Kwanzaa Traditions and Celebrations

Courtesy of soulchristmas (Flickr CC0)

Kwanzaa is a celebration of African heritage in African-American culture, observed from December 26 to New Year’s Day. It was founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966. The holiday focuses on seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Celebrate with a kinara (the candle holder) that sits at the center of your table during meals each day.

A Bit of History

Karenga was a student at UCLA, where he would later teach African-American studies, and was inspired to create Kwanzaa after reading about the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights movement. He wanted to create a holiday that would celebrate African culture, so he came up with seven principles:

  • Umoja (Unity),
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination),
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility),
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics),
  • Nia (Purpose),
  • Kuumbaa (Creativity),
  • and Imani (Faith).

Every day of Kwanzaa has its own principle associated with it, including an explanation of what each one means along with activities that you can do on that day.

Traditional Foods

The traditional foods associated with Kwanzaa are:

  • Red and black sweet potatoes,
  • Fried plantains (fried bananas),
  • Cornbread,
  • And collard greens (cooked cabbage).

The colors red, black, and green are also used on the table cloth or table coverings as well as on clothing by those who observe this holiday.

Celebrate With a Kinara

Courtesy of Black Hour(Flickr CC0)

This Kwanzaa tradition involves making a kinara, or the traditional candleholder for the holiday. The process is simple: you’ll need seven candles of different colors and sizes, all with cotton wicks. Then you inscribe on a piece of paper that says “Nguzo Saba” (the Swahili name for Kwanzaa) in black ink and place it underneath your kinara.

To light your candles:

First, light the candle closest to you (the red one). This represents Umoja (Unity). Second, light the next higher one (the yellow one), which stands for Kujichagulia (Self-Determination). Thirdly, light another higher one (green), which stands for Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility). Continue this process throughout the rest of the candles. Each color has its own meaning as well as its own importance within Kwanzaa celebrations.

Time to Decorate

Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture, heritage, and family. As such, it is customary to include mkeka and fruits in your decorations for the holiday. The table or shelf on which these items are placed should be covered with a colorful cloth or blanket and decorated with candles.

Dinnerware, dishes, and flatware should also be covered with cloth in order to create a festive atmosphere at mealtime.

Give Gifts on Principles

The main focus of Kwanzaa is to celebrate and honor family. When you’re choosing gifts for your loved ones, keep in mind that it’s best to avoid material things. Instead, give them gifts that are handmade or culturally relevant.

Keep your gift-giving simple and meaningful by purchasing something inexpensive but thoughtful as an alternative to traditional gifts like jewelry or expensive electronics. The latter of which can be difficult on the wallet. If you really want to give someone else a more personal gift, think about what they like most. Then find a way to incorporate it into your gift without being too obvious about it. This can help create some fun conversation during the next family get-together.

Homemade Gift Tradition

In one Kwanzaa tradition, the firstborn son or daughter is responsible for giving gifts to everyone in the family. The idea behind this tradition is that children learn how to give and share with others by watching their parents. Kids can make their own gifts or they can help you make something special.

Give homemade gifts because they are meaningful to you and your child. If you have time, try making a few things together as part of their gift-giving traditions.

The traditions of Kwanzaa are designed to celebrate unity, self-determination, and community building among all people — especially those who have experienced oppression or trauma due to their race or ethnicity.

By Sheena Robertson


Britannica: Kwanzaa
The News Observer: Kwanzaa starts Monday. Learn how it’s celebrated, find events in the Triangle
Songs for Teaching: Music for Teaching the Seven Nights of the Kwanzaa Holiday

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of soulchristmas‘ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of Black Hour‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *