What is Kwanzaa? How to Explain the African-American Holiday to Kids

The 54-year-old non-religious holiday is still thriving. Learn the facts around Kwanzaa and how to celebrate it with your family.

For seven days every year, up to 2 million Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, an African American and Pan African holiday honoring family, community, and culture. Observed from December 26 to January 1, the non-religious holiday is rich in history, meaning, and customs.

Consider this your guide to learning everything about Kwanzaa and how you can celebrate it as a family.

What is Kwanzaa?

The name Kwanzaa is from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza meaning "first fruits."The seven-day celebration is based on African harvest festivals, which include lots of dancing and music.

Harvest celebrations that influenced Kwanzaa include the Yam Festival, which celebrates the yam harvest, and Homowo, meaning hooting at hunger. Then there's a ceremony called "first fruits" that goes on for days to bless new crops and those who are going to eat the food.

How Did Kwanzaa Start?

Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., is internationally known as the creator of Kwanzaa. He is a professor and chair of the department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of 17 books, including Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Dr. Karenga started Kwanzaa in 1966 as a way to bring African Americans together following the Watts Riots, 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 Is Kwanzaa Celebrated?

Kwanzaa is structured around seven principles (called the Nguzo Saba) and their respective symbols, reinforcing family, community, and culture.

Each night a candle, held by a kinara, is lit to signify each principle. The symbolism of the colors are as follows: black for African people themselves, red for the struggle and blood shed throughout the years, and green for the abundance of possibilities. These colors pay homage to the Pan African flag created by Marcus Garvey, leader of the Pan African movement which was also an effort to unify Africans around the world. The candles are lit over a seven-day period beginning with the black, then red, then green and alternate between the remaining until all seven candles have been ignited.

During Kwanzaa, a feast, also called Karamu, is enjoyed and celebrators 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.

What Are the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa?

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

Umoja (unity): "To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race."

Kujichagulia (self-determination): "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves."

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."

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 heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

What Are the Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa?

Mkeka (the mat): This is all about tradition and history and represents the foundation on which to build.

Kinara (the candle holder): This Swahili word represents African roots and ancestry.

Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles): These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles, and one is lit each night.

Mazao (the crops): Synonymous with fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables, Mazao is symbolic of African harvest celebrations which represent the rewards of productive and collective labor.

Muhindi (the corn): This symbolizes fertility, the hope of children, and future. One ear of corn is placed on the mat for each child in the family.

Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup): Each family member will drink either water, wine, or juice from the cup, symbolizing their unity.

Zawadi (the gifts): Given on the last day, the gifts are usually handmade and signify the love, labor, commitment, growth, and success of parents that they encourage children to uphold.

What Is the 2020 Theme of Kwanzaa?

Each year, Kwanzaa has a different theme that focuses on unity. This year's theme is "Kwanzaa and the Well-Being of the World: Living and Uplifting the Seven Principles."

What Role Do Kids Play in Kwanzaa?

The Kwanzaa framework places great value on children since they are considered the survival and development of the community. The African culture also holds sacred the bond between parents and children. "This emphasis is present in Kwanzaa and expresses itself in the stress on parental and child affection, shared activities,and value orientation of children toward commitment and priorities that strengthen family, community and culture," the official Kwanzaa website states.

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 & Master Teaching Artist of Culture Kingdom Kids, LLC, and a 25 year celebrator of Kwanzaa who is currently hosting virtual events, gives her best quarantine-friendly ideas on how to have a fun experience with your children:

Day 1: Umoja (unity)

"Make a kinara out of red, black, green and brown Legos, to make the candle holder. See video here. Families can also attend a virtual Kwanzaa program, decorate for Kwanzaa--make sure the table has all the seven symbols--or read books. There are many amazing children's books about Kwanzaa." Some recommendations are: My First Kwanzaa Book by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate, Together For Kwanzaa by Jawanda D. Ford or Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story, by Angela Shelf Medearis.

Day 2: Kujichagulia (self-determination)

Make a Kwanzaa superhero. "They require 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."

Day 3: Ujima (Collective works)

"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."

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. Parents can educate children about what a Black business is and how to support. Families can support by shopping online. Children can purchase gifts for their family or friends on places like Etsy, or even check DoorDash and Grubhub who have a "Black-owned" category. Families can also support a cause like Black Lives Matter or any of the others that are making a difference. Or they can create their own business!"

Day 5: Nia (purpose)

"This is when we ask ourselves three questions, "Who am I?; Am I who I really say I am?; Am I all that I ought to be?" 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)

"This is the day that you can make the handmade gifts that you'll give to your loved ones. Or maybe even use the items you've purchased from Black owned businesses and make a basket or a collection. Another idea is to make a family museum in their home."

Day 7: Imani (faith)

"Here is where we honor our teachers, leaders, and ancestors. We can talk about the family members that were really important to us. Sadly, there's been a lot of loss this year. Get red, black, and green balloons, write special messages on them and have a balloon release to honor those people who passed away due to COVID-19.

Children can also wear red, black, and green and 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 principals each day, children can participate in the Kwanzaa candlelight ceremony. "If parents are concerned about a fire hazard," Hebron says, "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."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles