A Guide to Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa (kwaan·zuh) is an annual celebration held from December 26 to January 1. Based on ancient African harvest celebrations, Kwanzaa is a non-religious, seven-day festival that celebrates African heritage, unity, and culture. It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, the Chair and Advisor of Africana Studies at California State University – Long Beach.

The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase, matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest”. Each day, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, called Nguzo Saba (en·goo·zo sah·bah), is celebrated: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani.

Nguzo Saba: Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Dec. 26 · UMOJA
Unity:  To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race

Self Determination:  To define ourselves, names ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves

Dec. 28 · UJIMA
Collective Work & Responsibility:  To build and maintain our community together and to make our Brothers’ and Sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together

Dec. 29 · UJAMAA
Cooperative Economics: To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses, and to profit from them

Dec. 30 · NIA
Purpose:  To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness

Dec. 31 · KUUMBA
Creativity:  To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it

Jan. 1 · IMANI
Faith:  To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle




Celebratory symbols are used to represent the values and African culture of Kwanzaa. The foundation of the display is the mat on which the other symbols are placed (see image). Supplemental items can also be included such as a Nguzo Saba poster, the black, red, and green flag (bendera), and African books and artworks.

Mkeka (em·keh·kah):  The mat is symbolic of the African tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.

Kinara (kee·nah·rah):  The candleholder is symbolic of our roots, our parent people — continental Africans.

Mishumaa Saba (mee·shoo·mah·ah sah·ba):  The seven candles are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba. The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red, and green; black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future. Therefore, there is one black candle and three red and green candles each. The black candle represents the first principle Umoja and is placed in the center of the kinara. The red candles represent the principles of Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba and are placed to the left of the black candle. The green candles represent the principles of Ujima, Nia, and Imani. These candles are placed to the right of the black candle. 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.

Mazao (mah·zah·oh):  The fruits, nuts, and veggies (crops) represent the African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.

Vibunzi (vee·boon·zee):  The ear of corn is symbolic of our children and our future which they embody.

Kikombe cha Umoja (kee·kohm·bee chah oo·moh·jah):  The unity cup represents the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible.

Zawadi (zah·wah·dee):  The gifts are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.



The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani? (ha·ba·ri ga·ni) which is Swahili for “What’s the news?” or “How are you?” The reply is the Nguzo Saba of the day.

“Habari Gani?”


“Harambee!” (hah·rahm·beh) is a call of unity cried out at the end of each nightly celebration, meaning “Let’s pull together!”

Each of the seven days highlight one of the Nguzo Saba principles. On the sixth day (December 31), there is a large feast called Karamu Ya Imani (kah·rah·moo ya ee·mah·nee). On this day, a Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors (red, black, and green), a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, and artistic performance. African cuisine and a gift exchange are also enjoyed by participants. 

Organizations focused on African Diasporian history and culture such as cultural centers, community centers, and museums, may offer week-long Kwanzaa celebrations that are open to the public.



The Official Kwanzaa Website

The History of Kwanzaa

Educational Resources