The Principles and Symbols of Kwanzaa Explained

By: Miya Jones
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The Principles and Symbols of Kwanzaa Explained

In the 1960s, Black Americans were pushing back against longstanding racism, and one of the tools used to do this was Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, which comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” or “first fruits,” was created in 1966 by Black Nationalist and Activist Maulana Karenga. He established the holiday after the Watts Riots as an attempt to empower Black Americans and connect them to their African roots. As of 2012, around 12.5 million people in America celebrate the holiday, but many still don’t know the true meaning of the holiday.

So we’re breaking down Kwanzaa’s seven principles and the main symbols the embody Kwanzaa.

Symbols of Kwanzaa

Mazao (The Crops)

📸: MIND AND I/Shutterstock

For Kwanzaa, fruits, nuts and vegetables represent Mazao or the crops. These foods symbolize African harvest celebrations, which are rewards for collective and productive work.

Zawadi (The Gifts)


On the last day of Kwanzaa, gifts are exchanged and they are typically homemade and educational. These gifts encourage growth and success. Books or something symbolic of African heritage is usually the best way to go.

Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup)

Kwanzaa Explained
📸: Fox 31

Kikombe cha Umoja or the unity cup is exactly what it sounds like. The cup represents the practice of unity, which makes everything else possible. Before drinking from the cup, participants usually say harambee, the Kenyan phrase for “Let’s pull together.” The cup is also often a family heirloom.

Muhindi (The Corn)

Kwanzaa Explained

Corn in Kwanzaa tradition represents children and their potential for growth and the future. This decoration acts as a display near the candles and on top of the next item on the list.

Mkeka (The Mat)

Kwanzaa Explained
📸: 7Principles365

The Mkeka or mat is what the corn, candles and other symbols rest on. It acts as and represents the foundation for all the other symbols of Kwanzaa. It is typically made of straw and contains African print and patterns.

Kinara (The Candle Holder)

Kwanzaa Explained
📸: The African Cultural Art Forum

Before breaking down the meaning of each candle, we have the candle holder or the Kinara. The holder represents the African ancestors from which Black Americans came from.

Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles)

Kwanzaa Explained

Similarly to Hanukkah, candles represent the amount of days the holiday is celebrated. The black candle is lit on the first night symbolizing people of African descent. The three red candles represent struggle. The last three green candles symbolize the earth and hope for the future. Each evening a candle is lit, presenting an opportunity for family to gather and discuss each principle or Kwanzaa.

Bendera (The Flag)

Pan-African flag

This flag is based off of Marcus Garvey’s pan-African flag with each color being representative. Again, black symbolizes Black people, red represents struggle and green represents the future, which cannot occur without struggle.

Nguzo Saba Poster

Kwanzaa Explained

The Nguzo Saba poster contains the the core seven principles behind Kwanzaa. These posters or written forms should be prominently displayed in the home while celebrating.

7 Principles

Umoja (Unity)

Holding hands

On the first day of Kwanzaa, as the first black candle is lit, celebrants reflect on the principle of Umoja meaning unity. This day is used to strive for greater unity amongst family, friends and the overall community.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)


Kujichagulia translates to self-determination, which is the meaning behind day two of the celebration. This principle focuses on one’s ability to define, create and speak for themselves. Kujichagulia embraces the idea that African people have a right to exist with their own unique contributions and culture.

Ujima (Collective Work)

Hands in

Day three celebrates the idea of Ujima or collective work. This idea represents a commitment to one’s community and that if one person has a problem, it’s everyone’s issue. In turn, if one person harms themselves, they also harm everyone else.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

working together

Similarly to Ujima, Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, emphasizes togetherness, but with this principle specifically, there’s a focus on finances. The idea behind the fourth day of Kwanzaa is to encourage economic self-reliance but at the same time help each other out. Ujamaa stresses shared social wealth and giving to those less fortunate as well.

Nia (Purpose)


Nia translates to purpose and within this principle, celebrants make commitments to return people of African decent to their traditional greatness. This idea also covers the concept of generational responsibility, which suggests that each generation has a role to play in pushing its people towards greatness.

Kuumba (Creativity)


Kuumba which means creativity encompasses the idea that those of African descent must be creative in finding solutions to help make society better. An example of this in practice would be starting a foundation that aids people in the community.

Imani (Faith)


Not only is it a popular and cute name, but it’s also the meaning behind this principle is even more beautiful. Imani means faith, which includes faith in your people, in the struggle and in a Creator. On the last day of Kwanzaa, loved ones, exchange gifts and make commitments to strive for better.

Miya Jones

Miya Jones

Miya Jones is a Long Island native and the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Shades of Long Island. She's been a journalist since the age of 17 and is a diversity advocate. Follow Miya on Instagram and Twitter: @miyajones1996 and on Facebook as Miya Jones.

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