Kwanzaa is a holiday that evolves with the times and has a particular resonance in this era of social change.

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Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday that starts on December 26 and ends on January 1. It is one of my favorite holidays, right up there with Juneteenth, because it's a time of year that offers a clear and intentional space to celebrate Black culture. Its popularity ebbs and flows year to year, and it's still a relatively niche holiday, but it's a celebration that manages to capture the pulse of Black culture in times of need, ready to help us all reflect and build community while reconnecting us with our African roots.

If you asked 10 different Kwanzaa observers how they celebrate, you would get 10 different answers. It's a holiday designed to meet its participants wherever they are on the Black cultural spectrum. At its core, Kwanzaa is an amalgamation of several solstice and harvest ceremonies traditionally celebrated throughout the African continent. The word Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" meaning "first fruits." It's a celebration that uses the time of winter harvest to allow its celebrants to reevaluate their lives and reset for the new year.

Under an umbrella of a basic set of tenets and principles, Kwanzaa celebrations offer a broad and inclusive framework for building an open community and providing a safe space for cultural expression, so that each participant can assign their own significance for themselves each year.

Here, we'll explore the origins, traditions and delicious ways Kwanzaa is celebrated across the world today.

The Origins of Kwanzaa

At its founding in 1966, Kwanzaa was meant to be a highly political, neoliberal alternative to Christmas. Its founder, Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, was searching for a way to help heal his community from the oppression of racism.

In the 1960s, Karenga was a civil rights activist in the tradition of the Black Panther Party and other alternative Pan-African movement organizations. These organizations saw connections to the African diaspora as a valuable cultural respite from the complicated and disempowering backlash Black communities across the country were feeling in regard to the civil rights movement.

After 1965, with the assassination of Malcolm X in the spring and the Watts riots in Los Angeles in August, Karenga decided the following year that Kwanzaa could be the answer his community needed.

What began as a regional niche holiday has grown over the last 55 years and evolved into a truly dexterous, easily customizable celebration, with some basic elements that are central to any celebration.

Multi-generation family lighting Kwanzaa candles
Credit: Getty Images / Hill Street Studios

The Traditions of Kwanzaa

A Kwanzaa celebration is all about family and community and, as previously stated, is open for interpretation. That said, there are some symbols and basic elements that can be employed to make the celebration feel more authentic.

Nguzo Saba or the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Each day of this seven-day holiday is assigned one of the seven Nguzo Saba, or principles, as a focus. The principles are observed and discussed each day, and at the end of the week they lead to a focused set of lessons that set the tone for the coming year. The seven principals, in both their Swahili name and English translation, are as follows:

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

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

Setting the aesthetic tone is a wonderful place to begin your celebrations. As a centerpiece, a kind of altar can be set on a woven mat, called a mkeka. A traditional mkeka is made from kente cloth, or African mud cloth, and is meant to represent the foundation of life.

On the mat, ideally, you would place a kinara, or seven-spaced candle holder, for the mishumaa saba, or seven candles. There are always seven candles—one black, three red and three green. The black symbolizes the African people, the red symbolizes their struggle, and the green symbolizes the future and hope that comes from their struggle.

The kinara is set up with the three red candles on the left, the one black candle in the center and the three green candles on the right. The black candle is lit on the first night and is the first candle relit each remaining night, with the addition of another candle lit from left to right, or from red to green, each night until the last day when every candle is lit. You would replace each burned candle daily to start fresh, so you would need 15 red, 7 black and 6 green candles to get you through the holiday.

Aside from the candles, other symbols can be added to the altar: mazao (or crops) are represented by fresh fruit and vegetables, muhindi (ears of corn), to represent children celebrating; kikombe cha umoja (a unity cup), for commemorating and giving shukrani (thanks) to African ancestors through libation; and, last but not least, zawadi (gifts).

The Foods and Gifts of Kwanzaa

The parts of the Kwanzaa celebration that makes it feel truly joyful are food and gifts. When I think of the Kwanzaa table, I think of the best and most celebratory dishes that represent the fullness of the African diaspora. Think African ingredients like okra, peanuts and yams, spices like berbere, mace and allspice, and flavorings like hibiscus, tamarind and ginger. It's an opportunity to connect with fall and winter produce and the botanical treasure that the African continent has to offer. It's also a time for communal cooking and bountiful tables. The Karamu feast, which is traditionally held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa (December 31), is the only real "official" feast and, even then, there's no set menu. This allows for the cultural creativity and self-expression Kwanzaa fosters.

Daily gift-giving is another wonderful part of the celebration. Kwanzaa is a homemade, hand-crafted, anti-capitalistic holiday, so keep that in mind. This becomes another opportunity to use the kitchen as inspiration. Wonderful options for gifting ideas could be things like infused oils, hand-blended teas or baked goods. No matter the gift, the spirit is to use creativity and your time to make something heartfelt and original to share with guests.

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Depending on how intensive your ceremony is, these elements are decorative and can be represented using your own aesthetic taste. On a basic level, setting an altar and using each daily principle as a kind of meditation for the day is a great first step. (Watch The Black Candle, a documentary narrated by Maya Angelou, to learn more about the variances in celebrations.) African, African American and diaspora music, dancing and art are also elements that can enhance and round out the aesthetic elements of the holiday.

Whether you've been celebrating for years or are planning to celebrate for the first time, Kwanzaa is a cherished time for many to connect with their African heritage and celebrate their Black culture as they enter a new year.