Preschool Education Articles

Learning About Our World: Celebrating Kwanzaa

December brings holidays for many people in our country. Christmas and New Year’s are two celebrations that have long histories. A relatively new celebration is Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday beginning on December 26 and lasting seven days. In 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University at Long Beach, planned a celebration to help African Americans be proud of their past and build stronger families. He felt many African Americans needed to know more about their history.

In planning this holiday, Dr. Karenga studied many groups of Africans. He found that in every group there was a harvest or “first fruits” celebration. (Kwanza is a Swahili word meaning “the first.” Dr. Karenga added the last “a” because there were seven children who each wanted to hold a letter during the celebration.) During the African celebrations, people came together, thanked God for food and life, remembered their elders who had died, judged how they had lived the past year, made plans for the new year, danced, sang, and ate food together. Dr. Karenga also found that most African groups were guided by seven principles, called Nguzo (principles) Saba (seven). He incorporated these principles into the holiday.

Families begin the celebration of Kwanzaa by placing a candle holder (kinara) with seven candles (mishumaa saba) on a straw mat (mkeka) on a table. The center candle is black for the color of the African-American people; three red candles symbolize their struggles; and three green candles symbolize their hopes. Also on the table the family places a basket of fruit and vegetables, an ear of corn for each child, a cup, and gifts to be opened on December 31.

Each day a Kwanzaa candle is lit, and one of the seven principles (Nguzo Saba) is the theme for the gathering.

December 26 is Umoja – being joined together.
December 27 is Kujichagulia – being yourself.
December 28 is Ujima – helping one another.
December 29 is Ujamaa – sharing.
December 30 is Nia – having a purpose or goal.
December 31 is Kuumba – creating.
January 1 is Imani – believing.

During the celebration, there is a feast in which people eat collard greens for prosperity and black-eyed peas for good luck, along with cornbread, fried chicken, baked catfish, sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, rice pudding, and carrot cake. The cup is filled with water or juice and passed around in memory of ancestors. “Harambee!” which means “Let’s pull together!” is said many times throughout the celebration.

Dr. Karenga celebrated the first Kwanzaa with a few friends. Now millions of African Americans look forward to the last week of December as a time for learning, feeling proud, sharing, fun, and joy. In one of his books Dr. Karenga says, “May the year’s end meet us laughing and stronger.”

If you would like to share more information on Kwanzaa with your children and their families, look for *KWANZAA* by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate or *KWANZAA* by Dorothy Rhodes Freeman and Dianne M. MacMillan in your children’s library. Perhaps there is an African-American art show, a puppet show, or play about this celebration in your area. Prepare one of the foods for a snack. Any of these activities will help our children learn about and understand the many people in our world.

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC.
(1994). Learning about our world: Celebrating Kwanzaa. In M. Lopes (Ed.)
CareGiver News (December, p.3). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts
Cooperative Extension.


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