How to Celebrate Kwanzaa This Year

Starting from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1

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In 1966, activist and professor Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa to build unity and a stronger connection to African history within the Black community. Fifty-seven years later, the cultural holiday continues to be a time to uplift, reflect and recognize those of the African diaspora. Whether you're paying homage to the past or honoring present day accomplishments by the Black community, we've compiled ten ways to celebrate Kwanzaa this year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

What Is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that spans for seven days to honor and celebrate African heritage. The name stems from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means ‘first fruits’ since the holiday originated from the African harvest festivals. Today, the festive week continues to uphold traditions and follows seven main principles (but more on that below).

So, What Are the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa?

The seven days (Nguzo Saba) represent the seven main principles of the holiday. Each day follows a specific theme with activities that reflect on them. Activities can range from reciting poetry to participating at events. The seven themes include: 

  • Unity (Umoja) 
  • Self-Determination (Kujichagulia) 
  • Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) 
  • Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa) 
  • Purpose (Nia) 
  • Creativity (Kuumba)  
  • Faith (Imani)
how to celebrate kwanzaa a display featuring a table, kinara, crops and cup
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1. Create a Display

The first step to celebrating Kwanzaa is setting up a display that represents the seven principles. This arrangement brings families together to honor each day. To get started:

  • Dress your table in a festive cloth. Whether it’s one of the three Kwanzaa colors (black, red and green) or a traditional African cloth, this piece lays the groundwork for the rest of the objects. 
  • Lay a mat (Mkeka) at the center of the table. A straw (or woven) mat represents tradition and history. It acts as the base for the following symbols below to stand and build—much like the past, present and future community.
  • Place the candleholder (Kinara) on top of the mat. The kinara is the focal point of the display. It holds all seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), which are red, green and black. Each color represents the struggles of the past, hope for the future and community. The black candle is placed in the middle with three green candles to the right of it and three red candles to the left. 
  • Place the unity cup (Kikombe Cha Umoja) on the mat. The wooden cup (or chalice) can be placed in front of the black candle or on either side of the candleholder. This cup represents family and community. It’s typically filled with water, wine or juice on the sixth day. 
  • Gather crops (Mazao) into a bowl. Fill a bowl with fruits, vegetables, nuts or all of the above and place it around the kinara. As the holiday’s name implies, the bowl is a nod to African harvest.
  • Lay corn (Muhinidi) on the table. The number of corn (specifically the ear of the corn) will depend on the number of children in your household. If you don’t have any children, add one to two ears to honor children in your community. 
  • Place gifts (Zawadi) around the table. Similar to laying gifts around the tree, place gifts around, under or on top of the table. On the last day, the gifts are handed out to the children.
how to celebrate kwanzaa a family lighting the kinara together
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2. Light the Kinara

Once your display is set for Kwanzaa, you’re ready to light the candles. Start with the black candle to symbolize the first principle: unity. Then, the following six days, move from left to right (from red to green), in the order of the principles. For example, the second day will follow the red candle, which symbolizes the struggles of the past. By day three, light the green candle which represents the future. This practice is usually done at night after you’ve completed the activities that commemorate the day’s theme. 

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3. Host Your Own Party

What better way to honor the first principle—unity—than by hosting a gathering? The cultural holiday is all about bringing family and friends together. Decorate your space in Kwanzaa colors (red, green and black) and get everyone involved with flag making, creating a woven mat or building a homemade kinara. Simply enjoy the day with good company, fun games and delicious food.

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4. Immerse in Black History

The self-determination principle focuses on defining, naming and creating oneself, so take the time to learn and immerse yourself in African heritage. While you can do this all throughout the week (and after the holiday season), spend the second day learning more about Kwanzaa. Also spend time learning about your own family history and how it ties into the holiday.

You can also try learning the Swahili language that the principles are named after and try out the traditional greetings like Habari Gani (which means “What’s up?” or “What is the news?”).

5. Watch and Read All About Kwanzaa

Watch episodes centered around the holiday from TV shows like Everybody Hates Chris and The Proud Family or documentaries like The Black Candle. Consider reading My Little Kwanzaa to your kiddo or learning straight from the creator himself through Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Aside from diving into all things Kwanzaa, this is a great time to watch your favorite classic Black shows, read books by Black authors and listen to podcasts by Black creators.

6. Give Back to Your Community

On the third day (aka collective work and responsibility), consider giving back to your community. Find volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood, support an organization virtually through donations or spread the word on issues that affect your community. There’s no right or wrong way to support and uplift those around you, but look into non-profit organizations like The Loveland Foundation, Black Lives Matter and For The Gworls if you need some help starting. 

7. Support Black-Owned Businesses

Day four is all about cooperative economics, so pour your coins into Black-owned businesses. On this day (and beyond) buy and promote your favorite brands or local businesses in your neighborhood. Whether you’re looking to add to your handbag collection, practice more self-care in the new year or elevate your food palette, show your support in any way you can. 

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8. Find An Event In Your Neighborhood

On the sixth day (creativity), look for an event in your area. This day gives room for artistic expression through arts and crafts, music, dance and more. Events are often filled with performances, readings and vendors. A few examples are the New Jersey Kwanzaa Festival and Marketplace, Apollo Theatre Kwanzaa: A Regeneration Celebration, Saint Louis Art Museum Kwanzaa Celebration and North Carolina Cary Arts Center Kwanzaa Celebration. Search for an event in your city and enjoy a full day of celebration. 

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9. Prepare a Traditional Feast

The feast (Karamu) calls you to honor your own culture. This tradition is a way to bless past harvests and strengthen the community in doing so. There are no set rules on what you can cook, so have fun whipping up your favorite family recipe, trying some traditional soul food or tucking into classic dishes like jollof rice, black eye peas and gumbo. You can also dive into cookbooks by Black chefs or order straight from a local Black-owned restaurant.

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10. Give Out Gifts

On the last day, gifts are exchanged. These presents are often educational books, handmade trinkets or just general items that are connected to your culture. This tradition is mostly for children but it can be opened up to your adult friends and family as well. Again, this is the time to support your favorite Black-owned businesses. 

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11. Create New Year Goals

As you get closer to the new year, take the week to reflect on the year ahead. Whether you do this on the fifth day (purpose principle) or the last day (faith principle), gather everyone to discuss your goals for the next year.You can highlight accomplishments or share lessons learned and hopes for the future. Bottom line: Open up the floor for a conversation that uplifts and encourages reflection and growth. 

One More Thing:

People often ask, "Is Kwanzaa only considered a religious celebration?" The answer is no. It’s important to emphasize that Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday. Although the last principle is labeled faith, it’s not tied to any religion. You’re free to utilize and interpret each day as you please. At the end of the day, the seven days stem from a celebration of African culture and community, so celebrate the traditions that work well for you and your loved ones. 

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Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...