Essay: Kwanzaa Traditions & Reflections

by Kelli Kehler

Today we’re thrilled to welcome Pamela Hilliard Owens to share her Kwanzaa traditions and also shed light on the seven-day holiday for those who are less familiar. Pam is the founder and CEO of Your Business Your Brand Creatively (YB2C), a branding and marketing system for creative professionals, and Detroit Ink Publishing, an independent publishing company. She is also the host of the weekly YB2C Live! Podcast for Entrepreneurs. Take it away, Pam!

Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday created in 1966 and is a community- and family-based cultural holiday celebrated annually over seven days from December 26 through January 1. Kwanzaa merges African-American and African cultural practices and is now celebrated all over the world. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor should it be considered a “Black Christmas.” The name “Kwanzaa” is derived from the Kiswahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” All in the community are invited to celebrate Kwanzaa and reflect on its values.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

The celebration is centered around the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, known as the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles in Kiswahili. One principle is highlighted on each of the seven days of Kwanzaa.

Umoja — Unity: To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Kujichagulia — Self-Determination: To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Ujima — Collective Work and Responsibility: To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa — Cooperative Economics: To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia — Purpose: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba — Creativity: 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.

Imani — Faith: To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

How Kwanzaa is Celebrated

Kwanzaa is designed to be celebrated by family units at home and/or at events sponsored by community organizations. On each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, people greet each other by asking: “Habara Gani?” in Kiswahili which means, “What’s the news?” The response is the Kwanzaa principle of the day. For example, on Day Three, when you are greeted with Habara Gani? you answer, Ujima!

Because Kwanzaa spans seven days, usually family groups or a group of friends take turns having one day’s celebration in their homes, or different community organizations each take a day to sponsor a Kwanzaa principle. On January 1, the last day of Kwanzaa (Imani – Faith), a large family or community meal is served to honor the total celebration values and to bring in the new year.

Personal Kwanzaa Reflections

My parents, Stratford and Gwendolyn Hilliard, were married for 63 years before my Dad’s death in 2009. They both came from large and loving extended families and have 4 daughters and 20 grandchildren and great-children. Here they are dressed in some of their finest African garb (from Ghana), attending a Kwanzaa celebration in 2005. We have been celebrating Kwanzaa as a family in different family homes and in our community since the celebration was founded in 1966 by Dr. Karenga.

Here in Detroit, Michigan, many community celebrations of Kwanzaa are held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the largest museum of its kind for decades until the Smithsonian Museum was opened in 2016. The Museum hosts community groups that sign up for one of the seven nights of Kwanzaa to sponsor a Kwanzaa value.

Also here in Detroit, [where I’m based], the Ruth Ellis Center, a very unique place of refuge for homeless LGBT teens and young adults holds a special series of standing-room-only daily Kwanzaa celebrations, especially highlighting the “family” commemorations that the youth may not have otherwise.

Image above: Members of the Board of Directors for the Ruth Ellis Center at a previous Kwanzaa Celebration.

During the 7-day Kwanzaa Celebration at the Ruth Ellis Center, additional events are planned including an African naming ceremony during which participants can choose their own significant name and a “Kid’s Kwanzaa” Day with activities specifically for younger children.

Much of the information for this article came from the official Kwanzaa website. Visit the site for more information about the history of Kwanzaa and how to celebrate the holiday. All photographs in this article are royalty-free or personally owned by the author of this article.

The Charles H. Wright Museum is located in the Cultural Center of Detroit. Find out more here.

The Ruth Ellis Center is located in Highland Park, Michigan. Find out more here. –Pam Hilliard Owens


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  • Thank you for this article. I’m embarrassed to say that haven’t done much personal research about Kwanzaa despite my curiosity. I’m happy to know more now. The principles that the holiday is organized around are really lovely, especially given how commercialized the holiday season has become (in my own opinion).

  • I enjoyed reading the Kwanzaa article. Asante Sana!!! (Swahili for thank you very much!) The writer accurately conveyed the principles and provided a referral for more detailed information from the founder’s website, all the while giving us a sense of the warmth, pride and community that the holiday creates throughout the African Diaspora. So thank you, Design Sponge, for once again giving us a multicultural view of the world.