How Much Do You Know About Kwanzaa?

Most people who know me don’t know that I have a history with East Africa, and that I speak Swahili. I learned to speak Swahili when I had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania and Kenya about 15 years ago. I spent time there when I worked for an international NGO whose mission is to foster cultural understanding and shared humanity through overseas volunteer service. Those were some of the best days of my life, and a part of my heart will always be in East (and West) Africa. 


In December, there are several holidays celebrated by many. Here at Cooking with Kids NY, we seek to understand and to be understood and we celebrate the richness of life through foods and cultural traditions.

Many of us also don’t know much about the African-American holiday called Kwanzaa that starts on December 26th. Just until recently, I was one of those people! The name of the holiday is taken from from the Swahili phrase “first fruits” or Matunda ya Kwanza. The root of the Swahili word “kwanza” is “-anza,” which means to start.


Kwanzaa was created by Professor Maulana Karenga, Ph.D. in the 1960’s in an effort to pull the African-American community together in pride and unity. Kwanzaa is based on ideas borrowed from an ancient African Swahili seven-day-long harvest celebration, and it begins every December 26th and lasts 7 days.


The holiday hasn’t been around for many generations, and it was created during a time of social injustice and upheaval. Celebrating Kwanzaa is an important way to celebrate African culture and traditions the traditions that unite people of African heritage.

Symbols of Kwanzaa


The Kinara. You’ve probably seen the candle holder with the 7 candles that kind of looks like a menorah. The name of it almost rhymes with menorah and is called the kinara. There are 7 candles to represent the 7 principles or themes of Kwanzaa.

These are unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).


So what do these all mean, and how do are the principles celebrated in Kwanzaa?


During the day of self-determination or collective work, a family might choose to learn a new skill together. Maybe they’ll teach each other something that they know, for example, they may learn how to cook an African recipe, or how to braid hair, or some words in Swahili. Another good idea is to enhance or fix something in the house that needs beautification like painting a room, or fixing a leaky faucet.


To celebrate the day of collective economics, a family may choose to purchase something for the house from a local merchant in the community.




Many families put together an altar and light the candles in the kinara on the altar. Some families put a colorful woven mat under the kinara, and place dried corn husks on the altar which symbolize each child in the family.

Some families include a unity cup that everyone takes a sip from, a bowl of fruit and a plant to symbolize the gifts of nature, and photos of the ancestors (remember the ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos?).


Colors of Kwanzaa

The colors of Kwanzaa are black, (symbolizing unity) red (for the struggle of life) and green (hope for the future). Each of the candles on the kinara are one of these colors. The black candle is in the middle with red and green candles on each side.


Many families decorate the house with red, black and green decorations for Kwanzaa.  

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The Feast!


There are daily rituals for each of the 7 days according to the 7 principles, and there is a feast that happens on day 6. The name of the feast is Karamu and is also falls on the day that honors creativity! (Now we are talking: food and creativity, my 2 middle names!)

What are the foods that are eaten during Kwanzaa?

The meals generally have a bounty of fruits and vegetables representing the harvest, and foods that originated in Africa such as okra, peanuts, yams, beans, etc. Many make West African and recipes like Yassa Chicken or Jollof Rice, or a Brazilian dish called Feijoada, or other dishes from the African diaspora like stewed oxtails. Many families also cook side dishes like cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, collard greens and rice and beans.


The company and the shared meals is what is most important and visitors can bring whatever foods or desserts they love.

While my family doesn’t celebrate Kwanzaa, I firmly stand behind eating these dishes any time during the year! I love macaroni and cheese (seriously, I would make a holiday celebrating mac and cheese, I love it so much) and whenever I bring a dish to a friend or neighbor who has had recently a baby or in need of a home-cooked meal, I bring them this macaroni and cheese recipe.



What some families do is to make crafts that pertain to African or African-American heritage. Some make an African recipe to share, homemade kinaras, woven placemats, beaded jewelry, or crafts that use corn kernels or made in the shape of corn. The crafts and creative endeavors are then exchanged as gifts on the last day, which is January 1st.

My friend Alicia, who has an annual Kwanzaa party that her friends LOVE and look forward to all year, creates a beautiful ritual by forming a drum circle. Her friends and family sing songs she created for the holiday, they dance to the drum sounds and they talk about the importance of investing money in the community by patronizing local African-American businesses.

Another reason Alicia’s friends love her party is that she encourages the guests to dress in traditional African dashikis and other clothes that are inspired by African colors and beauty. This is a gift to many people because there usually aren’t many opportunities during the year to embrace one’s African roots.

And the kids all get gift bags with things like books, a science kit, coins and candy! (I want one!! ha!). The Swahili word for gifts is “zawadi,” and when I hear this word “zawadi,” I’m always reminded of a children’s song that children in the villages in Tanzania would sing when visitors arrived. The song is a cute way of saying that they hoped for “a gift, even a little gift.”

Gift-giving is an integral part of East African culture, and one would never visit another person’s home without bringing a gift. It’s a beautiful tradition, and guests are considered a blessing to the home. As such, if a family is to receive guests and they don’t have enough food to feed the guests, one’s neighbors will pull together to ensure that the guests receive the best food available. We have so much to learn from African cultures.


Do you celebrate Kwanzaa? What does your family do differently that you enjoy?


If you'd like to read more about Kwanzaa, I found these websites helpful: