5 Kwanzaa Traditions That Honor the History of the Holiday

Kwanzaa traditions link African traditions and American customs. Learn more about the holiday's important history, symbols, and customs.

Kwanzaa is a relatively new observance in December, dating back to 1966. The holiday's primary purpose is to link African traditions and American customs. "Kwanzaa is an African American cultural holiday," says blogger Riche Holmes Grant. "It's all about family, community, and being together."

Dr. Mualena Karenga founded Kwanzaa while he was chairman of Africana Studies at California State University in Long Beach. He focused the holiday on seven core principles, expressed in Swahili as Nguzo Saba (nn-Goo-zoh SAH-bah). Each principle is linked with one of the seven days of the celebration, which runs each year from December 26 through January 1. "Each night our family lights a candle and shares reflections on the daily principle," Riche says. Listed in order of observance, the principles are:

  1. Umoja (oo-MOH-JAH) — Unity
  2. Kujichagulia (koo-ji-chah-goo-LEE-ah) — Self-determination
  3. Ujima (oo-JEE-mah) — Collective work and responsibility
  4. Ujamma (oo-jah-MAH) — Cooperative economics
  5. Nia (NEE-ah) — Purpose
  6. Kuumba (koo-OO-mbah) — Creativity
  7. Imani (ee-MAH-nee) — Faith
kwanzaa candles
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In addition to the seven principles, the Kwanzaa celebration includes seven core symbols that have Swahili names and represent traditions, cultures, and community.

  1. Kinara — The candelabrum is symbolic of ancestry.
  2. Mishumaa Saba — Seven candles stand for the seven core principles.
  3. Mazao — Crops represent the harvest, community and working together.
  4. Mkeka — A woven mat represents foundation and tradition.
  5. Muhindi — Corn is symbolic of children and the future they exemplify.
  6. Kikombe Cha Umoja — The unity cup is symbolic of unity and remembrance.
  7. Zawadi — Gifts reflect parents' labor and love, plus the commitments made by children.

The holiday's daily ritual begins with a family member or friend's lighting of one of the seven candles placed in the candleholder called the kinara (kee-NAH-rah). This candle-lighting is followed by a discussion of the day's principle, a folktale, or a shared recollection of how the principle has influenced the family or friend participating in the celebration.

woman lighting kwanzaa candles
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The first candle lit and placed in the center of the kinara is the black candle, which is symbolic of unity. As the celebration continues in the following days, revelers light a red or green candle daily to commemorate each principle. The three red candles represent self-determination, collective work and responsibility, and cooperative economics. The three green candles are for purpose, creativity, and faith. Often the green candles are placed to the right of the black candle and the three red candles are placed on the left.

The word Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili word meaning "first" or "first fruits of the harvest." Kwanzaa reflects the traditions of harvest festivals celebrated in many African countries, acknowledging the first fruits of the harvest, and the reward of family and friends working together to produce the season's crop.

As with any holiday, Kwanzaa traditions vary and continue to evolve with each celebration. And they're different for each family! These are the meaningful ways Riche's family celebrates Kwanzaa.

Riche Holmes Grant

Kwanzaa is another way to connect during the holidays.

— Riche Holmes Grant

When Is Kwanzaa 2022?

Kwanzaa begins on Monday, December 26, and lasts through Sunday, January 1.

Kwanzaa Celebrations and Traditions

Though the holiday is a celebration of African American heritage and culture, it is important to remember that African Americans reflect a broad spectrum of experiences and lifestyles. Kwanzaa traditions also reflect this diversity. These traditions include the following:

Making Kwanzaa Gifts

Families set aside time on the first day of Kwanzaa to make handmade gifts to exchange during the Karamu (feast). Typically, gifts are handmade and educational, teaching something about the heritage of people of African descent.

Honoring Ancestors and Elders

In local communities or among church youth groups, young people visit nursing homes and senior centers to celebrate Kwanzaa with residents. Thoughtful visitors might bring small gifts for the residents, like bookmarks or socks with Kwanzaa-colored trim.

Wearing Traditional African Clothing

Though traditional African garb can be worn year-round, many people wear it during the seven days of Kwanzaa or at the Kwanzaa feast. By wearing African garb, revelers reinforce cultural identity and the Kwanzaa principles of unity, creativity, and cooperative economics.

Planning Special Meals

Food is an integral part of the celebration. On each day of the Kwanzaa celebration, hosts include a dish from a different country in the African diaspora. These national dishes from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, help to highlight different cultures and customs. Kwanzaa meals might include Jollof Rice, a traditional West African dish, jerk meats from the Caribbean, and black beans that are popular in Caribbean and South American dishes.

During Kwanzaa, some people abstain from eating meat or fast until the Kwanzaa feast. This decision is a personal choice. The decision to omit meat can also be linked to Kwanzaa principles, such as self-determination and faith. Historically, the choice to omit meat from the diet harks back to the challenges of enslaved Africans to survive in new lands, when meat was not included in their meals.

Enjoying a Kwanzaa Feast

The Kwanzaa Karamu can be an intimate event with close family and friends or a large community celebration. "Kwanzaa is another way to connect during the holidays," says Riche. This menu can be a cooperative effort with each person bringing a dish. These dishes can be family favorites or foods of one particular country. In the spirit of Kwanzaa and learning about African heritage, some families and churches select one country, and the entire Karamu menu includes dishes and foods from that specified land.

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