Food, Decor, Traditions: The Meaningful Ways My Family Celebrates Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African cultural roots, family, and community that takes place from December 26-January 1.
Growing up, I often heard Kwanzaa and Christmas discussed as if they were mutually exclusive (e.g., “I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa because I celebrate Christmas.”), but in reality, quite the opposite is true. Christmas, of course, is a religious holiday, while Kwanzaa is a secular, cultural holiday that was created in 1966. Neither cancels out the other. I celebrate both holidays because both represent core parts of who I am.
Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African cultural roots, family, and community that takes place from December 26-January 1. The word Kwanzaa means “first fruits of the harvest” in Swahili and the Kwanzaa holiday is built on seven core principles known as the Nguzo Saba:
- Umoja (unity)
- Kujichagulia (self-determination)
- Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
- Nia (purpose)
- Kuumba (creativity)
- Imani (faith)
Although Kwanzaa is celebrated among people of the African diaspora all over the world, it’s most popular in the United States.
Kwanzaa became an official holiday in our home in 2016, thanks to my daughter, Riley, who’s now 8. That year, she started attending an Afrocentric school that celebrates Kwanzaa and it was important to us that we maintain continuity between what she learned in school and what we did at home. Each year since then, we’ve invited our extended family and friends from diverse backgrounds to celebrate our version of Kwanzaa in our home, which we lovingly call “Grant Central.”
Since Kwanzaa starts on December 26, the morning after our big Christmas dinner, I’m up early clearing out my traditional tartan decor and snow-covered garlands to make room for Kwanzaa symbols on the kitchen buffet and my Kwanzaa tablescape on the main table.
The Seven Symbols
The mkeka (straw mat) is placed first to represent the strong foundation and traditions upon which everything rests. On top of the mkeka, I place the kinara, a wooden candelabrum that holds the mishumaa saba, seven candles that each represent a different principle of Kwanzaa. The red, black, and green colors of the candles represent the people of the African diaspora, our blood, and our hope for the future, respectively.
The kikombe cha umoja (unity cup) symbolizes unity among family, friends, and ancestors. The mazao (crops) represent the fruits of our collective labor. Each ear of the muhindi (corn) represents a child in our home (we include both Riley and my one-year-old nephew, Clay) and the hope that they give us for the future.
Zawadi (gifts) is the seventh symbol, which is always culturally meaningful and often homemade. Traditionally, the zawadi exchange is reserved for the end of Kwanzaa, but at Grant Central, we let Riley open her Kwanzaa zawadi along with her other gifts on Christmas Day.
In addition to the Kwanzaa symbols, I place African decor from my collection on and near the buffet, including handmade raffia baskets, hand-carved sculptures, and goatskin drums.
We begin each night of our Kwanzaa celebration with a drum call summoning everyone into one room. We greet each other by asking, “Habari gani?” (“What’s the news?”) and responding with the principle of the day. Next, we pour libation (water) from the unity cup into a plant as we call out the names of our loved ones who have passed away to honor their memories and affirm their continued presence in our hearts.
On the first night of Kwanzaa, we light the black Umoja candle in the middle, which represents the principle of unity. During this time, everyone is given the opportunity to reflect on what the principle means to them. On the subsequent nights, we repeat this process, alternating between red and green candles, for the remaining six Kwanzaa principles.
Traditionally, the culminating event of Kwanzaa takes place on December 31 in the form of a large feast known as the karamu. But, because the holidays are a busy time for our extended family and friends, our Grant Central karamu generally occurs on any evening that works best for everyone’s schedules.
As someone who loves to entertain in a beautiful setting with great food, the karamu is my favorite part of our Kwanzaa celebration. My tablescape is inspired by the red and black Kwanzaa candles and the gold accents are a nod to the rich history of Africa.
The centerpiece is a statue of Chiwara, an antelope believed by the Bambara people of Mali to represent the spirit that taught humans the fundamentals of agriculture, especially fitting for the table given the “first fruits” definition of Kwanzaa.
The handmade mudcloth and twigs runner and batik bone napkin rings are additional elements that I used to place traditional craftsmanship within a contemporary context. The organic edges of the plates and the earthy texture of the rattan placemats bring a stylish warmth to the table too.
Though it varies from year to year, our Kwanzaa menu always features a curated collection of dishes that represent different cuisines within the African diaspora.
On January 1, the last day of Kwanzaa, I pay homage to my maternal grandmother by whipping up a big pot of black-eyed peas to continue the Southern tradition of eating them on New Year’s Day to bring good luck in the coming year. My grandmother didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa, but I’m so thankful that I can honor her memory and those of my African ancestors when my family celebrates our version at Grant Central.