For Michiel Perry, the holiday is all about celebrating history and culture.

By Michiel Perry of Black Southern Belle
December 17, 2020
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The holiday season is in full swing, and for me, this time of year is all about family and traditions. The Kwanzaa holiday allows me to infuse my own cultural history into the seven-day celebration. Founded in 1966 and now recognized worldwide, this African American holiday takes place December 26 through January 1 to honor family, friends, and community. 

My interest in Kwanzaa deepened when my son was born two years ago. It's important to preserve my Gullah Geechee culture and pass along our ancestral history. For me, Kwanzaa is about celebrating that history and my low country roots in South Carolina, where I am proud to live and raise my family.

Credit: Ashley Mitchell Photos

Important Kwanzaa Symbols

Each day of Kwanzaa represents a fundamental principle known as Kawaida, a Swahili word meaning common. The seven principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

Symbols for Kwanzaa include the Mkeka (a decorative mat), Kinara (candleholder), Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), Mazao (crops), Muhindi (ears of corn), Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup), and Zawadi (gifts).

Credit: Ashley Mitchell Photos

Kwanzaa Decorating Ideas

One of my favorite elements of celebrating the holidays is outdoor entertaining. Whether on my front porch or near the scenic oak tree in my yard, nature is important to my Gullah culture. As the granddaughter of a hog farmer who built our family home with his own hands, showcasing and appreciating the land is an important part of my celebration.

My Kwanzaa gathering begins by setting the table outside. To add a bit of low country inspiration, I incorporate sweetgrass place mats woven by Gullah artisans. I grew up with sweetgrass (a native prairie grass often used to make baskets) and love using it in my decor as a way to celebrate my heritage throughout the holidays. I will pass these pieces on to my children who will use them when they have families of their own. 

Credit: Ashley Mitchell Photos

Set the Kwanzaa Table

To create my table, I first laid out a red indigo fabric cloth ($27, Amazon) and topped it with a green velvet table runner atop a white tablecloth. Next, I added a handmade wooden Kinara ($65, Amazon) with the traditional green, red, and black candles at the center of the table. Each place setting includes a sweetgrass place mat and handmade sweetgrass coasters ($36, Etsy). On the geometric white plates, I laid out historical low country postcards depicting African American life. For a modern feel, I finished the table with gold cutlery and black and white serving spoons. When setting up your Kwanzaa decorations, bringing in touches of your heritage, handmade decorations, or family photos can make the holiday celebration more personal. 

Credit: Ashley Mitchell Photos

The Kwanzaa Feast

The sixth day of Kwanzaa is the feast known as Karamu Ya Imani. My dinner often includes cuisine with foods grown and harvested in the coastal area, including fresh shellfish, game, fish, okra, and rice. Gullah food heritage is all about eating from the land. My fondest family memories are driving to the local seafood stand and picking up fresh ingredients. I also incorporate home-grown vegetables from various family members to create a true Gullah farm-to-table food experience. Heritage dishes are vital to telling a story and sharing memories of people, places, and history. Some of my favorite family recipes are Oyster Perloo, and Sautéed Shrimp & Rice, Okra Soup, and Sweet Potato Bread Pudding.

For my Kwanzaa menu, I worked with Gullah Chef, Emma Cromedy of Carolima’s in Summerville, South Carolina, to create holiday dishes that represent my food heritage. This year's feast includes:

  • Gullah Red Rice with Smoked Sausage
  • Sauteed Kale Salad with Peppers and Smoked Sausage
  • Black-Eyed Pea Salad
  • Grilled Red Snapper with Sliced Lemons
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Credit: Ashley Mitchell Photos

My Cultural Gift Ideas

On the final day, gifts known as Zawadi are given, to symbolize love and commitment. This year to help family, friends, and children learn more about Kwanzaa, I put together an educational kit. These gifts are the perfect opportunity to celebrate and support black-owned businesses in your local community.

Credit: Ashley Mitchell Photos

How to Assemble Your Own Kwanzaa Educational Kit

Use these ideas as a start to create your own Kwanzaa educational kit.

  • Books: Kwanzaa books for kids, teens, and adults are a great way to share your cultural history.
  • Kwanzaa Decor: Include important Kwanzaa decorations like a Kinara and red, black, and green candles.
  • Kwanzaa Recipe: Write out a generational family recipe to be prepared together. Cooking is a celebration of your family's past.
  • Activities: Write out activity cards for the family to complete together including donating items, volunteering at a soup kitchen, making gifts for neighbors, or creating a family wreath. I added these printable Kwanzaa bingo games ($15, Etsy) to my kit this year.
  • Black-Owned Gifts: Look for products from a black-owned business. I chose a Crab boil bag from Taste of Satira and Bowman Vineyards products, which happens to be one of the oldest black-owned vineyards in South Carolina and my parent's neighbor.
  • Stories: Start a journal or notebook with personal and family stories that can be added to and passed on.
  • Handmade: Make a handmade gift such as a sweetgrass basket or palm rose, one of the oldest recognized African American art forms.
  • Photographs: Add ancestral or current family photographs to personalize your educational kit.

Mrs. Michiel Perry, 32, is a South Carolina girl who loves all things Southern and stylish. With a little inspiration, while planning her wedding in Charleston, South Carolina, and decorating her first home in Maryland, Mrs. Perry was inspired to develop a lifestyle brand focused on African American women with a Southern connection called Black Southern Belle. With her digital lifestyle brand Black Southern Belle, Mrs. Perry wanted to create an online and offline resource of lifestyle inspiration for African American women in the South. 

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