The Origin of Kwanzaa

In 1966 Kwanzaa became the first African-American holiday. Its founder, Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, believed that African Americans needed a holiday that celebrated their roots from Africa and their future in America. Kwanzaa, is a seven day celebration from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, established to coincide with harvest time in Africa. It is intended to bond African Americans together and encourage the practice of seven principles for meaningful living.

The word kwanza is a Swahili word meaning "first fruits of the harvest." For the holiday an extra "a" was added to make the word Kwanzaa; giving it 7 letters, one letter for each of the 7 principles. The names for each of the seven principles, the objects, and decorations are Swahili words. The language of Swahili was selected because most people in Africa, no matter what other language or dialect they speak, are also able to communicate in Swahili.

The Seven Principles

Each day of Kwanzaa focuses on one of the seven principles, known as Nguzo Saba. Activities and discussions center around the principle of the day and a candle is lit on the kinara. Often an adult will greet a child with the Swahili question, "Habri gani?" meaning "Whatís the news?" the child then responds with the name of the principle for the day.

Kwanzaa Traditions

The Kinara

Each day of Kwanzaa African Americans light one candle on a kinara, a wooden candle holder. The kinara itself represents their ancestors and it holds seven candles, one candle for each of the seven principles. The candles are called mishumma and the middle candle, which is the first candle to be lit, is black. Three red candles are placed on one side of the kinara and three green candles are placed on the other side.

The black candle represents the rich color of African American skin. The red candles symbolize the struggles of their people and the green candles symbolize the hope for a prosperous future. The candles are lit each night in alternating colors working from the inside out. After the first black candle is lit on the first night, the red candle closest to the black one is lit for the second night. The third night the inner most green candle is lit, and so on.

The Mkeka

The mkeka is a straw mat. It represents unity, a firm foundation, and tradition. On the mkeka families place a variety of fruits and vegetables, or mazao meaning crops, to remember the earthís abundance during the traditional African harvest time.

They also place ears of corn, called muhindi, on the mkeka. One ear of corn for each child in the family is placed on the mat. Children are central to the Kwanzaa celebration because they represent the future of African American culture. Even families without children usually place an ear of corn on the mkeka to show their concern and responsibility to the children in their community.

The Giving of Gifts

At Kwanzaa time gifts are given to children to show love and as a reward for work well done. Traditionally these gifts, zawadi, are handmade and educational in nature. Zawadi often include hand-crafted dolls or necklaces. Books and heritage items are also given.


Kwanzaa usually includes a harvest feast called karamu held on the sixth or seventh day of the celebration. The feast begins when someone spills a few drops of the drink from the kibombe cha umoja, or the unity cup. These few drops represent the struggles of their African ancestors.

Then each person takes a sip from the cup. By sharing a drink from the same cup, family and friends reinforce the importance of unity within their own family and the larger community.

Crafts for Kwanzaa

A Kwanzaa Match Holder

Store matches for lighting the kinara safe and close by with this strike and match holder.

You will need:

Remove the lid from the jar and save it for another project or discard it. Cut a strip from each color of felt wide enough to cover one third of the jarís height and long enough to circle the outside of the jar one time with a little overlap in length.

Glue each strip of felt around the jar placing red at the top, black in the middle, and green at the bottom to match the pattern of the benara ya Taifa, the flag sometimes used during Kwanzaa celebrations.

Cut a circle of sandpaper the same size as the bottom of the jar. Glue the sandpaper to the bottom of the jar with the rough side out for striking the matches. Once all the glue has dried, fill the jar with wooden matches and place it within easy reach of the kinara, but out of the reach of small children.

Be sure that when the kinara is lit, that an adult does the lighting or supervises the lighting.

Hint: If the jar you are using is plastic, place a strip of masking tape down the side and a square of masking tape on the bottom. Glue will not stick to plastic but it will hold on the masking tape.

Memory Minders for Kwanzaa

Make one Memory Minder for each person in your family to give as a Kwanzaa gift. Also, make a Memory Minder for yourself.

You will need:

Use the scissors to trim the tab off the file folder. Open the folder and glue the red construction paper to the outside of the folder. Leaving the folder open, glue the green construction paper to the inside. Let the glue set for a moment, but before it dries completely close the folder. Trim off any extra colored paper around the edges.

Using the hole punch make two holes in the back cover of the folder, one hole near the top and one near the bottom. Next stack the quart size bags for one Memory Minder together. Punch two holes in both corners of the bottom of the bags.

Cut a piece of yarn long enough to wrap twice around the fold of the Memory Minder with enough extra to tie a bow. Thread the yarn through the bottom hole of the folder, one hole in the plastic bags, the second hole of the plastic bags, and the top hole of the folder. Bring the two ends together in the middle outside of the fold and tie a bow.

Trim the ends of the bow and dip each end in glue and allow them to dry. This will keep the yarn from unraveling.

With the black yarn and glue, or using the indelible black marker, create designs on the front cover of the Memory Minder. If you would like, label each Minder with the name of the person you intend to give it to. On the inside cover of the Memory Minder write a short note telling who the gift is for and who it is from with the indelible marker.

Each bag in the Memory Minder is now ready to hold one yearís worth of Kwanzaa memories. People can store cards, copies of poems, chants, and songs, photographs, and drawings in the bags.

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