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How to observe Kwanzaa

Both remembrance and reverence, Kwanzaa is a celebrated holiday throughout the African diaspora. Whether you’re a seasoned Kwanzaa pro or looking to take part for the first time, here’s the important information you’ll need to know.

Couple celebrating Kwanzaa

What is Kwanzaa?

The holiday spans seven days from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, each representing a central core value. Though it coincides with other religious holidays, Kwanzaa is primarily a celebration of African culture and heritage and not an alternative celebration of faith.

Who celebrates?

Kwanzaa originated in the United States and is prominent both here and in Canada but it is designed to resonate with Africans and people of African descent the world over. It’s also designed as a family occasion and should be conducted accordingly to best exemplify the holiday’s core values.

What you’ll need:

  • Mkeka: A woven center mat; the mat for foundations we stand on.
  • Kinara: Swahili for “candle holder”; representative of Africa.
  • Mishumaa saba: Three red on the left, three green on the right, one black to be placed in the kinara; symbolic of each principle.
  • Mazao: Crops/food to be placed in a center bowl; the fruits of our good work.
  • Muhindi: An ear of corn to represent each child and the element of community.
  • Zawadi: Gifts; rewards for the children.
  • Kikombe cha umoja: A central cup representing the family and communal unity.
  • Ingredients for the Kwanzaa Karamu (sixth-day feast).

How to celebrate

At the heart of Kwanzaa lie seven principles of African heritage, known as nguzo saba, represented by each of the candles and dedicated to each of the seven days in the holiday. Though the atmosphere and tradition may be unique to each participating family, red, black and green typically represent the holiday. Black symbolizes humans, red symbolizes struggle and green symbolizes hope.

Traditional greetings in observance of Kwanzaa include “Habari gani?” (What is the news?), prompting a response that defines the day’s principle. The act of lighting each candle signifies the central theme for each day to be carried out by the family. Each new day a candle is lit, the preceding candles are lit again to reaffirm the lessons we have learned.

The principles of each day:

  • Dec. 26: Unity (Umoja)
  • Dec. 27: Self-determination (Kujichagulia)
  • Dec. 28: Collective work and responsibility (Ujima)
  • Dec. 29: Cooperative economics (Ujamaa)
  • Dec. 30: Purpose (Nia)
  • Dec. 31: Creativity (Kuumba)
  • Jan. 1: Faith (Imani)

Each of these principles can be observed in a number of ways but community is often best celebrated around a central family dinner table. The decorations do not have to be flashy or extravagant — they serve as basic reminders for each of the elements.

Perhaps the peak of Kwanzaa is the Kwanzaa Karamu (feast) that takes place on New Year’s Eve. The feast serves as a vehicle for cooperation, and the whole family lends a hand in the cooking process. Gifts (zawadi) of creativity (kuumba) are exchanged on the last morning of Kwanzaa.

Add your own traditions

This article serves as a guide, but make Kwanzaa your own. Do not lose sight of the communal aspect, but also note that unique family traditions and interpretations are what helps keep this and other celebrations alive for coming generations. Fill your home with the sights and sounds particular to your heritage and cherish the moments the holiday offers.

And most importantly, Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri! May your Kwanzaa be happy!

More on Kwanzaa

Best children’s books about Kwanzaa
Celebrating family, culture and community with Kwanzaa
10 Holiday traditions from across the world

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