Kwanzaa Etiquette

 “The seven principles of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith — teach us that when we come together to strengthen our families and communities and honor the lesson of the past, we can face the future with joy and optimism.” ~ President Bill Clinton

Out of the turbulent 1960s and the ashes of conflict emerged the celebration of Kwanzaa. The brainchild of activist Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa was established in 1966 to heal, unify and revolutionize the Black community in the wake of the Watts Riot in 1965. The focus of the holiday is the celebration of African-American cultural roots, focusing in large part on the African Continent’s agricultural history. The name Kwanzaa is drawn from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Kwanzaa is celebrated during the last week of the year, beginning on December 26 and ending on January 1.

Kwanzaa is a non-religious holiday, and although it was meant to be observed instead of other December holidays, today many observe it in addition to Christmas and Hanukkah. But it’s important to understand that Kwanzaa is a time in which African Americans celebrate their shared heritage. Therefore, if you are not part of this heritage but are honored to be invited to share in the celebration, approach it with the same sensitivity that you would as a non-Jew participating in Hanukkah or a non-Christian joining in Christmas traditions — with humility, delicacy and a generous and open mind.

If you are invited to a dinner or party or are planning to share in decorating your office, classroom, dorm or home for Kwanzaa, here are some cultural and etiquette tidbits that you might find helpful:

Color Scheme and Decorations

The colors of Kwanzaa are red, green and black, the same color scheme of the Pan-African Flag. The Kwanzaa Flag is typically exhibited, as well as flags of African nations. The color scheme can also be displayed in streamers, balloons, artwork, table linens, etc. All can be used to decorate your office, dorm room, community room, classroom or home.

Symbols of Kwanzaa

The symbols, in Swahili and English, include:

  • Mkeka, or Woven MatCharacterizes the foundation on which to build, and it is on this Mat that the items to be used in the celebration are arranged.
  • Kinera, or Candelabrum – Represents African roots and ancestry, has separate holders for each of the seven candles and is placed in the center of the Mkeka.
  • Mishumaa Saba, or Seven Candles – Symbolic of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.
  • Kikombe cha Umoja, or Unity Cup – Used to pour libations, to honor ancestors and continue their work. The history of the importance of African unity can be traced to the “Golden Stool” of the Ashanti people of Ghana.
  • Mazao, or Crops of the Harvest – Includes fruits and vegetables that signify the Harvest, which is at the heart of the Kwanzaa observance. The Harvest epitomizes the concept of working together cooperatively.
  • Muhindi, or Ears of Corn – The ears of corn represent fertility and children. Typically, an ear of corn is provided to each child present at the celebration; if no children are present two ears of corn are placed on the Mkeka.
  • Bendera, or Flag – The colors of the Kwanzaa Flag are black, red and green, embodying the people (black), their struggle (red) and the future (green).
  • Nguzo Saba Bango Poster, or Posters of the Seven Principals – Posters are drawn or purchased that proclaim the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.

The Kinera and Candles

The Kinera holds the seven candles; the middle candle is black and as you face the Kinera the three on the left are red and the three on the right are green.

Outside of one’s private residence, such as at work or school, the candles most likely will have to remain unlit because of fire codes. This is where electric candles come in handy; I found a website that sells electric candles, The Original Kwanzaa Lights; but they are sold out for 2014. This might be something on which to follow up if you’re interested in obtaining an electric Kinera. The traditional kind of Kinera is more easily available, such as this one from

The ritual of the candle lighting is described here; however, variations might exist. Each candle signifies a different Kwanzaa principle.

The Seven Principles

The seven principles of Kwanzaa, in English and Swahili, are:

Unity – Umoia
Self-Determination – Kujichagulia
Accountability – Ujima
Cooperative Economics – Ujamaa
Purpose – Nia
Creativity – Kuumba
Faith – Imani

Activities. Projects and Gifts

These three go together because many activities and projects revolve around crafts and handmade items, including the making of gifts to exchange; and many involve children. Activities might include making a Kwanzaa Flag and other projects for young children, as well as adult projects like this table runner or putting together a fabulous feast. The important thing to remember about gifts is that those most appreciated are handmade or homemade and have meaning and educational value with regard to the Kwanzaa celebration.

Dining Etiquette

As always, dining etiquette should be practiced. If you want to take it a step further, you might wish to observe the dining etiquette of a particular African country. Swahili, which as has been noted is the language of Kwanzaa, is spoken in the African Great Lakes region and other parts of Southeast Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thus, you might wish to practice the table manners practiced in one of these countries.

Throughout the festivities, the official greeting to other celebrants is, “Habari gani,” which means, “How are you?” Here are some other Swahili phrases

Writing this entry has been both enjoyable and educational for me, and I hope it has provided you with some nuggets of information and inspiration.

However you plan to observe Kwanzaa, or if you are fortunate to be invited to participate with friends, all my best wishes for a wonderful celebration. I would love to hear your stories, suggestions and experiences!

Until next time,




2 thoughts on “Kwanzaa Etiquette

  1. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Elaine, I am so pleased that you found this entry helpful. And, thank you for your eloquent comment, which is exactly in step with the spirit of Kwanzaa.."if we focus on our collective strengths…" It is also a universal sentiment for our times.


  2. Elaine Gagne says:

    WOW! I am SO glad you posted this! I only had a slight idea of what this was all about. It seems this celebration is needed now more than ever. If we focus on all of our collective strengths, the weaknesses of a few will be outshined by the passion of life and heritage from the good!Thank you for writing this! It's wonderful! What a beautiful celebration of heritage!


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