Celebrating Kwanzaa

Many families transform an area of their home with decorations to celebrate Kwanzaa. African red, green and black represent the holiday, and are often used to adorn the Kwanzaa table and the area around it. Black symbolizes the face of the African-American people, red represents the blood they have shed, and green stands for the hope and color of the motherland.

Use of all or some of the seven symbolic objects associated with the holiday are commonly incorporated into decorations for Kwanzaa. The Kinara (ritual candleholder) sits atop the Mkeka (mat) in the center of the Kwanzaa table. The Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), representing the Nguzo Saba (seven principles), consist of three red candles, three green, and one black one. The black candle is placed in the center of the Kinara, with three red candles on the left and three green ones on the right. Families may also use a green or black tablecloth for the Kwanzaa table.

The symbols for the Mazao (the crops) are fruits and vegetables, which can be placed on the table in a basket to symbolize the prosperity of the harvest. If there are Muhindi (ears of corn) on the Kwanzaa table, that means there are children in the family. Some families place Vibunzi (one ear of corn) on the Mkeka (mat) for each child in the family. Zawadi (gifts) such as heritage symbols, books or African-influenced artwork make nice additions to the table as well.

We have enumerated below some common rituals and practices that occur during the week long celebrations. Many regional variations of these practices can noted. It is important to emphasize that there is no wrong or right way of celebrating Kwanzaa. The important bit is to uphold the spirit with which the festival was initially formed.

On the first day of Kwanzaa (December 26) the Mtume (leader or minister) calls the family together. When everyone is present, the Mtume greets them; Habari Gani, and the family responds Umoja. THus the Kwanzaa celebration has begun. The celebration is conducted in the following order, substituting each principle for the response on its respective day.
  • A prayer is offered by a member of the family (all standing).
  • Harambee (Let's Pull Together) is a call for unity and collective work and struggle of the family.
    • Each member raises up the right arm with open hand and while pulling down, closes the hand into a fist.
    • Harmabee is done in sets of seven in honor and reinforcement of the Nguzo Saba.
  • The Mtume briefly talks about the concept of Kwanzaa, using the theme or focus of Kwanzaa as a sense of direction.
  • The Tambiko (Libation) is performed by an elder. The elder should pour the libation using juice or water from the Tambiko set up in honor of our ancestors.
  • Harambee Symbol.
  • Greeting should be done by the family member (preferably a youth) assigned the lighting of Mshumaa (candle).
  • Lighting Ceremony is performed by the Youth. The Youth should light the Mshumaa (candle) for the principle of the day (i.e. Umoja (Unity) on the first day of Kwanzaa). After the lighting, the principle of the day should be discussed by every member participating in the ceremony. The discussion should focus on each member's understanding of the principle and their commitment and responsibility to practice that principle for the betterment of self, family and Black people.
  • Harambee.
  • A story, song or an object that is reflective of the principle for the day (i.e. Umoja (Unity) - Black Frying Pan) and a Scripture reading related to the principle is essential in reinforcing the meaning of that principle.
  • Share Zawadi (Gifts). In Kwanzaa gifts are played down and spiritual and social rejuvenation is played up. Hand made gifts are strongly encouraged over commercial purchases. Items related to the Black heritage or items that have a special meaning that will help the person through the next year are strongly recommended. The gifts should be reflective of a commitment to education and the riches of our cultural heritage and a sign of the struggle for liberation for Black people. The gifts can be fruits shared each night by members. The gifts can be given to the children in one of two ways:

  • One gift can be given each day to reinforce the principle for that day, or
  • On December 31st. during the Karamu (Feast), all gifts can be given.
Karamu (Feast) is held on the night of December 31st. and includes food, music, dance, etc.
  • Harambee.
  • Closing Prayer.

Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, so families and organizations have the freedom to start their own traditions and observe the harvest festival with as much creativity, or Kuumba, as they like. Gathering together to celebrate Kwanzaa might be a casual cultural ceremony to some families, while it represents a more spiritual observance to others. People can choose to dress partially or fully in African clothing, or attend a Kwanzaa program where dancers and community leaders display traditional African clothing for them instead. Since it is up to the members of the family or organization to decide how to observe Kwanzaa, there are endless possibilities for this important African-American holiday. Get together with members of your community, share your family customs and start new Kwanzaa traditions!