Kwanzaa Traditions and Activities for Holiday Celebrating

Updated November 29, 2021
parents teaching children about Kwanzaa

As winter and the holidays draw near, people's excitement for the delicious spreads and joyous festivities is palpable. Yet, where American culture has inundated people with an infinite knowledge about Christmas and its practices, it's been less celebratory about Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa traditions, and the deep connection the holiday brings to African American communities. Whether you've been celebrating Kwanzaa your entire life or you're new to the celebration, there're always more things to learn about and ways to participate.

Dr. Karenga Brings Kwanzaa to the World

Amid the national fight for Civil Rights and the rising commercial sentiments surrounding Christmas in the United States, Dr. Maulana Karenga created a new cultural holiday celebrating Afro-American identities called Kwanzaa, named for the Swahili word for first. From December 26th to January 1st, African Americans come together as family and friends in a weeklong gathering spent dancing, making music, eating traditional cuisine, and relishing in their shared heritage.

Fun Activities to Keep Kwanzaa's Excitement Going

Unlike Christmas or Easter celebrations, Kwanzaa is not a typical religious holiday. Emphasis is placed upon teaching traditional African values and celebrating the heritage of Africans and African Americans during the weeklong celebration. Red, green, and black provide the color palette for the festivities, with people opting to wear any combination of traditional and contemporary garments.

Participate in the Candle Lighting Ceremony

Kwanzaa candle lighting ceremony

As Kwanzaa unfolds, celebrants focus on one of seven specific themes each day. The nguzo saba (the term for these seven themes) connect to subjects pertaining to life, community, and higher purpose.

These seven themes include:

  • Umoja - Unity
  • Kujichagulia - Self-determination
  • Ujima - Collective work and responsibility
  • Ujamaa - Cooperative economics
  • Nia - Purpose
  • Kuumba - Creativity
  • Imani - Faith

Every night, a new candle is lit on the seven-spaced kinara in honor of that day's central theme following a few activities such as sharing a communal drink and a recitation. Encourage the kids to participate in lighting these candles and make sure as many of your family and friends as possible are present at this special ceremony.

Connect With Each Other Through Your Stomachs

Because the holiday partially originated from traditional African harvest gatherings, food and cooking are often a big part of the celebration. Hosting a recipe exchange featuring traditional Kwanzaa recipes, often emulated in modern Southern cuisine, is a wonderful activity that both adults and children can participate in. At the very least, make sure to cook a lot and then cook some more, since your finger-licking good dishes and desserts will be gone before you know it.

Exchange Gifts With Your Family and Friends

During Kwanzaa, children and adults exchange gifts, although it's rather different than typical Christmas gift exchanges celebrated by both secular and religious Americans on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Instead, the focus is placed on people spending time and thoughtfulness on making homemade gifts for the special people in their lives.

Personal skills and expertise in a number of areas can be utilized to make the following gifts:

Tell Stories to Each Other

telling Kwanzaa stories with music

Central to the Kwanzaa tradition is the art of storytelling. Whether this is through dance, song, recitation, prayer, or by listening to your elders recall oral histories from their past, storytelling is integral to coming together as a community and sharing in a beautiful and united culture. For example, Newberry, South Carolina native Carlton Kinnard, admitted that one of his favorite traditions to participate in during Kwanzaa is storytelling. On the art of storytelling, he says, "listening to the elders in the family, like my grandmother and great aunts and uncles, and allowing them to tell old stories about their struggles and successes during their lifetime is a highlight during Kwanzaa."

Set up Crafts for Kids to Try

Children are easily fascinated with finding out about different holiday celebrations and might ask about this celebratory week. While you can always teach your children about Kwanzaa using your words, if you don't celebrate Kwanzaa at home, crafting is an interactive alternative that keeps their minds engaged and gives them a deeper understanding of this reverential holiday. Types of crafts your children can have fun with include:

  • Making a paper chain of seven green, red and black rings
  • Weaving a Mkeka mat with colored construction paper
  • Stringing colored plastic beads onto elastic bracelets
  • Painting the outside of a unity cup

Kids can also get involved by helping to keep things running smoothly by staying in charge of the Kwanzaa planning checklist. Another fun way to keep them connected during the planning process is to hand them some construction paper, glue, magazines, scissors, and markers to let them make party invitations to send to family and friends for the Karamu.

Most Importantly, Dine Together During the Karamu

man in traditional African clothing making plate of food

The ultimate culmination of a Kwanzaa celebration is the Karamu, the traditional feast held on December 31st. In addition to the big meal that accompanies the celebratory evening, people can share a bit of their perspective on their collective cultural history through stories, fables, and song or dance.

Traditionally, the actual feasting celebration has a suggested format and structure. Developed by Dr. Karenga when he first proposed the holiday, this format provides a framework for everyone's celebrations and includes five different parts:

  1. Kukaribisha (Welcoming)
  2. Kuumba (Remembering)
  3. Kuchunguza Tena Na Kutoa Ahadi Tena (Reassessment and Recommitment)
  4. Kushangilla (Rejoicing)
  5. Tamshi la Tambiko (Libation Statement)

How to Celebrate Kwanzaa in an Educational Setting

man discusses the meaning of the candles during a Kwanzaa celebration

Of course, it's important to note that Kwanzaa was specifically developed for the African American community and continues to be central to their end-of-year celebrations as it highlights their bonds of shared experience, ancestral traditions, and hopes for the future. That being said, while it's incredibly important for kids and adults to learn about different communities' holidays, it isn't appropriate to take on this holiday if you don't have any connections to the community it was created for.

However, this doesn't mean that everyone can't enjoy the sentiments and beautiful practices highlighted during Kwanzaa; rather, a type of respectful Karamu feast can be prepared in educational institutions to give appreciation for and knowledge about Kwanzaa to people who have only been exposed to one dominant winter holiday in their lifetime. In just the same way that Christmas gets craft activities, coloring pages, and themed-snacks, so too should Kwanzaa be made a priority, as there're far more holidays to celebrate during December than just Christmas.

Celebrate the Joy of Life This Kwanzaa Season

Your family might strictly adhere to Dr. Karenga's traditional approach to Kwanzaa celebrations while your neighbors might enjoy a more hybrid style of Kwanzaa this winter. Either way, with community and culture at the heart of this holiday, you'll feel infinite amounts of love and support as you enter the new year.

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Kwanzaa Traditions and Activities for Holiday Celebrating