How to Celebrate Kwanzaa

Many of the most exciting and interesting holidays are celebrated within close proximity on the calendar, gracing the wintertime months with multifarious reasons for celebration. What's better is that most of the wintertime holidays span a length of time—Hanukkah has eight days, Christmas has twelve, and even Kwanzaa has a full week.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which literally means "first fruits." This name emphasizes the meaning behind the holiday which is to celebrate the first harvest celebrations in Africa. Kwanzaa builds on five traditions that stem from ancient "first fruit" celebrations: ingathering, to reaffirm relationships among people; reverence, to the creator and the blessings in life; commemoration, to ancestors and their examples for life; recommitment, to African cultural ideals; and celebration of all that is good.

The Principles

There are seven principles associated with Kwanzaa that bring focus to the human element of the celebration. Umoja is for unity in family and community. Kujichagulia is for self-determination. Ujima is for collective work and responsibility. Ujamaa is for cooperative economics. Nia is for purpose. Kuumba is for creativity. Imani is for faith.

The Seven Symbols

There are seven symbols associated with Kwanzaa: kinara, a candle holder with spaces for seven candles; mkeka, a placemat made of straw; mazao, fruits and vegetables to represent crops; muhindi, ears of corn (one for each child of the family, but a minimum of two are always used); kikombe cha umoja, a communal cup that symbolizes unity; mishumaa saba, seven candles (one black, three red, and three green); and zawadi, gifts from parents to children (usually culturally or educationally oriented).

Black, red, and green are the colors associated with Kwanzaa, and with good reason: black represents the African people, red symbolizes their struggle, and green denotes the hope for the future that results from the struggle. The colored candles and principles are interconnected. Each candle stands for one of the principles. The solitary black candle is for umoja or unity—this candle should be placed in the center of the kinara. To the left of the black candle, three red candles represent kujichagulia, ujamaa, and kuumba. The remaining candles, which should be green, stand to the right of the black candle, and embody ujima, nia, and imani.

Getting Ready

Be creative when you set up for Kwanzaa—after all, creativity is one of the principles of the celebration! Find a location in your home that will be a good place to gather on or near the floor. Clear a space large enough to seat all your family members comfortably (or they may sit on pillows if preferred). Spread the mkeka (straw placemat) on the floor, and place the kinara (candle holder) in the center with the mishumaa saba (colored candles) in place. The mkeka should also be surrounded by the muhindi (ears of corn). The kikombe cha umoja (communal cup) and a bowl or basket of the mazao should be placed on the mkeka. Also, on the mkeka, place various African art objects and books to show your commitment to heritage and learning.

Adorn the room with a multitude of black, red, and green decorations, including a Berenda, or Black Nation flag, which should be hung facing eastward. Once the room is decorated and the set-up is complete, you're ready to begin focusing on the true culture found in Kwanzaa.

How to Celebrate

Each night of Kwanzaa, starting on December 26th and ending on January 1st, light a new candle in the kinara. Start with the black candle in the center of the kinara and then move from left to right (lighting first the red and then the green candles). Choose one of the principles embodied by that color candle and discuss it with your family. Be sure to include children in the discussion, since there is much that can be learned from discussing these strong, unifying principles.

The Kwanzaa feast, or karamu, should be held on December 31st. The feast can be celebrated in the early evening if your family wishes to also celebrate New Year's Eve. The feast should begin with a cultural reminder—song, dance, reading, etc.—and the feast should be set up in a way that encourages self-service. Once the feast is completed, the farewell should be a message of unity. Gifts, or zawadi, should be exchanged, from parents to children only, on January 1st, which concludes the holiday celebration.