Celebrating Kwanzaa is an important part of our family’s Holiday traditions. Kwanzaa is a celebration of traditional African culture and values that are special to the African- American community, but all are welcome (and encouraged!) to celebrate.
My dear friend Osakwe grew up celebrating Kwanzaa and he often makes the Mother’s Day analogy when referencing the importance of Kwanzza. “We all love our Mothers right? But life gets busy, we fall into a routine and sometimes we don’t always do a great job of acknowledging our superheroes called mom, so every May we take one day to set everything aside and love on mom (Mother’s Day). Does that mean that that’s the only day we love mom? of course not! It just means that we’ve agreed to take a day and make it official, but of course you should also let her feel the love the other 364 days…
Kwanzaa is similar, we should probably think about unity a lot, we should embrace and practice our creativity everyday, and the same with purpose and faith, but just in case we get too busy, those who celebrate Kwanzaa take the 7 days at the end of the year (Dec 26th – Jan 1st) to reflect on these Principles in hopes that they carry us into the new year.”
For our family, it starts with Dad setting up the table that we use for our holiday display or shrine. We use a piece of African print fabric to cover the table and then it’s time to decorate! The kids love to set up the Kinara which is the candle holder used in Kwanzaa celebrations, there are 7 candles in total with 3 red, 1 black and 3 green. Each candle represents a principle that we acknowledge on the day:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves, lest we be spoken for by others.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Next each child gets to place their own ear of dried corn on the table, one for each child in the household. What does dried corn have to do with anything you ask? Kwanzaa means First Fruits of the Harvest and derives from traditional African harvest celebrations. A bountiful harvest meant that there would be enough food for everyone and the village would continue to grow and prosper, definitely a cause for celebration! I think about that when I see the kids do their happy dances when their harvest (aka dinner) is ready. Next we put pictures of relatives that have transitioned to the spiritual realm on the table, although they are not physically here with us we include them in our family celebration and acknowledge them with the next item: our Unity Cup. The Unity Cup is a cup that we use to acknowledge our ancestors and demonstrate our bond as a family. We also include a bowl of fruit which in addition to being with the harvest theme, it is also a symbolic offering to any hungry ancestors out there. Lastly we take out our favorite Kwanzaa book and place it on the table and eventually the kids will take turns reading about the principal of the day, but for now we just read it to them. After we read about the principle for the day we have a brief family discussion and everyone says what it means to them. Lastly we fill our Unity Cup with water and to acknowledge our ancestors we pour a little into a houseplant (libations) while saying the names of elders who have passed on. At first it may feel sad but its really to celebrate and lift them up and keep their memory alive in our hearts and mind. We then pass the cup around until we’ve all taken a small sip from the cup (Please Note: If celebrating with members outside of your immediate household please do not share a cup, instead fill one large cup and pour from that to everyone’s individual cup #CovidSafe). On the last day of Kwanzaa (Jan 1st) after we light the last candle for the principle Imani (Faith), and we let the kids open their gifts. Gift giving for Kwanzaa is a little different than Christmas, the gifts are traditionally hand made items, or things that you may have crafted together as a family. But no pressure! Just try to make sure the gifts are thoughtful, this year we have our eyes on a Junior STEM kit and some puzzles. To bring everything to a close we usually have a big New Years Brunch or Dinner and try to remind ourselves to carry forth the principles into the new year.
One fun thing we plan to do this year is introduce some of the Swahili words used in celebrating Kwanzaa. We already use Kinara but there are more, here’s a list that we plan to use:
Fabric or Mat Covering the Table - Mkeka
Dried Corn Representing Children in the Household – Mahindi
Unity Cup or Chalice – Kikombe cha Umoja
Gifts – Zawadi
The 7 Principles – Nguzo Saba
Closeout Feast – Karamu
Are you excited to try a few of these out with your family? Don’t worry if you have trouble pronouncing a word, just keep working at it!
We love the Holidays in our household and always remind friends and loved ones that there is no conflict with celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the more celebrations the merrier!