Celebrating Kwanzaa

Dec 22, 2020 | Culture

What is Kwanzaa? Why is it celebrated? What is the history? This post is sprinkled with crafts and resources for you to use to help you better understand this festival and why it is important to those who celebrate. All learning sheets and crafts are boldface for easy distinction between learning resources and links. 

This post intends to help stimulate ideas that you can employ with your own family. I cannot tell how to celebrate Kwanzaa because there is not one way. Celebrate this feast how you see fit and I hope this post assist you in curating ideas and planning. (I like to use these festive stickers to plan for Kwanzaa).

What is Kwanzaa?

The word “kwanza” translates as ‘first’ in Swahili and is borrowed from the phrase, matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits. It is similar to the literal agricultural festivals that date back as early as Biblical times but only refers to the harvest feasts throughout the motherland that bear witness, and symbolizes as a metaphor for a bountiful life.

The concept and celebration of Kwanzaa borrows from the past to own the present and to build a future. It is meant to connect children to their family, community, and heritage giving them a sense of “who they are.” The festival operates on the numerology of seven, another Biblical (though no connection) and African value, lengthening the original word from six-letter kwanza to seven-letter kwanzaa to acknowledge one letter for each child present at a seminal celebration.

Thus, the word ‘kwanzaa’ itself is not Swahili though it fits perfectly into the linguistics model of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). While Kwanzaa finds its main roots in South African harvest feasts, it is also peppered with West African customs and East African linguistics. {Kiswahili (the native name of Swahili) is a Bantu language and the native language of the Swahili people. It is a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes as well as other parts of East and Southern Africa}.

In the late 1960s, the Black American community experienced a shift. The Civil Rights Movement was nearing its end and a new movement, the Black Power Movement, was on the rise. Afrocentrism was increasingly popular and there was a need to affirm Blackness and boast of its history, tradition, impact, and excellence. Fifty-four years ago, Dr. Maulana Karenga, an activist and educator, installed Kwanzaa as a special holiday for African Diasporans in America to contribute to our collective affirmation. Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days beginning on December 26 through January 1 as a nonreligious (though in true Black folk fashion many add tenets of their own spirituality to the celebration.) Today, Kwanzaa is not just celebrated in the United States but also in the Caribbean, Canada, and other countries with large numbers of African descendants.

Finally, “Habari gani” meaning “What is the news?” is the standard greeting during Kwanzaa where the answer is always the principle of the day.

Why is Kwanzaa celebrated?

The purpose of Kwanzaa is two-fold: (1) To affirm the Black family as its own unique entity and (2) to celebrate social values that Africans esteem (regardless of geographical location). It gives a platform for us to be able to say, “this is the African family” and to recognize cultural truths that appear to be a common theme among people of African descent. The social values—these cultural truths—are the heart of this festive celebration demonstrated in seven principles, one for each day of Kwanzaa.

Many times, celebrations and gatherings mark and commemorate a specific date in history or a historical event achieved or lamented by the people. However, Kwanzaa is an opportunity for African Diasporans to simply recall who we are (and not necessarily what we have done or what we have survived). Karenga’s arrangement and order of Kwanzaa aids in triggering the social memory of Africans causing us to remember how we exist, behave, and respond one unto another and as a collective people group. I personally enjoy Adam Clark’s, co-editor of The Black Theology Papers, Columbia University, description:

“That’s what Kwanzaa does, it gives us a long memory—a long cultural biography.”

~Adam Clark

The Staple Symbols

1. The seven candles, Mishumaa Sabaa

2. The candle holder, Kinara

3. The unity cup, Kikombe cha Umoja

4. The placemat, Mkeka (em-KEH-kah)

5. The crops, Mazao

 6. The corn, Muhindi (one ear for each child)

7. The gifts, Zawadi (za-WAH-dee), usually handmade or heartfelt

The centering custom during Kwanzaa is the daily lighting of the Kinara which begins on day one with the black candle. The seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) are arranged with the black candle in the middle, three green candles to the right of it and three red candles to the left of it. (You can purchase the Kinara and the Mishumaa together as a kit.) All the staple symbols are displayed on the Mkeka, a straw or woven textile mat, usually in a common area on a table, altar, or a special/sacred floorspace. Some people dress in cultural garb by wearing khaftans, dashikis, kufis, and headdresses.

Usher in this festive season with a sacred or cultural drumming
Usher in Kwanzaa with the Black National Anthem or play it second after the drumming.

Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba) in Seven Days

I am constantly asked how to celebrate Kwanzaa, even by those with an understanding of the symbols and principles. As I list each principle, I will share things to do for the day; however, the structure for each day is pictured below. (And do not forget to add whatever you want!)

A great song to begin your Kwanzaa week!

Umoja, December 26

The first day of Kwanzaa honors Umoja (oo-MO-jah) meaning unity. The black candle—also called the unity candle—is lit. Let us strive for unity in family, community, and in Blackness. Let us remember that we are better together. (This cootie catcher is a good “hand toy” for children to play with and learn.)

A catchy Kwanzaa tune that many young children would enjoy.

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that teach unity. Discuss as a family and accomplish a task together as a unit—maybe you set the “Kwanzaa table” with its symbols together, cook a meal together, build something, complete a puzzle together, or any other activity that everyone can contribute to. Each person should be able to clearly understand how they contributed and why their part matters. Also, include how unity offers safety and comradery.

“Many hands make light work” is my personal favorite particularly to teach personal and collective contribution. I also add a saying that my mother has taught and repeated to my brothers and I as children:

“There is safety in numbers. The three of you—you stick together.”

~Mama Marie

Likewise, I repeat this message to my two sons.

U.N.I.T.Y – Perfect for Day 1 for an adult or teen gathering.

Kujichagulia, December 27

The second day of Kwanzaa honors Kujichagulia (koo-GEE-cha-GOO-lee-yah) meaning self-determination. Let define and name ourselves—telling our own stories, creating for ourselves, educating ourselves, and governing ourselves according to our own customs. Let us remember that we are better together. The far left red candle is lit.

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that teach self-determination. Discuss as a family and define the family values that honors your race and culture—maybe you all define what being Black means to you or make it a writing exercise where family members take turns reading their thoughts aloud, watch Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” message and discuss how being Black is not a monolithic experience, or expose children to “non-American Blackness” by reading, narrating, or watching content about Afro-Latinos/as/x, Afro-Caribbeans, Black South Americans, Africans, and more.

Each person should understand that we are determined to be Black and to own our Blackness, and that though we are one group there are many ways to “be Black.” (“Black activities” like playing Black Card Revoked, Uno, Spades, or dancing down Soul Train lines or moving to group dances like the Electric Slide, Cupid Shuffle, or Before I Let Go is fitting too). This a great day to teach the family how to play traditional African games or Mancala (also called Kalah). Do you know who invented this game back in 1940? Look it up and teach your children!

Up, you mighty race, accomplish what you will.

~Marcus Garvey

Ujima, December 28

The third day of Kwanzaa honors Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) meaning collective work and responsibility (for the building, organization, and preservation of Black communities). Let us remember that we are called to do the necessary and collective work to create and keep ourselves. Let us remember that we are better together. The far right green candle is lit.

SANKOFA! There is a clip of a live ritual in this video for Ujima. ASÈ

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that teach collective work and responsibility. Discuss as a family and identify values that boast of work and responsibility—maybe you all revisit what individual responsibility means and how that carries out to collective responsibility, work together on a family, house, or service project, or begin to collect something on this day as a family for the next year and review next Kwanzaa. This is a good day (if you have not already) to review the colors of Kwanzaa and their meaning. Red is for the blood. Black is for the People. Green is for the land.

Ujamaa, December 29

The fourth day of Kwanzaa honors Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) meaning cooperative economics. Let us financially invest in ourselves and in our communities. Let us support Black-owned business and create way to net profits together. Let us remember that we are better together. The center red candle is lit. Beyonce has a directory of Black businesses as well as Buy From a Black Woman and DC’s very own DC Shop Small. My history program, Our History Revealed™, will go on sale just for Ujamaa ! {Unit 1, Unit 2, and Unit 3 will all be discounted to $15.}

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that teach group economics. Discuss financial literacy on a level all family members can grasp. (I have a financial literacy curriculum, not written by me, that I can share with you if you email me the grade level you need.) Identify some family values that focus on supporting each other with our dollars—maybe patron a Black-owned business or shout them out on social media, choose a family savings plan to commit to for the year, or open an account at a Black-owned bank. Some children enjoy contributing to an individual, sibling, or family “piggy bank.” This is a perfect time to introduce or refresh your knowledge in Black-operated neighborhoods such as Tulsa, Nicodemus, or Rosewood, or to learn about history and impact of Sou-Sou (Susu).

Nia, December 30

The fifth day of Kwanzaa honors Nia (nee-YAH) meaning purpose. Let us understand who we are, why we are here, where we have been, and where we are going. Let us remember we are better together. The center green candle is lit.

My favorite South African a Capella group! No way you cannot feel happiness listening to this tune.

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that teach purpose and meaning. Discuss as a family and identify your family values in authenticity, individuality, and awareness—maybe you draft a family mission or vision statement, tell stories that connect family members to their elders and/or ancestors, decide on an activity together that adds purpose to your family.

For example, my late father was an artsy, creative type who designed compelling digital art. His work is familiar to me as I listen to my son tell me about his latest masterpieces and browse through his catalog. I often remind him that the gift my father had is also in him, giving a sense of purpose to his style.  

Kuumba, December 31

The sixth day of Kwanzaa honors Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) representing creativity. Let us employ our God-given talents to lighten, beautify, and inspire ourselves and others. Let us remember we are better together. The red candle closest to the black candle is lit.

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that esteems creativity. Discuss as a family and name your family values in beauty, talent, and originality—maybe you host a family talent show, visit an art gallery, or see a show. This is a good time to read stories or books together about Kwanzaa.

This is the day of the feast, or the Karamu (ka-RAH-moo)Ya Imani. On December 31, plan a Kwanzaa meal with a ceremony to include drumming, music, libations, and a recitation of the African Pledge and/or a review of the Pan-African colors.

 Imani, January 1

The seventh day of Kwanzaa honors Imani (ee-MAH-nee) meaning faith. Let us look within ourselves and above to evolve into our higher selves and design better lives for us and others. Let us remember we are better together. The final green candle is lit.

It is Kwanzaa!!

Draw on a single African proverb or a set of them that reaffirms your family’s beliefs and confirms your spirituality. Discuss as a family and name your family values in faith, confidence, and self-worth. Also include how faith is beneficial to persevering through struggle. Or choose a prayer to learn together as a family, like the Serenity Prayer.

Enjoy your festival and family.

Want a PDF copy of the African Proverbs + Black Sayings? Here you are.

Love, Light, & Kwanzaa


  1. Nicole

    Thank you so very much Joyice! Blessings Beloved! We plan to gather round and celebrate here!

    • Fredricka Jones

      So great! Thanks

  2. Allison Humphrey

    Thank you for this timely information!


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