Kwanzaa candles are a significant part of this African American winter holiday, and understanding the symbolism of these candles can help you appreciate the richness and intricacy of African American culture and heritage.
Kwanzaa is an African American holiday that celebrates culture, history, and community for seven days, from December 26 through January 1. Though it is a relatively young holiday, only having been founded in 1966, it is a popular one, and every year more than 18 million African Americans celebrate their heritage through the rituals of Kwanzaa. The word "kwanzaa" is derived from a Swahili word that translates as "first fruits of the harvest," and Kwanzaa is a celebration of the productivity and progress of African Americans.
Each day of the celebration represents an important facet of African American society: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each day, families and individuals honor those traits, and one way to honor them is through the use of ritual candles.
The Kwanzaa Candles
Candles are an important symbolic part of many holiday traditions, from the candles on a Christmas tree that represent the Star of Bethlehem to the Hanukkah candles that symbolize the miracle of the oil. Each of the seven candles, called mishumaa saba, represents one of the daily characteristics that are celebrated with this festival, and their colors and how they are lit are equally important.
The central black candle represents the African American people and the concept of unity, and this is the candle that is always lit first when observing Kwanzaa. The three red candles displayed to the left of the unity candle represent the struggles of the African American community, and the three green candles - displayed to the right of the unity candle - represent the hopes of the future. These colors, black, red, and green, are the primary colors of the African flag, adding a sense of continuity and additional culture to the candles' symbolism.
Displaying the Candles
During the celebration of Kwanzaa, the candles are displayed in a traditional African candle holder, a kinara (kee-NAH-rah). While there are many designs available, the preferred models are carved wood, often African tribal designs. The size of the candles can vary from 3 to 10 inches, and tapers are the most popular choice, but any type of candle in the right colors can be used. The black unity candle may be larger or longer than the other six candles to add elegance to the display, and it may be elevated on the kinara.
To light the candles, the central unity candle is lit first. That candle may be used to light the others, or each candle can be lit with matches instead. One additional candle is lit each day as the celebration progresses, beginning with the outermost red candle and alternating between red and green candles on progressive days. While there are no rules for who should light the candles, many African American families create their own traditions and interpretations by allowing the oldest or youngest member of the family to light the candles, or by alternating who lights the candles on which evening. The individual who lights the candles may also share a particular story, message, or meaning about that day's symbolism as part of the celebration.
Where to Buy Candles and Candleholders
Sets of Kwanzaa candles can be found at many retailers during the holiday season, particularly from merchants who specialize in African and African American home décor items. Candles can be purchased individually or in sets, or they can also be found in complete sets with coordinated candleholders and other ceremonial items.
Online retailers offering suitable candles and other Kwanzaa items include:
Other Kwanzaa Symbols
While the candles are one of the most familiar and most important Kwanzaa symbols, they are not the only ones. The unity cup, ceremonial mat, sheaves of grain, and ears of corn are equally valuable for this celebration, and many African American families create holiday centerpieces with the kinara, mishumaa saba, and these other items reverentially displayed.
Kwanzaa candles are an important part of this African American holiday, and understanding the symbolism of those candles and how they should be displayed and lit can help individuals and families honor their heritage in appropriate and suitable ways every holiday season.