How to Celebrate Kwanzaa With Your Family

Photo illustration of family celebrating kwanza

Verywell Family /  Michela Buttignol

After celebrating Thanksgiving in the US, most children know which holidays are on the horizon: Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Chances are they know at least a little about Christmas (the tree, the carols, and Santa Claus) and Hanukkah (eight nights, dreidels, and the menorah), but beyond the fact that it also lands in December, their knowledge of Kwanzaa may be a bit shakier.

It’s become increasingly critical to teach children about different cultures and their traditions. And Kwanzaa, a secular holiday that celebrates African American culture and community, is the perfect opportunity for families of all races, religions, and ethnicities to highlight the richness of the culture.

What’s more, The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa offer abundant inspiration for activities and celebrations that commemorate charity and unity and inspire personal growth in children of all ages. Here are five ideas that will help you get into the spirit and celebrate Kwanzaa with family.

What Is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a festival of life, community, and culture. Celebrated by African Americans and people around the world of African descent, the holiday is modeled on African harvest celebrations. It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, the chair of the Africana Studies department at California State University, Long Beach and executive director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

During the week-long festival, people take part in activities that celebrate the Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith), with a different principle highlighted each day.

There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa: Mazao, the crops, to symbolize the harvest; Mkeka, the mat, to symbolize tradition and history; Kinara, the candle holder, to represent African people; Muhindi, the corn, to symbolize children and the future; Kikombe cha Umoja, the unity cup, to symbolize unity; Mishumaa Saba, the seven candles, to represent the Seven Principles; and Zawadi, the gifts, to represent the labor and love of parents and the commitments of the children.

All of these symbols are traditionally seen in the home during Kwanzaa. The Kwanzaa set of the mat, candle holder, unity cup, and candles are typically displayed somewhere in the home, while the crops and corn are highlighted in decorations, and gifts are exchanged.

When Is It Celebrated?

Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 every year.

Why Is It Celebrated?

Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, as opposed to a religious holiday, and is meant to celebrate community and the shared culture of African Americans and Pan-African people, regardless of their religious beliefs. In many cultures throughout Africa, people celebrate the harvest, rejoicing in the good fortune they have achieved by working together as a community.

Kwanzaa shares the same spirit as a harvest festival—the idea that people should celebrate what they have achieved together and what they will achieve in the coming year.

Family-Friendly Ways to Celebrate Kwanzaa

As a holiday centered on the importance of community and working together, Kwanzaa is an ideal festival to celebrate as a family that can also teach children the importance of charity, teamwork, and unity. Here are five ways to do so.

Light the Mishumaa Saba

One of the traditional ways to celebrate Kwanzaa is to light the Mishumaa Saba, the candles that represent The Seven Principles. First, the Kinara (the candle holder) is placed on the Mkeka, the straw mat. There is one black candle, three red and three green.

The black candle, placed in the center, represents Umoja (unity) and is lit on the first night. The red candles, placed to the left, symbolize Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), and Kuumba (creativity), and the green candles, placed on the right, represent Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Nia (purpose) and Imani (faith).

After the black candle, one is lit each night, moving from left to right. As you light each candle, you can discuss what that day’s principle means and how your children can incorporate it into their day-to-day lives. The African Heritage Collection, which sells pieces made by artisans in Ghana, has a variety of traditional Kwanzaa sets.

Volunteer as a Family

Kwanzaa is a holiday about community and there is no better way to contribute to your community than by giving back. Find a charity or an organization in your area that supports the African American or Pan-African community and determine the best way to support them as a family. If your children are old enough, you can encourage them to choose an organization themselves that they think is important.

If a monetary donation is more feasible than volunteering your time or resources, there are many worthy organizations you can donate to, such as Black Lives Matter, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, or Black Girls Code.

Create Kwanzaa-Themed Arts and Crafts

Kuumba (Creativity) is one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa that you can encourage with arts and crafts. Have your kids create art projects that represent one of the principles or showcase what the idea of African American culture and community means to them.

The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red, and green—black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for their hope for the future. You can encourage your kids to make something using these three colors or create a project inspired by the journey from struggle to freedom, if they are old enough.

Attend a Local or Virtual Celebration

African American community and cultural centers often host Kwanzaa celebrations and Karamus, the feast that is traditionally held on the second-to-last night of Kwanzaa, December 31. Search for any being held in your area and consider attending with your family.

Many of these organizations now host virtual Kwanzaa celebrations. Some organizations that have announced virtual events include the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the African American Cultural Center, and the Apollo Theater.

Purchase Gifts from Black-Owned Businesses

The principle of Ujamaa (cooperative economics) is about supporting businesses in the African American community. Likewise, gifts are traditionally given to children during Kwanzaa to symbolize the passing down of traditions. Purchasing those gifts from Black-owned businesses or encouraging your children to seek out those businesses and purchase gifts for other members of the family combines these two tenets of the holiday.

Since educational gifts are encouraged during Kwanzaa, books earn top marks. Check out Ida’s Bookshop or MahoganyBooks (which has an African Ancestry Book List and a Black Books Matter section).

A Word From Verywell

Despite having just been created in 1966, Kwanzaa is a holiday that stresses the importance and beauty of traditions and community. Celebrating it gives African Americans the chance to honor their culture and the things their community has built, plus it offers people of other races and ethnicities the chance to learn about African American culture and support members of the African American community in a respectful way.

Children are taught in school that America is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, and religions, which encourages them to treat everyone they meet with the same kindness and respect. But festivals like Kwanzaa provide an opportunity to expose your kids to an incredibly rich culture that is in the melting pot, teach them where it came from, and show them how to support where it’s going. And regardless of how you choose to celebrate, doing so in a way that brings your family closer together while honoring the spirit of Kwanzaa is what matters most.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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