The Seven Candles of Kwanzaa and What They Stand For

by Erika Winston

Kwanzaa was designed to promote unity within the African-American community. Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created the cultural celebration in 1966. By combining customs from various African harvest ceremonies, Karenga developed a new tradition that is now widely celebrated around the world. Seven candles are burned throughout the week-long observance and each represents a different principal of Kwanzaa.

Lighting the Candles

Mishubaa Siba is a Swahili term for the seven candles of Kwanzaa. They symbolize the sun's light and power. Celebrants light one each night as they gather around the candles to celebrate and discuss the principal of the day. One of the candles is black, three are red and three are green. These colors are no accident. Red, black and green have been historically used to represent African-American organizations like the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. According to the Association's website, the color black represents the people. Red represents the common blood of African ancestry. Green represents the rich natural resources of Africa.

The Black Candle

At the beginning of the celebration, all candles are placed on the kanara, or candelabra. The black candle is placed in the middle and all of the red candles are placed to its left. All of the green candles are located to the right. Since the main goal of Kwanzaa is to promote unity, the black candle is the first to be lit on December 26, the first night of Kwanzaa. It symbolizes umoja, which means unity. This first principal stresses the importance of uniting the family, as well as the community and nation as a whole. The black candle is also relit during each of the six remaining nights.

The Red Candles

During the remaining six nights of Kwanzaa, the red and green candles are lit from left to right. The far-left red candle is lit on the second day and it symbolizes kujichagulia, which means self-determination. The Official Kwanzaa Website explains that this principal encourages celebrants to define themselves through their words and creations. The next red candle, which is lit on the third day, is for ujamaa, or cooperative economics. This principal promotes the creation and support of community businesses. The final red candle is lit on the fourth day and it symbolizes kuumba, which is defined as creativity. Celebrants are encouraged to be creative and work to beautify the community.

The Green Candles

The three green candles are lit on the last three days of the Kwanzaa celebration, from left to right. The first green candle symbolizes nia, which means purpose. This principal promotes a collective purpose to build and restore the community, while lifting African-Americans to a level of greatness. Ujima is another principal represented by a green candle. It means collective responsibility, where people are encouraged to become their brother's keeper and work together towards solving each other's problems. The last green candle is lit on the last day of the celebration. It symbolizes imani, which is Swahili for faith. On this day, celebrants strengthen their belief in parents and teachers, as well as community leaders.

About the Author

Erika Winston is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, with more than 15 years of writing experience. Her articles have appeared in such magazines as Imara, Corporate Colors E-zine and Enterprise Virginia. She holds a Juris Doctor degree from Regent University and a Masters in public policy from New England College.

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