Why celebrate Kwanzaa?
Celebrating different cultures matters. All students should feel safe to express who they are and share their beliefs, values, and traditions. There are roughly 42 million people who identify as African American in the US, and African American children account for around 15% of school students. Let’s take this opportunity to celebrate them, their history, and their culture.
We can all learn from different backgrounds and cultural perspectives, and when students feel a sense of belonging at school, they are likely to be more engaged and work to achieve their goals.
Providing meaningful ways to celebrate cultural diversity gives students the chance to share their unique backgrounds and feel a sense of self-worth. So, let’s learn about and celebrate Kwanzaa!
Free Kwanzaa Templates
What is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga (a professor of Africana studies, activist, and author) and activist Hakim Jamal in 1965. It’s an African American holiday celebrating African heritage, Pan-African culture, and African American culture. The two men founded an organization named The Organization Us, which aimed “to provide a philosophy… [to] inspire a personal and social practice… making [people] self-conscious agents of their own life and liberation… the building of a moral community and… what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense.”
The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which translates to “first fruits” in English. According to Keith A. Mayes, Dr. Maulana Karenga was inspired by the cultural traditions of African harvest.
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but the celebration of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles of Kwanzaa) created by The Organization Us. It’s celebrated between December 26 and January 1.
The Seven Principles (by Dr. Karenga)
- 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. To make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and 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.
How is Kwanzaa celebrated?
It’s important to note that families celebrate Kwanzaa differently; however, there are some common features. Families often decorate their houses with art related to Pan-Africanism or the family’s specific African heritage. Common decorations include the Pan-African tricolor, African national flags, kente, the wearing of kaftans, and fresh fruit representing African idealism.
Kwanzaa ceremonies typically include drumming, varied musical selections that honor African ancestry, and a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness. Children show gratitude to their ancestors, and libations are shared between family members using a Kikombe Cha Umoja (The Kwanzaa Unity Cup).
During the week-long celebration of Kwanzaa, mishumaa saba (seven candles) are placed in the kinara (candlestick holder) — three red candles on the left, three green candles on the right, and a single black candle in the center. The word kinara is a Swahili word that means candle holder. The first kinara was created by Maulana Karenga in 1966 and was based on the Jewish Hanukkah menorah.
During the week of Kwanzaa, a new candle is lit on the kinara each day. The black candle in the center is lit on the first day (and symbolizes the African people), the three red candles on the left are lit on the second, third, and fourth day (representing the struggle of African peoples), then the three green candles on the right are lit on the fifth, sixth, and seventh day. Each day of Kwanzaa, and therefore each candle, is dedicated to the contemplation of one of the Seven Principles.
Symbols of Kwanzaa such as the kinara, and mazao (crops) or mahindi (ear of corn), and zawadi (gifts) are placed on the mkeka (ceremonial mat). This practice is similar to that of Harvest Festival with the first fruits of the harvest being offered as symbols of gratitude.
On the sixth or the last day of Kwanzaa, families enjoy a karamu (feast), where they prepare food specific to their culture and heritage.
Ideas for the classroom
Don’t worry if this is your first Kwanzaa, celebrating Kwanzaa in your classroom is a great way to expand your students’ knowledge of different cultures and is an opportunity for African, African American, and students of African heritage to share their experiences and insight.
Here are some ideas for your classroom:
- If you’ve got budding artists in your class, get your preschoolers (or older students!) to do some Kwanzaa coloring and color this kinara from the Kami Library. Be mindful of the significance of getting the colors right!
- Get your students to complete the Kwanzaa worksheet on Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles). They could use Kami’s voice or video Comment tools to share their knowledge.
- Once they’ve researched Nguzo Saba, test their memory with this mix-and-match task from the Kami Library. Kami’s got you covered — there’s an answer sheet if you get stuck!
- Check out this Youtube playlist. It features videos that help with the pronunciation of Kwanzaa-related Swahili words. Your students could then use Kami’s Voice Comment Tool to practice their pronunciation.
- Why not learn the daily greeting during Kwanzaa: “Habari Gani?”, which is Swahili for “How are you?” Learn how to say key greetings in some of Africa’s most widely-spoken languages on Africa.com!
- Older students can read more about the history of Kwanzaa on the official The Organisation Us website, or read these popular Kwanzaa books.
Celebrate in your classroom, community, neighborhood, or state, by spreading awareness of Kwanzaa and its positive and empowering message. Happy Kwanzaa!