Kwanzaa Traditions That American Families Cherish

While Kwanzaa traditions may vary in each household, themes centering on unity, economic growth, family, and pride in African heritage are underlining principles of them all.

The holiday season is upon us and while many are getting ready for Christmas, others are also preparing to embrace the seven principals of Kwanzaa, which officially begins the day after Christmas, December 26, and lasts through New Year’s Day. Kwanzaa is a secular, cultural holiday established by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 to uplift ideals that encourage building up Black communities. After researching African “First fruit” celebrations, he established the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Many Black families and communities have embraced Kwanzaa and have implemented it into their own unique holiday routines. Here’s why Kwanzaa is so meaningful to Black Americans.

While Kwanzaa traditions may vary from household to household, themes centering on unity, economic growth, family, and pride in African heritage are some of the common similarities. Unlike many other American holidays, most Kwanzaa traditions have nothing to do with the purchasing or the consumption of material things. Most who celebrate Kwanzaa have created family customs that strengthen their family life and encourage their kids to have more pride in their African ancestry and identity.

Lighting the kinara

At the start of each day of Kwanzaa, a candle is lit on the kinara. “Every morning after you wake up, you light a candle and announce what that day means; each day represents a different attribute,” shares Heidi Robbins, DC, a chiropractor and author who has celebrated Kwanzaa for more than 20 years shares. Each day also has a special greeting and response to help denote a feeling of being on one accord with the Kwanzaa ideals. There are seven candles total, and they are often referred to as “mishumaa saba.” Find out 10 more things you never knew about Kwanzaa.

A feast of faith

This New Year’s Eve meal is a major highlight of the Kwanzaa holiday with many family members and friends coming together to enjoy the “fruits of their labor.” Karen G, a lawyer and mom of two in New York City, values the Kwanzaa tradition of choosing the fruits that her family will eat that symbolically represent their prosperity and the potential of her tween kids. Her husband is from the West Indies, so they often choose tropical fruits including pineapple and bananas. To symbolize the growth of their children and their future, Karen always includes a fruit or dish that incorporates some sort of “seed” or nut. These benne seed wafers are a traditional favorite.

Exchanging handmade gifts to showcase creativity

Instead of heading to the store, handmade gifts are often preferred as they promote creativity and thoughtfulness. Leilani Shivers, MD, a doctor of internal medicine doctor in Georgia, fondly remembers exchanging Zawadi. One year, she created handmade bags, placed $10 in each, and gave them to her five sons and her nephews. For her, it was an opportunity to apply the Kwanzaa principle of cooperative economics. Instead of spending her money in an outside business, she chose to invest financially in her family while showing her creativity with the handmade bags. If you’re not inclined to DIY your presents, consider these best Kwanzaa gifts for 2020.

Dressing in traditional African clothing

There is no official dress code for Kwanzaa, but the official colors for the holiday are red, black, and green—the same colors many African countries use in their flag. While wearing traditional African clothing does not necessarily denote having a better understanding of your ancestral roots, it can create a sense of pride and connection for young kids who have yet to travel to Africa. Karen G says, “While we do not dress up every day, we make it a point to have the kids dress in ethnic and African prints. I’ll wear a head wrap or dashiki.” Many women may choose to wear a kaftan or boubou.

Coming together as a collective community and supporting Black-owned businesses

In every major African-American community across the United States, (in years when there’s not a global pandemic) there’s sure to be a major group gathering, such as poetry readings, film festivals, and cultural festivals, that showcase products and services created by Black-owned businesses during the days of the Kwanzaa celebration. Sophia Loren Coffee of Harlem, New York is a jewelry designer who loves all that Kwanzaa represents and she is well aware that Kwanzaa celebrations, especially in places like Harlem are a time when the community will come together and support one another. “I love seeing my people make money! When we all pull together with our tables and sell products, it reminds me of the markets in Africa. It makes me feel so African!” As for the seven principles, Coffee says, that while she loves all seven, “cooperative economics” and “Nia” (creativity) stand out for her. “I try to create something fun, artistic, and unpredictable. With my jewelry, I’ll put images of Black folks on wood earrings. I try to think of something super unique and super Black!”

Discussing the Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba)

Typically, many families pick activities that will allow their children to better understand each principle. For Dr. Robbins, she recalls memories of activities that highlighted Kujichagulia (self-determination) and Umoji (unity). “Each family would come together and everyone would bring a dish to share. The adults would play cards and talk about life while eating together,” she recalls. “The adults always decided on one gift in advance that all the kids would have to share. Even though there were not a ton of toys, the kids eagerly all shared in enjoying that one gift together.” When reflecting back on raising her kids to celebrate Kwanzaa, she says, “The most special things are priceless. We made good memories. It didn’t require a lot of money, but rather a lot of love.” Next, read on to learn more about the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.

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Lynnette Nicholas
Lynnette Nicholas is a graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in English Literature with an emphasis on Theater Studies and Africana Studies. She currently works as a freelance reporter, and parenting and entertainment writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in HuffPost Black Voices, Common Sense Media, Moms.com, and other publications. She enjoys writing about culture, literature, film, and TV shows that highlight strong matriarchs. Lynnette has a passion for literature and cinema, as well as an innate curiosity about their influence on culture and social norms.