Kwanzaa: History and Traditions

For the last post in our series about holiday histories and traditions—take a peek at our previous posts on Hanukkah and Christmas—we bring you Kwanzaa. Fairly new to the lineup of December holidays, it wasn’t until 1966 that Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African Studies professor, activist, and author established Kwanzaa. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa to bring African-Americans back together as a community, and “give [them] an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history.” (more)

Every year, Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st.

So, let’s chat and chew about Kwanzaa’s history, main principles, and symbols.


The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits” in Swahili. (more) Most Kwanzaa celebrations include songs and dances, African drums, stories and poetry, and a large traditional meal. Similar to the lighting of the Jewish menorah, during Kwanzaa, one of the seven candles is placed in the Kinara (candleholder) every day, and then that day’s principle is discussed.

The candles range is color—there is one black, three green, and three red candles. The first candle lit is the black one, which is followed by alternating green and red candles depending on the day’s principle.


Kwanzaa focuses on seven core principles, which are referred to in Swahili as the Nguzo Saba. Listed in order of observance, The History Channel explains the principles and their meanings as:

  • UnityUmoja – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Self-determinationKujichagulia – To define, name, create for, and speak for ourselves.
  • Collective work and responsibility Ujima– To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Cooperative EconomicsUjamma – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • PurposeNia – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Creativity Kuumba – 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.
  • FaithImani – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.


In addition to a main principle, each day of Kwanzaa is also represented by a symbol. See below for a look at each symbol. Click here for a more in-depth explanation of each symbol’s meaning. 


Although Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa are different, each holiday has the power to bring friends, family, and tradition together under one roof. As this year’s Chrismahanukwanzaka season officially wraps up, on behalf of everyone at Compass Rose Benefits Group, we wish you a very Happy and Healthy New Year!

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