Kwanzaa Traditions for Kids and Families

What Kwanzaa candles represent

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Kwanzaa is a relatively new winter holiday that honors African heritage. The holiday is celebrated by Black American families and in communities of African descent around the world. The week-long celebration, which was inspired by traditional African harvest festival customs, focuses on building family tradition, culture, and community.

Kwanzaa, which is celebrated between December 26 and January 1, is a wonderful holiday to observe with your children, extended relatives, and friends. It's all about family togetherness, learning about family roots, and celebrating cultural history. The celebrations feature lots of fun things that kids of all ages will enjoy, including abundant feasts, storytelling, dancing, crafts, and, of course, family time.

The word Kwanzaa (sometimes spelled "Kwanza") comes from Swahili and means "harvest" or "first fruits."

About Kwanzaa

Dr. Maulana Karenga, the department chair of Africana Studies at California State University, founded the holiday in 1966 as a way to celebrate and share important aspects of pan-African culture and African-American life, including heritage, community, family, justice, foods, and nature. Lasting for seven days, Kwanzaa isn't a religious holiday, but rather a secularly spiritual one that celebrates seven different principles that are collectively called the Nguzo Saba.

These key principles are each highlighted on one of the seven days of the holiday. They include the following, in order:​

  1. Umoja (unity)
  2. Kujichagulia (self-determination)
  3. Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  4. Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  5. Nia (purpose)
  6. Kuumba (creativity)
  7. Imani (faith)

How It Works

Each day, one candle (collectively called the Mishumaa Saba) is lit in recognition of these principles. The candles—one black, three red, and three green—are held by the kinara (similar to the menorah used for Hanukkah), which is placed on a mkeka or straw mat. To honor the children in the family, one ear of corn (called the vibunzi or muhindi) is placed under the kinara for each child. Other symbols include a fruit basket (mazao) and a unity cup (kikombe) which are both placed on the mkeka as well.

Timing

Kwanzaa begins each year on December 26. Many Black Christian families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas, placing the kinara near their Christmas tree. On Kuumba, which is usually held on December 31, there is a feast called Karamu that celebrates cultural expression. On this day, family members and friends play music, tell stories, and make crafts. These crafts are often exchanged on the last day of Kwanzaa (Imani), a day for honoring traditions and sharing.

Celebrating Kwanzaa With Kids

Because Kwanzaa is so family-oriented, it's easy to get children involved. Plus, many of the typical activities enjoyed during this rich-with-history holiday are either geared specifically toward children or are very adaptable to doing with little ones.

Kwanzaa Colors

The main colors of Kwanzaa are green, black, and red. Incorporate these hues into your decorating and crafts, from collages to placemats. Since Kwanzaa has a big focus on creativity, encourage your children to make handmade cards and signs to give to relatives and friends, drawing or using clip art of important aspects of the holiday. Our collection of coloring pages will also let kids get creative while learning about the important symbols of this celebration.

Ceremonial Holiday Tasks

There are many instrumental ways children can get involved with the ceremonial aspects of the celebration. Bigger kids can light the kinara and little kids can help an adult light it by holding a grown-up's hand as they do it. Children of all ages can help by placing the ear(s) of corn under the kinara, as well as putting the fruit basket and unity cup on the mkeka.

Learning About Heritage

Young children often learn best by doing. Better still when you make learning fun. Try reading a book or listening to music for and about Kwanzaa, pan-African culture, and/or African American history that is geared toward children. African folktales can be read aloud and used for inspiration to create your own stories. This is also a good time to share stories of family lore and personal history.

You can also task your child with researching a relevant country, time period, historical figure, literature, music, art, and/or a specific component of traditional (or modern) African or Black American culture. They can then present their research as a report during the holiday. Parents or older relatives can team up with younger ones to do mini group projects to share and discuss during the holiday as well.

If you are going to be traveling during any part of the week, there are a host of events held annually nationwide that are family-friendly with a range of activities, from music to exhibitions and performances.

Handmade Gifts

Gifts are often exchanged for Kwanzaa but are usually handmade rather than store-bought. The focus of the gift-giving is about creativity and commemorating a shared history rather than on receiving a bounty of toys. As noted above, Kwanzaa activities often include making traditional crafts, which are then given out to relatives as the celebration progresses.

Food for Kwanzaa

Like many holidays, food is front and center during Kwanzaa. Families often serve traditional African dishes. Typical flavors include a mix of both sweet and spicy with lots of fruits and meats. Some possibilities include black-eyed peas with rice and ham, seasoned black beans and rice, fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, gumbo, and curried chicken and banana soup. Additionally, any special foods that feel festive or culturally relevant for your family can work as well.

A Word From Verywell

No matter how you celebrate or how extensively Kwanzaa festivities are enjoyed in your home—from embracing the full week to just devoting one evening to the holiday—remember that the focus is on being together as a family and connecting the present to history and the future. The most important part is to create a holiday tradition that resonates, delights, and inspires your family.

For more on Kwanzaa, visit The Official Kwanzaa website. Joyful Kwanzaa!

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