of Kwanzaa.
Some of the most important characteristics were:
  •  Ingathering - The people gathered together to celebrate their crops and harvest
  •  Reverence - The people would give thanks to their Creator for the beauty of creation, a good harvest and good life.
  •  Commemoration - They would remember, celebrate and honor the ancestors and seek the lessons they could learn from their examples of human excellence.
  •  Recommitment – The people would recommit themselves to their community in an effort to bring to about the best in cultural thought and practice..
  •  Celebration – The people celebrated everything including their history, culture, Creator, and hope. It was a celebration of all things great and small.
From these characteristics came the Nguzo Saba,
referred to in English as the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa:
  1. Umoja (oo-MOH-jah): Unity -Success starts with Unity of the family, community, nation and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-goo-LEE-ah): Self-Determination - To be responsible for ourselves and to create your own destiny.
  3. Ujima (oo-JEE-mah): Collective work and responsibility - To build and maintain your community by working together to help one another within family and community.
  4. Ujamaa (oo-jah-MAH): Collective economics - To build, maintain, and support our own stores, establishments, and businesses.
  5. Nia (NEE-ah): Purpose - To be responsible to Those Who Came Before (our ancestors) and to Those Who Will Follow (our descendants) by purposefully working to restore African American people to their traditional greatness.
  6. Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah): Creativity - Using creativity and imagination to make our communities better than what you inherited.
  7. Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Faith - Believing in our people, our families, our educators, our leaders, and the righteousness of the African American struggle.

The Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles), are at the core of Kwanzaa.  These principles are representative of the importance placed on understanding, caring, respect and continuously striving to improve the life experience on an individual, family, community and racial level.  Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is spent focusing primarily on one of the Seven Principles. However, each of the principles of the previous days are recognized in the ceremony leading up to the current day’s primary principle of focus. 

There are seven basic symbols used during Kwanzaa:

  • Mazao (The Crops) - These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.
  • Mkeka (The Mat)This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.
  • Kinara (The Candle Holder) - This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people -- continental Africans.
  • Mahanadi (The Corn) - This is symbolic of our children and our future which they embody.
  • Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles)These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles. 
  • Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup)This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible.
  • Zawadi (The Gifts) - These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children. They are typically of an educational or inspirational nature and are exchanged daily, at the Karamu (the feast on the 6th day), or on the final day of Kwanzaa.
Preparing Your Celebration

There is no set amount of time prior to the beginning of the Kwanzaa celebration for the decorations and symbols to be displayed.  Many people prepare and display their seven symbols and decorations up weeks in advance, with the exception of the Mazao (The Crops)as these need to be fresh and at the peak for the celebration.   Often family members will create an opportunity for children to feel more involved and reach a greater understanding of the celebration by letting them create the decorations and discussing the symbols and Seven Principles that they will be honoring with their hand-made decorations.

To prepare for Kwanzaa, first, a central place in the home for the Kwanzaa Set (the seven symbols of Kwanzaa) must be chosen. A table or alter is then covered with a piece of either traditional African cloth or a cloth with at least one of the traditional Kwanzaa colors, which are red, black and green.  The Mkeka (the mat) is then placed on the cloth and all of the other symbols are placed either on the Mkeka, or in relation to it, as it is the symbol of our foundation.

The Kinara (the candle holder) is the next symbol to be placed.  It is placed in the center of the Mkeka and then filled with the Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles).  The Mishumaa Saba represent the Seven Principles and are placed in a specific order.  There is 1 black candle, which represents our people and the Frist Principle: Unity. It is placed in the center of the Kinara.  There are 3 red candles that are placed on the left side of the Kinara.  Red represents the struggle of our people. There are 3 green candles that are placed on the right side of the Kinara. Green is the color of the Mother Land and hope for the future.  

And then the Mazao (crops) and ears of corn are also placed on the Mkeka. There should be at least one ear of corn for every child in the family.  However, even if there are no children in the immediate family, at least one ear of corn should be placed on the Mkeka, because 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 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 and the beautiful in life.

Once everything is in place on December 26th, it is time to begin the Kwanzaa celebration!

The candle lighting ceremony is an integral part of the Kwanzaa celebration.  It is done at a time when all members of the family are present and even the young children are encouraged to take an active role in the activities.

The ceremony begins with the Tambiko (libation), an African form of praise which pays homage to personal and collective ancestors. To begin, the elder of the household pours wine, distilled spirits, juice or water from the Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup) onto the earth or an earth-filled vessel. While pouring, the elder makes a statement honoring departed family members and friends for the inspiration and values they have left with descendants.

After the Tambiko the elder drinks from the Kikombe Cha Umoja and then passes it for all to share, as a gesture of unity. The elder leads the call, "HARAMBEE!" (Let's pull together), and everyone participates in repeating the phrase seven times. 

Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Myers (above), 66th Air Base Wing noncommissioned officer in charge of the Military Equal Opportunity office,
demonstrates a Kwanzaa ritual where she lights a candle in the Kinara.
(photo by Christopher Myers)
The Mishumaa Saba
  • On the first day of Kwanzaa the black candle is lit, representing the first principle of Kwanzaa - Umoja (oo-MOH-jah): Unity.
  • On the second day the black candle is again lit, as well as the farthest red candle on the left. This represents the 2nd principle of Kwanzaa - Kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-goo-LEE-ah): Self-Determination.
  • On the third day the black candle is lit, then the farthest left red, and then the farthest right green candle. This represents the 3rd principle of Kwanzaa - Ujima (oo-JEE-mah): Collective work and responsibility.
  • On the fourth day the black candle is lit, then the farthest left red, then the farthest right green and then the next red candle on the left. This represents the 4th principle of Kwanzaa - Ujamaa (oo-jah-MAH): Collective economics.
  • On the fifth day the black candle is lit, then the farthest left red, the farthest right green, the next red and then the next green candle. This represents the 5th principle of Kwanzaa - Nia (NEE-ah): Purpose.
  • On the sixth day the black candle is lit, then the farthest left red, the farthest right green, the next red, the next green and then the final red candle. This represents the 6th principle of Kwanzaa - Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah): Creativity.
  • On the seventh day the black candle is lit, then the farthest left red, the farthest right green, the next red candle, the next green, the final red and then the final green candle. Now all seven candles are lit. This represents the 7th principle of Kwanzaa - Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Faith.
The KaramuThe Feast of Kwanzaa
The Kwanzaa feast, or Karamu, is held on December 31st.
It is a time of cultural expression and community gathering, as well as feasting. It can be held in the home, a community center, a church hall, or even outdoors if weather is permitting.  As long as it is large enough for everyone to gather and celebrate it can be anywhere. An African motif that uses decorations in black, green and red adds to the atmosphere, which is an atmosphere of unity, sharing, celebration and thanks.

The festivity involves welcoming, remembering, reassessment, recommitment and rejoicing, ending with a farewell statement and call to greater unity (Umoja).

Below is an adaptation of a suggested activities model promoted by Kwanzaa founder Dr. Karenga that suggests ways to celebrate and honor each part of the Karamu.

  • Kukaribisha (Welcoming)

Introductory Remarks and Recognition of Distinguished Guests and All Elders.

Cultural Expression (Songs, Music, Group Dancing, Poetry, Performances, Unity Circles)

  • Kuumba (Remembering)

Reflections by a Man, Woman and a Child

Cultural Expression

  • Kuchunguza Tena Na Kutoa Ahadi Tena (Reassessment and Recommitment)

Introduction of Distinguished Guest Lecturer and Short Talk.

  • Kushangilla (Rejoicing)
  • Tamshi la Tambiko (Libation Statement)**

It is tradition to pour libation in remembrance of the ancestors on all special occasions. Kwanzaa, is such an occasion, as it provides us an opportunity to reflect on our African past and American present. Water is suggested as it holds the essence of life and should be placed in a communal cup and poured in the direction of the four winds; north, south, east, and west. It should then be passed among family members and guests who may either sip from the cup or make a sipping gesture.


"For The Motherland cradle of civilization.

For the ancestors and their indomitable spirit

For the elders from whom we can learn much.

For our youth who represent the promise for tomorrow.

For our people the original people.

For our struggle and in remembrance of those who have struggled on our behalf.

For Umoja the principle of unity which should guide us in all that we do.

For the creator who provides all things great and small."


  • Tamshi la Tutaonana (The Farewell Statement):


“Strive for discipline, dedication and achievement in all you do. Dare struggle and sacrifice and gain the strength that comes from this. Build where you are and dare leave a legacy that will last as long as the sun shines and the water flows. Practice daily Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba and Imani. And may the wisdom of the ancestors alway walk with us. May the year's end meets us laughing and stronger. May our children honor us by following our example in love and struggle. And at the end of the year, may we sit again together, in larger numbers, with greater achievement and closer to liberation and a higher level of human life.”

The last day of Kwanzaa is the first day of the New Year, January 1st.  Historically this has been a time of sober assessment of things done and things to do, of self-reflection and reflection on the life and future of the African people and of re-commitment to their highest cultural values in a sincere and meaningful way.

Following in this tradition, it is then a time to ask and answer soberly and humbly the three Kawaida questions: Who am I; am I really who I say I am; and am I all I ought to be? And it is, of necessity, a time to recommit ourselves to our highest ideals, in a word, to the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense.

The recommitment of ourselves to our community, our family and our individual best is a refreshing and empowering act that all of us, whether we are celebrating Kwanzaa or not, can benefit from.   What better way to start off the New Year than sincerely asking ourselves the three Kawaida questions and seeking out the path that leads us closer to being able to answer them with “Yes!”?


No matter how you choose to usher in the New Year,
Our Heritage Magazine
Wishes You a Very Happy and Bountiful New Year!



A special thanks to The Organization of Us, Dr. Maulana Karenga, The Official Kwanzaa Website and all of the other “keepers of Kwanzaa” that provide information to those seeking to learn more about this special cultural African American holiday.


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