What is Kwanzaa? How to Explain the Holiday to Kids

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of African American and Pan-African culture. Learn how to celebrate the non-religious holiday with your family.

For seven days every year, millions of Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, an African-American and Pan-African holiday honoring family, community, and culture. The non-religious holiday is observed from December 26 to January 1, and it's based on seven principles called the Nguzo Saba. Consider this your guide to learning about Kwanzaa and how to celebrate it as a family.

How Did Kwanzaa Start?

The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits." It's based on African harvest festivals, which include lots of dancing and music.

Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., is internationally known as the creator of Kwanzaa. He's a professor and chair of the department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of several books, including Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture.

Dr. Karenga started Kwanzaa in 1966 to bring African Americans together during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. Specifically, Dr. Karenga was inspired to create Kwanzaa following the Watts Rebellion, which took place for six days in August 1965 in Los Angeles after the arrest of Marquette Frye, an African American man stopped for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

How Do You Celebrate Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is structured around seven principles (called the Nguzo Saba) and their respective symbols; each day is dedicated to one of these principles. The seven principles are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

Each night, those who celebrate Kwanzaa light a candle, held by a kinara, to represent each principle. The kinara holds seven candles, including one black candle (symbolizing the African people), three red candles (representing their struggle), and three green candles (for future possibilities). These colors pay homage to the Pan-African flag created by Marcus Garvey, a civil rights activist who led the Pan-Africanism movement. The black candle is lit first, then a red candle, then a green candle, alternating between the remaining until all seven candles have been ignited. Families discuss the principle of the day while lighting the respective candle.

On December 31, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, people participate in a feast called Karamu. Celebrators may give gifts, mostly handmade, in order to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity.

An illustration of a Kinara being lit for Kwanzaa by a parent and child.
Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

These are the seven principles of Kwanzaa in the order they are followed, along with their representative meanings, according to the official Kwanzaa website.

  1. Umoja (unity): "To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race."
  2. Kujichagulia (self-determination): "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves."
  3. Ujima (collective work and responsibility): "To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together."
  4. Ujamaa (cooperative economics): "To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together."
  5. Nia (purpose): "To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness."
  6. 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."
  7. Imani (faith): "To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa has seven symbols, which are displayed during the holiday. Read more about their meanings below.

  1. Mkeka (the mat): During Kwanzaa, each symbol is placed on this mat. It represents African traditions, history, and foundation. The mat is usually made of straw or cloth.
  2. Kinara  (the candle holder): Usually found at the center of the Kwanzaa display, the kinara holds the seven candles. It symbolizes African roots and ancestry. Celebrators of Kwanzaa can buy a kinara or make one themselves.
  3. Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles): These seven candles are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The one black candle (representing umoja) is lit on the first night of Kwanzaa, then people alternate between lighting the three red and three green candles.
  4. Mazao (the crops): Synonymous with fresh fruits and vegetables, mazao is indicative of African harvest celebrations. It represents "the rewards of productive and collective labor," according to the official Kwanzaa website.
  5. Muhindi (the corn): Corn stands for fertility, the hope of children, and future. As a symbolic gesture, families display one ear of corn for each child in the family.
  6. Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup): Representative of the umoja principle, this cup will hold a beverage like water, wine, or juice during the Karamu feast. Each family member will drink from the cup to show their unity, and they'll also honor their ancestors during the ceremony.
  7. Zawadi (the gifts): Given on the last day of Kwanzaa, these meaningful gifts signify the love, labor, commitment, growth, and success of parents that they encourage children to uphold. They're usually homemade or educational.

What Role Can Kids Play in Kwanzaa?

The Kwanzaa framework places great value on children, since they're considered the survival and development of the community. The African culture also holds sacred the bond between parents and children. That's why it's a great idea to get kids to participate—and it can be fun for them, too. Jessica "Culture Queen" Hebron, founder and master teaching artist of Culture Kingdom Kids, LLC, and a 25-year celebrator of Kwanzaa, gives her best ideas for having a fun experience with your children.

Day 1: Umoja (unity)

To celebrate unity, Hebron recommends making a kinara out of red, black, green, and brown Legos (see her how-to video here). Families can also decorate for Kwanzaa, making sure the table has all seven symbols, or read children's books about the holiday. Some recommendations:

Day 2: Kujichagulia (self-determination)

Make a Kwanzaa superhero doll with your kids, which requires plenty of self-determination. You'll need "paper, glue, scissors, crayons, and things that you can find at home. If you can find some African fabric, you can also use those to make the Kwanzaa superhero cape," says Hebron.

Day 3: Ujima (collective work)

For the third day of Kwanzaa, complete an activity that emphasizes working together. "Some things that children can do to work together is help the parents clean the house, cook a meal together, or solve a problem as a family," suggests Hebron.

Day 4: Ujamaa (cooperative economics)

"This is the time where we support Black businesses so that we can make sure the money stays within our community," says Hebron. "Parents can educate children about what a Black business is and how to support." Search for Black-owned businesses online, or purchase gifts for family and friends on places like Etsy. Another idea: Visiting or ordering from a Black-owned restaurant.

Day 5: Nia (purpose)

On this day, people ask themselves three questions, "Who am I? Am I who I really say I am? Am I all that I ought to be?" According to Hebron, "This would be a great day to do a vision board. Use magazines, papers, construction paper, glue, scissors, or even create a digital one with Canva or Google Slides."

Day 6: Kuumba (creativity)

To celebrate creativity, consider making handmade gifts for loved ones. "Or maybe even use the items you've purchased from Black-owned businesses and make a basket or a collection," says Hebron. Another idea is to make a family museum in the home to celebrate creative work.

Day 7: Imani (faith)

The seventh day of Kwanzaa is about honoring teachers, leaders, and ancestors. Take the opportunity to talk about the importance of family. You can also get red, black, and green balloons, write special messages on them, and have a balloon release to honor those who have passed away.

Children can wear red, black, and green. You might also sing songs that represent Kwanzaa principles, like the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, or "I Like the Me I See" by Jessica Hebron.

As families celebrate the Kwanzaa principals each day, children can participate in the candlelight ceremony. "If parents are concerned about a fire hazard," says Hebron, "I highly recommend that parents get flameless candles in red, black, and green. Children can help to light the candles because they're really just turning them on."

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