What Are the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa?

Updated: Apr. 12, 2024

Here's the meaning and symbolism behind the Pan-African holiday and the seven Kwanzaa principles

Seven days. Seven candles. Seven Kwanzaa principles. If you’ve never celebrated Kwanzaa before, it’s not too late to start embracing the Pan-African holiday. From Kwanzaa traditions to its holiday-inspired gifts, there’s so much to learn about Kwanzaa that you may not know—even if you’re a seasoned celebrator.

Below, we’re sharing details about the principles of Kwanzaa. During this holiday, families come together to light the candle of the day, all while partaking in various activities that breathe meaning into each principle—African drumming, sharing African diaspora-inspired foods and reciting poetry from Black poets, to name a few. So read on to learn about Kwanzaa, its principles and symbols, and how to celebrate it.

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What is Kwanzaa?

The nonreligious holiday (read: whatever you do, don’t call it “Black Christmas”), which is observed globally from Dec. 26 through Jan. 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?

Hands of young African American man and his daughter during pray by tableAnnaStills/Getty Images

Here’s what you need to know about Kwanzaa principles and how people embrace them during the weeklong holiday.


Dec. 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 of the Kwanzaa principles 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, you can donate to charities and organizations that are geared toward social justice.


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 Ujamaa 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 the years fraught with fear over a pandemic and deep political division, we can all use lots of Imani, or faith, for the final addition to the principles of Kwanzaa. “[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 the society that we live in.”

How to celebrate Kwanzaa

still life with symbols of kwanzaSeventyFour/getty images

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. These 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.”

About the experts

  • Chimbuko Tembo is the associate director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
  • Lionel Jean-Baptiste is a Haiti native and a Supreme Court judge for the 9th subcircuit of the Cook County Judicial Circuit Court in Illinois.


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