Kwanzaa was introduced by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a way to welcome first harvests. Today, it is celebrated by many African American families between December 26 and January 1. The word “kwanzaa” derives from the Kiswahili word “kwanza,” which means first.

Kwanzaa holds five values sacred:

  1. Ingathering
  2. Reverence
  3. Commemoration
  4. Recommitment
  5. Celebration

There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, which are each symbolized by a candle. Each of the principles is described with a Kiswahili word.

  1. Umoja: unity
  2. Kujichagulia: self-determination
  3. Ujima: collective work and responsibility
  4. Ujamaa: cooperative economics
  5. Nia: purpose
  6. Kuumba: creativity
  7. Imani: faith

Along with the values and principles, there are also seven symbols associated with Kwanzaa.

  • Crops (mazao in Kiswahili) represent African American roots in agriculture and their hard work during harvest time.
  • Mat (mkeka) symbolizes self-actualization.
  • A candle holder (kinara) is used as reminder of ancestors from 55 African countries who came to the New World.
  • Corn (muhindi) symbolizes youth and their hope for a better future.
  • Gifts (zawadi) remind parents of their commitment to their children.
  • A unity cup (kikombe cha Unoja) to hold a beverage symbolizes an offering to African American ancestors.
  • Seven candles (mishumaa saba) brings celebrants back to the principles. The candles are red, black and green, which are the colors of the African liberation movement.

The most sacred ceremony during Kwanzaa is the candle-lighting ceremony. During this event, all family members are present. The first part of the ceremony is called TAMBIKO. This is a time to honor African ancestors. The eldest of the household pours a beverage such as wine, juice, or distilled spirits from the unity cup (kikombe cha umoja) onto the earth or in a vessel filled with dirt. During the pouring of the cup, the family member thanks deceased family and friends for the values and inspiration they left behind.

After pouring some of the beverage out of the cup, the eldest family member will drink a little from it and then pass it around saying “harambee,” which means let’s pull together. Everyone repeats this word seven times.

The candles are then placed in the kinara. The black candle goes in the middle and represents African people everywhere. The three red candles are placed to the left of the black candle, and they represent ancestors’ blood. The three green candles are placed to the right of the black candle, and they symbolize earth, life, and future.

Starting on December 26, the black candle is lit and everyone reflects on the meaning of it. One candle is lit and the symbolism reflected on each day afterwards until January 1.

Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration that brings many people of different religions together. It’s a special time to remember African roots and how influential the past is on the future. It’s truly a time of gratitude and inspiration.


  • Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration to honor African Americans roots, ancestors, the earth, life, and future.
  • There are five values, seven principles, and seven symbols that give Kwanzaa meaning.
  • A candle being lit each day serves as a reminder of this special time of the year.
  • All religions are welcomed to celebrate Kwanzaa.

Last reviewed by Eva Benmeleh, PhD. Review Date: September 2020


  1. University of Pennsylvania. Kwanzaa: What Is It?
  2. Official Kwanzaa Site. Kwanzaa: Roots and Branches.
  3. National Museum of African Art. The Meaning of Kwanzaa.


  1. Great article! I think it is important for our children to learn about the different celebrations and traditions around the world.


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