The Ultimate Guide to Celebrating Kwanzaa


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

Many of us also don’t know much about Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday that begins 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.

When I realized the origins of Kwanzaa were rooted in the Swahili language, I was instantly intrigued!

About 15 years ago I worked for an international NGO whose mission is to foster cultural understanding and shared humanity through overseas volunteer service. Through this organization, I was able to travel to Tanzania and Kenya. I was also able to learn Swahili. Those were some of the best days of my life, and a part of my heart will always be in East (and West) Africa. 

 Kwanzaa was created by Professor Maulana Karenga, Ph.D. in 1966 to help African-Americans have greater pride and unity in their community. 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. Celebrating Kwanzaa is an important way to celebrate African culture and the traditions uniting people of African heritage.

Symbols of Kwanzaa

Since there are seven days in the Kwanzaa celebration, participants light a Kinara. It looks a bit like a menorah and even rhymes with the word! But the kinara’s meaning is a bit different. The kinara holds seven candles that represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The seven principles of Kwanzaa are:

Umoja (Unity)

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination),

Ujima (Collective Work)

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Nia (Purpose)

Kuumba (Creativity)

Imani (Faith)

Three candles are red to symbolize the struggle of life, another three are green to represent hope for the future and a black candle is in the middle to show the importance of unity.

During these seven days, celebrants will highlight the day’s principle. For instance, to teach unity, a family might work hard to complete a task together. To highlight the importance of self-determination or collective work, a family might learn a new skill together or make some great recipes together! Check out this awesome video highlighting the seven principles of Kwanzaa!

Many families assemble an altar and light the kinara together. They place dried corn husks on the altar, symbolizing each child in the family. Some families also include a unity cup, photographs of ancestors, a bowl of fruit and a plant to show the importance of nature.

The Kwanzaa Feast: Karamu

 On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, also known as Kumbaa, is a feast. Food and creativity?!? Those are my two middle names!

Meals prepared for Karamu typically represent the harvest and include lots of fruits and vegetables. Foods that originated in Africa such as okra, peanuts, yams, and beans are included. Many make West African and recipes like Yassa Chicken or Jollof Rice, or a Brazilian dish called Feijoada. Many families also cook side dishes like cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, collard greens and rice and beans.

How Much Do You Know About Kwanzaa? 5.jpg

 While my family doesn’t celebrate Kwanzaa, I firmly stand behind eating these dishes any time during the year!

I also believe that it’s important that we teach our children to try new foods and so I encourage you to include your kids in your family’s annual feasts and daily dinners. Ready to host your first Karamu? Check out this post for some great tips!

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.


Many families celebrating Kwanzaa create crafts that are related to African or African-American Heritage. While some make delicious foods, others make homemade kinaras, woven placemats or beaded jewelry. These gifts are exchanged on the last day, Imani.

My friend Alicia has an annual Kwanzaa party that her friends LOVE and look forward to all year. She 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 items such as 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? If not, I hope this post has opened up your eyes to the wonderful ways that we can continue to learn about ourselves and other cultures. We have so many commonalities in our cultural traditions—they all lead to love and unity. And I’m all about teach my best girl this…I know you are too!