7 Kwanzaa Principles and Their Meanings Explained

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of African-American culture that begins on December 26th and ends on January 1st. It comes from the Swahili word for “first harvest” and is centered around seven principles (Nguzo Saba), one principle for each day. Keep reading to learn more about the Kwanzaa principles and how they come together in Kawaida, or “common.”

Kwanzaa celebration candles and drum Kwanzaa celebration candles and drum

Umoja (Unity)

On the first day of Kwanzaa, members of the African-American community focus on the principle of umoja. This principle emphasizes the importance of unity in all areas, including family, community, nation, and race. Celebrants light the one black candle of the Kinara, a seven-candlestick holder that is similar to the Jewish menorah.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

The second principle of Kwanzaa is kujichagulia, or “self-determination.” Its focus is building one’s identity as a person and a community, both historically and in the present day, by asking the question “Who am I?” Kujichagulia also encourages the question “Am I all that I ought to be?” Light the first red candle on the Kinara on the second day.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Ujima, the third principle of Kwanzaa, focuses on the collective responsibility for both achievements and setbacks in the community. This principle reminds celebrants that building each other up is the best way to truly solve problems. On the third day, you light the first green candle.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Light the second red candle on the fourth day of Kwanzaa, which celebrates the principle of ujamaa, or supporting each other economically. Buying from Black-owned businesses and banking with banks in the Black community keeps the economy strong in the African-American community. It also reinforces the principle from the day before – lifting up one person lifts up the whole community.

Nia (Purpose)

If ujamaa emphasizes keeping money in the Black community, nia encourages Kwanzaa celebrants to focus on giving power to their spending. Nia, which means “purpose,” is the fifth principle of Kwanzaa. It can mean purpose for your own future, the financial purpose of your family, or the collective purpose of your economic community. The second green candle is lit on the fifth day of Kwanzaa.

Kuumba (Creativity)

Kuumba is the principle of creativity in Kwanzaa. When celebrants light the third red candle, they focus on bringing beauty to their community through art, dance, music, and literature. The sixth day of Kwanzaa can honor prominent artists in the Black community or it can reflect the artistry of the individual. These creative works pay homage to a rich history and a vibrant future.

Imani (Faith)

On January 1st, the final day of Kwanzaa, celebrants light the last green candle for the principle of imani. Imani, which means “faith,” emphasizes family and community traditions as a spiritual center. It can focus on religious faith, faith in the future of a larger community, or faith in oneself as a valuable participant in the world.

family celebrating with Kwanzaa unity cup

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa incorporates traditional readings, dancing and artistic performances, and musical selections. But what are the other important parts of a Kwanzaa celebration? Here are the most common Kwanzaa symbols, greetings and traditions.

  • bendera - flag with black (for people), red (for struggles) and green (for the future) colors
  • “Habari Gani?” - standard greeting during Kwanzaa (“How are you?”)
  • Karamu Ya Imani - “feast of faith;” the final feast of the Kwanzaa celebration
  • kente - African cloth often worn during Kwanzaa
  • Kikombe cha Umoja - unity cup for giving thanks (shukrani) to African ancestors
  • Kinara - seven-candle holder with three red, three green and one black candle that are lit on specific days of Kwanzaa
  • “Kwanzaa Yenu Iwe Na Heri” - greeting that means “Happy Kwanzaa!”
  • mazao - crops to celebrate the harvest of work and productivity
  • Mishumaa Saba - seven candles that symbolize the seven principles of Kwanzaa
  • mkeka - mat that holds the other Kwanzaa symbols
  • muhindi - corn that symbolizes the future of children and descendants
  • zawadi - gifts that represent labor, love, and commitment

The Legacy of Kwanzaa

Although Kwanzaa has only been celebrated for the last 50 years, it represents centuries of tradition and ancestral bonds. It also pays homage to the social justice movements that have largely defined the Black experience in American history. Learn more about social justice issues facing the world as part of your Kwanzaa celebration to achieve Kawaida. You can also practice social justice every day with these examples of intersectionality theory.

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