Kwanzaa Candle Meanings and Symbolism

Sally Painter
Kwanzaa celebration

The meanings and symbolism of Kwanzaa candles reflect the African American and Pan-African holiday. There are seven candles placed in the official candle holder, kinara, which supports the mishumaa saba (seven candles). Each candle represents one of the seven core principles (nguzo saba) of Kawaida philosophy.

Mishumaa Saba and Seven Candles

Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture. There are three official Kwanzaa colors: black, red, and green. There are seven candles: one black candle, three red candles, and three green candles. Each candle represents one of the seven principles guiding Kwanzaa. These are placed in the mishumaa saba in a specific order. Each candle is lit on a specific day of the Kwanzaa seven-day celebration.

Mishumaa Saba and Seven Candles

One Black Candle

The principle that the black candle represents is the concept of unity. The day one (Umoja) focus is on the unity of family, community, nation, and race.

  • The candle represents the African American and Pan-American peoples.
  • It is placed in the center of the mishumaa saba.
  • This candle is always lit first on the opening day of Kwanzaa.

Three Red Candles

There are three red candles, each representing a separate principle. These candles are placed to the left of the black candle in the mishumaa sava. These three principles include:

  • Day Two (Kujichagulia): Self-determination is the second principle. It represents defining, naming, creating, and speaking for oneself. This is the second candle lit.
  • Day Three (Ujima): This is the third principle and is defined as collective work and responsibility. This encompasses building and maintaining the community by working together, taking on each other's problems, and solving them together. This is the third candle lit.
  • Day Four (Ujamaa): This is the principle of cooperative economics. This encompasses building and maintaining individually owned stores, shops, and other businesses. The goal is to profit from these endeavors as a community. This is the fourth candle lit.

Three Green Candles

There are three green candles, each representing a specific principle. These candles are placed to the right of the black candles and the last ones lit.

  • Day Five (Nia): This is the principle of purpose and takes on the collective vocation of building the community and developing it as a way to restore African Americans and Pan-Americans to their traditional greatness. This is the fifth candle lit.
  • Day Six (Kuumba): This candle celebrates the principle of creativity. The goal of this principle is to do everything possible to make a difference and leave the community in better condition than what was inherited. This is the sixth candles lit.
  • Day Seven (Imani): This is the principle of faith. It challenges people to believe in each other and honor their struggle as righteous and that they'll be victorious. This is the last candle to be lit. All seven candles are lit on this day.

Proper Lighting Order

According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, the proper order of lighting the Kinara is to:

  1. First day: Light the black candle on the first day of Kwanzaa.
  2. Second day: You'll light the black candle and the far left red candle.
  3. Third day: You'll light the black candle and the two far left red candles.
  4. Fourth day: You'll light the black candle first, and the far left red, moving from left to right until all red candles are lit.
  5. Fifth day: You'll light the black candle first, then the three red candles, moving from left to right and the green candle beside the black candle.
  6. Six day: You'll light the black candle first, then moving left to right, lit the red candles and the first and second green candles closest to the black candle.
  7. Seventh day: You'll light all of the candles, starting with the black candle. Move to the far red candle and proceed to light all of the red candles, moving to the first green candle beside the black candle. Continue until all of the green candls are lit.

The goal is to light the candles after the black one by moving from left to right when facing the Kinara. The Official Kwanzaa website explains, "This procedure is to indicate that the people come first, then the struggle and then the hope that comes from the struggle."

Different Versions of Lighting the Kinara

While this is the official guidelines for lighting the Kinara, many people choose to light the candles alternating from the closest red to the black candle, then moving to the first green candle beside the black one. They continue to alternate between red and green candles. This video demonstrates the most common and alternative way of lighting the Kinara.

Where to Place the Kinara

The kinara (kee-NAH-rah) has a special designated place during Kwanzaa. A table is set at the beginning of the holiday activities on day one.

  1. Spread an African cloth over the table.
  2. Set the mkeka (mat) on the table on top of the tablecloth along with the traditional symbols that represent the African heritage.
  3. The kinara is then placed on the mkeka at which time the mishumaa saba (seven candles) are added to the kinara.
Where to Place the Kinara

Type of Candles to Use

The candles selected for the majority of Kwanzaa celebrations are tapers. The most popular kinaras support taper candles. That doesn't mean you're limited to only using taper candles.

Ceremonial Practices and Rituals

The overall lighting of the Kinara and the meaning each candle holds remains the same from one family to another. However, in keeping with the spirit of Kwanzaa, families are encouraged to make the celebration their own. Each family should decide what type of ceremonial practices they wish for the lighting of the Kinara. There are several ways they do this:

  • Some families recite the principle that each candle represents as they light it.
  • Other families name deceased family members they associate with a specific principle when that candle is lit.
  • Most families offer a prayer either at the opening of the ceremony or the end. Some offer a prayer at the beginning and end of the ceremony.
  • Some families allow the oldest member to light the black candle, followed by other members lighting the red candles, and the children lighting the green candles.
  • On the first day of Kwanzaa, many parents exchange small gifts with their children.

Other Ways to Celebrate Kwanzaa

Some other ways you can celebrate Kwanzaa is to serve specific foods, such as greens, yams, and other traditional foods. Some families play games or make Kwanzaa related crafts as part of their celebration.

Understanding the Symbolism Behind Kwanzaa Candles

You can receive greater insight and appreciate for the Kwanzaa celebration when you know the candle meanings and symbolisms. Once you know what each candle represents, you can pray and/or meditate on its meaning the day you light it.

Kwanzaa Candle Meanings and Symbolism