What Are the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa?
Family. Community. Purpose. There is plenty of meaning and symbolism behind the Pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa.
Seven days. Seven candles. Seven Kwanzaa principles. If you’ve never celebrated Kwanzaa before, it’s not too late to start embracing the holiday, its traditions, and its gifts. Read on to learn about Kwanzaa, its principles and symbols, and how to celebrate it.
What is Kwanzaa?
The nonreligious holiday (read: whatever you do, don’t call it “Black Christmas”), which is observed globally from December 26 through January 1, can be celebrated by anyone of any race who’s looking to connect with African teachings. Kwanzaa is Swahili for “first fruits,” a literal celebration of agricultural bounty, and a metaphor for a prosperous life.
“To have a whole week to celebrate [Kwanzaa] is unique because we’re used to one-day holidays. And because of that length of time, you really get a chance to immerse yourself in the holiday and enjoy it. It’s a celebration of African family, community, and culture,” explains Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
What you might not know about Kwanzaa is that it was started fairly recently. Longtime activist Dr. Maulana Karenga opened the African American Cultural Center in 1965, and one year later, he founded Kwanzaa amid the Black Power movement. His goal was to create a sense of pride and unity among African Americans in relation to their cultural origins.
“The fact that the holiday is seven days is because it’s centered around seven principles,” adds Tembo, who says she began celebrating the holiday in 1980, alongside Karenga. “Those principles come out of ancient African culture and practices and beliefs, so it’s a very detailed and culturally grounding holiday.”
Every night, a candle is lit on a traditional candleholder, the kinara, to honor each of Kwanzaa’s principles.
What are the seven principles of Kwanzaa?
Here’s what you need to know about Kwanzaa principles and how people embrace them during the weeklong holiday.
December 26 marks Umoja, or a day of unity. On this day, set a goal “to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race,” says Tembo. After a couple of years that saw racial tensions reach a rolling boil from coast to coast, Tembo predicts the day will be especially poignant for African Americans. “Who wouldn’t want unity,” she adds, “especially now, with all the divisiveness?”
The second Kwanzaa principle highlights self-determination. “When you light the second candle, it’s a reminder of the need to be self-determining and respectful of yourself and others and to understand that you have value in the totality of the community that you live in,” explains Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a Haiti native and Illinois Supreme Court judge who’s been celebrating the Pan-African holiday since the 1960s. “It’s not a monolithic community. It’s a community made up of many different people. And even in your family, family members have to be self-determining in order to achieve what they need to achieve, because while you’re unified as one family, each member needs to try to pursue work, education, and being selfless to help one another.”
The third day of Kwanzaa, Ujima, is about collective work and responsibility. This principle holds a special place in Jean-Baptiste’s heart because of his many years as a civil rights and immigrant rights activist. “The practice of my own life is [Ujima], to build and maintain our community together, to make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and solve them together,” he says. “It’s the question of sacrifice for the greater good.”
Of course, you don’t have to wait until Kwanzaa to follow Jean-Baptiste’s lead and do some good in the community. Whether or not you celebrate Kwanzaa, these charities and organizations geared toward social justice could use your help.
Cooperative economics takes center stage on Kwanzaa’s fourth day. Jean-Baptiste says it can have a professional or personal meaning for celebrants. “I’ve been married since 1976. My wife and I have been together since 1973, so there’s no ‘mine’ in the mix. It’s all collective money,” he explains. “It is through that kind of cooperation that we are able to meet whatever the obligations might be. It’s not about any one individual taking advantage of the resources that we might have. We try to move together. But Ujimaa is also if people have a business, the pursuit of businesses, self-determination, and the pursuit of economic independence, which is entrepreneurship—the best spirit to create and take advantage of.”
What is your Nia, or your purpose in life? That’s what you may be asking yourself on Kwanzaa’s fifth day. “It’s to be clear about where you’re going,” says Jean-Baptiste. “You need to try to define, ‘Where am I going? What am I trying to do?'”
They’re smart questions for everyone to ask, not only those who celebrate Kwanzaa. Having a sense of purpose in life can help you live longer and find financial success.
Reflect on your creative side for Kwanzaa’s sixth day. To channel Kuumba, celebrants need “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,” says Tembo. “What will be our legacy when we leave this world? Do we do anything to make it better?”
In a year fraught with fear over a pandemic and deep political division, we can all use lots of Imani, or faith, for the final Kwanzaa principle and day. “[We can] believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle,” says Tembo. “So [it’s about having] that faith, especially during these challenging times right now, and to believe that through our struggle, we can improve in the society that we live in.”
How to celebrate Kwanzaa
Whether you’re celebrating together or apart, there are a few things to make the holiday more special and meaningful. Jean-Baptiste suggests printing out literature on the Kwanzaa principles before you celebrate as well as gathering Kwanzaa’s seven basic symbols for your decor. Those symbols include:
- Mazao (the crops)
- Mkeka (the mat)
- Muhindi (the corn)
- Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles)
- Kikombe Cha Umoja (the unity cup)
- Zawadi (the gifts)
But the most enduring symbol of Kwanzaa, of course, is the Kinara. Tembo suggests celebrants shop intending to give back. “One of the things of Kwanzaa is supporting Black businesses,” adds Tembo. “And so we would say maybe not go to Amazon but go to a Black business and purchase from that business.” Here’s how to find great Black-owned businesses to support during Kwanzaa and all year long.
- Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the African American Cultural Center
- Official Kwanzaa Website: “Kwanzaa”