How to Celebrate Kwanzaa

Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a way for African Americans to reconnect with their heritage and culture. It is observed from December 26 to January 1, with each day focusing on one of seven core values, or Nguzo Saba. Each day, a candle is lit, and on the last day, gifts are exchanged. Because Kwanzaa is a cultural rather than a religious holiday, it can be observed alongside Christmas or Hanukkah, or on its own; however, Karenga wished for it to be observed instead of Christmas and Hanukkah, as he believed these holidays were simply symbols of America’s dominant cultures.


1. Decorate your home or main room with Kwanzaa symbols. Cover a centrally located table with a green tablecloth, and on top of that, place the Mkeka, which is a straw or woven mat that represents the historical foundation of African ancestry. Put the following items on the Mkeka:

Mazao — a bowl of fruit or crops that represents the community’s productivity.

Kinara is a candle holder with seven prongs.

Mishumaa Saba — the seven candles that represent Kwanzaa’s seven core principles. Three candles on the left represent struggle; three on the right represent hope; and one in the centre represents the African American people or those who trace their ancestry to Africa.

Muhindi means “corn ears.” Place one ear of corn for each child; if there are no children, place two ears to represent the community’s children.

Zawadi — a variety of children’s gifts.

Kikombe cha Umoja is a cup that symbolises family and community unity.

2. Decorate the room with Kwanzaa flags, known as Bendera, and posters highlighting the seven principles. You can buy or make these, and it’s especially enjoyable to make them with children.

For more information on how to make a flag, see How to Make a Flag. Click here for step-by-step instructions on colouring in the Bendera.

In addition to the Bendera, if you or your children enjoy making flags, try making African national or tribal flags.

3. Get into the habit of saying the Kwanzaa greetings. Beginning on December 26, greet everyone with “Habari Gani,” a standard Swahili greeting that means “what’s the news?” If someone greets you, respond with the day’s principle (Nguzo Saba):

December 26: “Umoja” — Unity

December 27: “Kujichagulia” — Self-determination

December 28: “Ujima” — Collective work and responsibility

December 29: “Ujamaa” — Cooperative economics

December 30: “Nia” — Purpose

December 31: “Kuumba” — Creativity

January 1: “Imani” — Faith.

Non African-Americans are also welcome to participate in greetings. The traditional greeting for them is “Joyous Kwanzaa.”

4. Every day, light the Kinara. Because each candle represents a different principle, they are lit one at a time, in a specific order. The black candle is always the first to be lit. Some people light the remaining candles from left to right (red to green), while others alternate:

Black candle

Far left red candle

Far right green candle

Second red candle

Second green candle

Last red candle

Last green candle

5. Kwanzaa can be observed in a variety of ways. Choose some or all of the following activities to do over the course of the seven days of Kwanzaa, reserving the feast for the sixth day. The following items may be included in a Kwanzaa ceremony:

Drumming and musical selections.

Readings of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness.

Reflections on the Pan-African colors, discussions of African principles of the day, or recitations of chapters in African history.

The candle-lighting ritual of the Kinara.

Artistic performances.

6. On the sixth day (New Year’s Eve), hold the Kwanzaa Karamu (feast). The Kwanzaa feast is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone to reconnect with their African roots. It is traditionally held on December 31st and is a collaborative and communal effort. Decorate the location of the feast in a red, green, and black colour scheme. The room where the feast will be held should be dominated by a large Kwanzaa setting. A large Mkeka should be placed in the centre of the floor, with the food creatively displayed and easily accessible to all. An informative and entertaining programme should be presented both before and during the feast.

The programme should traditionally include welcoming, remembering, reassessment, recommitment, and rejoicing, followed by a farewell statement and a call for greater unity.

Drinks are to be shared from a communal cup, the Kikombe cha Umoja, which is passed around to all celebrants during the feast.

7. Distribute Kuumba’s gifts. Kuumba, which means “creativity,” is highly encouraged and provides a sense of accomplishment. The gifts are typically exchanged between parents and children and are traditionally distributed on January 1st, the last day of Kwanzaa. Because the giving of gifts is so closely associated with Kuumba, the gifts should be educational or artistic in nature.

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