The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa Teach Us About the Holiday Spirit

Everything you wanted to know about this unique celebration

Allison Gaines
Dec 17, 2020 · 11 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit | Ark Republic

he holiday season is a silver lining during the harsh cloud of winter. People celebrate by attending family gatherings, engaging in acts of kindness, and enjoying festive meals. While each family has a unique way of commemorating the holiday season, people share something in common — a desire to cultivate the holiday spirit.

Our people gathered together to celebrate the good harvest, to give thanks for the good earth and the abundant blessings from it, and to recommit themselves to protect, preserve and care for the earth in life-affirming and world-respecting ways (Karenga, 2017).

Since the early Neolithic period, humans celebrated the winter solstice, marking our earliest rendition of the holiday season. In the Northern hemisphere, this event marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. While many Americans observe the Christmas season, the Kwanzaa Holiday remains shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, this holiday holds seven gems that teach us about the enduring holiday spirit.

Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love— Hamilton Wright Mabie (Williamson, 2015).

The Kwanzaa celebration lasts for seven days, representing the seven principles, known as Nguzo Saba. Unlike many holidays that revolve around religious affiliation, Kwanzaa emphasizes shared values. The seven principles, Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith), teach us how to honor this season. The Kwanzaa season encourages Pan African people to embody these principles in their thoughts and actions.

These principles call us to a committed and sustained practice of: striving and maintaining; defining, naming and creating; building; active caring and problem-solving; sharing responsibility and benefit; developing; and demonstrating an active faith in the righteousness and victory of our struggle (Karenga, 2017).

A short history of Kwanzaa

The word Kwanzaa is Swahili for “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” This holiday grew out of Kawaida, a Swahili philosophy that embraces “tradition” or “reason.” While many think that Kwanzaa is an African holiday, it is an African American holiday.

During the summer of 1965, racial tensions ran high in the United States. A little more than a year after the Civil Rights Act passed, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts became a tinderbox, ready to blow. This tension manifested through socioeconomic decline, police brutality, and systemic inequities in healthcare, education, and political representation.

On August 11, 1965, officers initiated a traffic stop that turned violent. Two stepbrothers, Marquette and Ronald Frye, became the center of the incident. When their mother, Rena, showed up on the scene, she witnessed officers attacking Marquette, who actively resisted arrest. She tried to intervene, scolding her son for his behavior. Then, the bottom fell out; an officer hit her in the head with his billy club, arresting her. The community rose, starting an uprising. This incident left 34 people dead and over 1,000 people injured.

Kwanzaa was conceived, born and came into being in the midst of struggle, in the fires and furnaces of the Black Freedom Movement, and therefore carries within it this legacy and the lessons from it (Karenga, 2016).

Dr Maulana Karenga founded Kwanzaa in 1966 in the aftermath of the Watts Uprising. Like many Civil Rights Leaders, Karenga wanted to turn the pain of the Black community into a unifying movement that could counter the negative impacts of anti-Black racism.

Over the years, Kwanzaa grew from a small celebration to one celebrated on every continent by millions of African people. Families fill this season with holiday cheer as they focus on strengthening their ties to African culture. Many celebrities like Oprah, Maya Angelou, Jamie Fox, Angelina Jolie, and Morris Chestnut celebrate Kwanzaa every year.

The U.S. Postal service released its first official Kwanzaa stamp in 1997, honoring the holiday. These stamps became part of the Black Heritage stamp series, which began in 1978. Officials used this series to highlight African American contributions to history.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit | Postal Times

To commemorate Kwanzaa, the U.S. Postal Service released a new stamp for 2020. In a press release, officials encouraged people to share this stamp on social media using the hashtag #KwanzaaStamps.

‘This new Kwanzaa stamp captures the essence of the African American cultural celebration. The stamp depicts the profile of a reflective woman with a kinara, or candleholder, with seven lit candles in front of her,’ said USPS Regional Processing Operations Eastern Vice President Dane Coleman, the dedicating official.

The stamp, which was hand-sketched and digitally colored, evokes a sense of inner peace with its cool tones and vibrant design elements to give a festive feel to the celebration of Kwanzaa (Coleman, 2020).

Tweet Credit | @USPSfwagoner | #KwanzaaStamps

While the United States has not yet recognized Kwanzaa as a public holiday, many school children and families already have time off to enjoy Kwanzaa because it starts the day after Christmas and ends the first day of the New Year. The release of the Kwanzaa stamps represents the growing popularity and relevance of this cultural celebration.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

During each day of the Kwanzaa holiday, the community celebrates the corresponding principle, embodying the holiday spirit. Along with these principles, Dr Karenga developed these symbols based on traditional African characters. On the official Kwanzaa website, you can discover the unique origins of each sign.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit | Author Owns This Photo | Created via Cana

1. Umoja Unity

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race (Karenga, 1966).

The Kwanzaa principles embrace the holiday spirit by promoting unity and togetherness. Umoja, the first principle, inspires people to join together, feeling pride in themselves, their families, and African culture.

Because this holiday is non-religious, people from different faiths can rejoice as one. Families can celebrate Umoja by attending social gatherings with family or community members.

2. Kujichaguilia Self-determination

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves for ourselves and speak for ourselves (Karenga, 1966).

During the holiday season, many people reflect on who they are, their accomplishments, and their hopes for the future. Kujichaguilia encourages introspection and confidence.

From a Pan-African perspective, Kujichaguilia encourages African descendants to use their sovereignty to self-advocate. They can accomplish their goals through self-naming and actively embracing African traditions distorted by colonialism.

Determination helps people to overcome adversity. On the second day of Kwanzaa, people can celebrate by jotting down goals, embracing resolve in their ability to succeed.

3. Ujima Collective Work & Responsibility

To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together (Karenga, 1966).

Ujima teaches an important lesson — we are not alone. During the holiday season, people feel inspired to consider the needs of others. They are much more likely to give to charities and participate in altruistic acts of kindness.

Collective work is vital because each person has a responsibility to contribute to their community. This principle embodies the holiday spirit by insisting that we do more than passively witness injustices. Ujima encourages people to care for one another. Ujima insists that we are indeed our brothers and sisters’ keepers.

Families can celebrate the third day of Kwanzaa by working together to solve problems. They can advocate for other community members and find joy in collective work.

4. Ujamaa Cooperative Economics

To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together (Karenga, 1966).

During the holiday season, families stimulate the economy by purchasing gifts, decorations, and food. Ujamaa embodies the holiday spirit by promoting group economics. Because Pan Africans have common economic interests, they empower themselves and their communities by supporting Black businesses. Their support gives back to small companies and strengthens the community’s financial core.

On the fourth day of Kwanzaa, Ujamaa promotes community growth and empowerment. This principle encourages people to see their success as only part of the community’s success, developing together to build more sound families and neighborhoods. Black Wall Street acts as a historical example of Ujamaa. In Tulsa, Black business owners created a closed community that featured luxury shops, movie theaters, restaurants, night clubs, and a library. Ujamaa encourages Black people to engage in group economics despite oppressive circumstances.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit | The Atlantic | National Park Service | Maggie L. Walker | National Historic Site

Kwanzaa challenges our people to involve themselves in the overarching liberating struggle to build the good community, society, and world we all want, work and struggle for and deserve (Karenga, 2017).

5. Nia Purpose

To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness (Karenga, 1966).

The holiday season fills people with a sense of purpose, setting goals for themselves and their community. People engage in activities to rejoice in their deep ties to others. On the fifth day of Kwanzaa, Pan Africans take time to commit to cultural restoration.

Nia teaches people about the holiday spirit, encouraging community service. Families can celebrate Nia by studying African history. They can also engage in community service at local schools and community centers.

6. Kuumba Creativity

To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it (Karenga, 1966).

During the holiday season, many people express their creative side. They join with their families and friends to decorate their homes and communities with festive flair. On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, African Americans celebrate self-expression aimed at strengthening the community.

This principle embodies the holiday spirit by insisting Black people work diligently to beautify their community, leaving it better than when they found it. Many small business owners celebrate Kuumba when they create useful and beautiful products. In-kind, many children develop projects that demonstrate their creativity through art and theatrical performances.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit |

Karamu The Kwanzaa Fest

On December 31, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, many families celebrate Karamu, Swahili, for the feast. Because this day falls on the last day of the year, many families gather in their homes or at local churches or community centers. Celebrants enjoy traditional African dishes, including sweet potatoes, collard greens, spicy sauces, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit | Food to Grow

7. Imani Faith

To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle (Karenga, 1966).

During the holiday season, people rejoice in their faith. On the last day of Kwanzaa, Imani insists that African Americans find strength in their families, community leaders, and the validity of fighting for racial equality.

Imani asks people to believe in the forward flow of human history. This principle starts the year off on a positive note, ensuring that faith drives the actions necessary to make positive changes.

It was a central part of our people’s struggle to be ourselves and free ourselves culturally as well as politically (Karenga, 1966).

Habari Gani △ Official Greeting

Throughout the weeklong Kwanzaa holiday, celebrants often use the greeting “habari gani,” which is Swahili for “What’s the news?” The listener responds with the corresponding principle of the day. This greeting is a fun way of showing that you are indeed honoring the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Symbols of Kwanzaa

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Credit | Henry Ford College

Crops △ Mazao represents the “matunda ya kwanza.” Fruits, nuts, and vegetables reflect the first fruits of the harvest, which nourished Africa’s people.

Mat △ Mkeka represents the foundation of the community. Families can use straw or traditional African cloth.

Ears of Corn △ Vibunzi (plural, muhindi) represents children. Celebrants use one ear of corn for each child in the family.

Candle Holder △ Kinara symbolizes stalks of corn that branch off to form new stalks, like a family tree.

Seven Candles △ Mishumao Saba represents the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Each day, someone lights a different candle, reflecting the principle associated with that day.

The black candle represents unity, and celebrants place it at the center of the kinara. They then place three red candles to the black candle’s left, reflecting self-determination, cooperative economics, and creativity. Lastly, the family places three green candles to the black candle’s right, representing collective work and responsibility, purpose, and faith.

The black candle represents the people; the red candles represent the noble ancestry that unites all African people and their struggle. The green represents the rich land of Africa and the future of the people.

Unity Cup △ Kikombe Cha Umoja is a ceremonial cup that celebrants drink from to honor their African ancestors. Before drinking, each person says, “Harambee,” meaning “let’s pull together.”

Gifts △ Zawadi — Traditionally, people provide gifts for children. Many of these gifts are educational and or handmade. Those purchased usually support Black businesses, to emphasize cooperative economics.

In closing

Our task this Kwanzaa and always is to ask ourselves, within the overarching framework of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, how do we repair renew and remake our world and develop strategies and practices to achieve this? (Karenga, 2017).

While the Kwanzaa holiday is a newer tradition, it embodies age-old principles of harvest celebrations held throughout history. During this season, people come together, reflect, and turn their kind feelings into altruistic actions.

At its heart, Kwanzaa is a beautiful celebration of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness in overcoming adversity. The seven principles teach us how to honor the holiday spirit during the season and throughout the year. While this holiday celebrates Pan-African culture, anyone can rejoice in the benefits of the seven principles.


Coleman, D. P. (2020, October 13). New Kwanzaa Stamp Now Available. Retrieved December 16, 2020, from

Karenga, M. (1966). Official Kwanzaa Website. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from

Karenga, M. (2016). 50th Anniversary Founder’s Kwanzaa Statement. Los Angeles Sentinel, A6. Retrieved December 16, 2020, from

Karenga, M. (2017). “Practicing the Principles of Kwanzaa; Repairing, Renewing, and Remaking Our World.” Los Angeles Sentinel, A6. Retrieved December 16, 2020, from

Williamson, J. (2015, December 18). 22 Happy Holiday Quotes to Lift Your Spirits. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from

PDF Exert Credit | Los Angeles Sentinel

The author Allison Gaines is the founder of Justice Can’t Wait:

*Author’s Note: You have the permission of the author to use and disperse the Kwanzaa poster included in this article.


ILLUMINATION-Curated hosts outstanding stories of advanced writers covering 100+ topics.

Allison Gaines

Written by

Black Womanist w/ Masters in Psych | English Teacher | | | I 🤎Coffee |


Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Allison Gaines

Written by

Black Womanist w/ Masters in Psych | English Teacher | | | I 🤎Coffee |


Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store