Kwanzaa is a celebration of African American culture. Created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, it’s based off of various festival traditions from Southeast and West Africa. It begins on December 26 and ends on January 1. The name, derived from the Swahili word kwanza, means “first fruits.” The extra “a” symbolizes the seven nights of celebration.
Karenga, an activist with a strong presence in the Black Panther movement, initially created the holiday as an alternative to Christmas for Black Americans. When one considers the racial tensions at the time, such as the Watts riots, this was an understandable desire. However, in later years, Karenga seemed to recant this in the 1997 book, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, saying it wasn’t created as a religious alternative. Today, many people celebrate both.
Over the week of celebration, family and other community members gather together each evening. The meet-ups begin with the holiday greeting “Habari gani,” which is Swahili for “How are you?” Each night focuses on a different principle of African Heritage, known as Nguzu Saba. The principles are as follow:
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
Every night, the family gathers to participate in the call and answer for the principle of that day. They light a candle, or mishumaa saba, in the Kinara, or candle holder, in remembrance. The sixth night is also the Karamu Ya Imani. This is when the family hold a feast, remembering the last five nights and looking forward to the final one.
One of the things that I appreciate about Kwanzaa is its focus on tradition and family. Yes, there are gifts. But they’re not the main focus. Call me a Grinch if you want. But he, along with Scrooge and Charlie Brown, have a point about the commercialization of Christmas. The focus is much more on the gifts and what people are getting rather than giving. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t want to get gifts, but it is a bit skewed.
In 1997, the first Kwanzaa stamp was issued. That same year that Bill Clinton made a Presidential declaration about the holiday. These events led to concern over the holiday moving away from its roots and becoming more commercial. Personally, I feel that there are many years to go before that is a huge worry. Despite there being a multitude of other winter holidays, Christmas is still the one most featured. In fact, the only TV show that I can say with confidence had a Kwanzaa episode was The Proud Family.
The literary aspects of Kwanzaa can be a bit difficult to find. A lot of African folklore was oral and this is something that is still present even in America. Familial stories and recipes are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Occasionally, someone may take the time to write it down but most of the time, we remember by what we heard.
Today I’m going to give some recommendations of books to read about the holiday, in addition to the one mentioned earlier. There is a mixture of nonfiction and fiction listed here. However, the backbone of each one is centered around the holiday.
Kwanzaa: Living on Principle by Venus Jones
In this collection of essays, poems, and other personal writings, Jones reflects on how her life changed after she started celebrating the holidays. It is also full of helpful mantras, activities, and affirmations to help you live out all the principles of Kwanzaa all year round.
My First Kwanzaa Book for Newborns by Belle Boss
This picture book is the perfect way to introduce newborns to the holiday. It is a simple way to introduce the principles of each day and other aspects of the tradition in a fun and colorful way sure to catch their attention.
Kwanzaa: 7 Principles, Celebration, Decorations, Traditions and Symbols: A Kwanzaa Book for Kids by L.A. Amber
This illustrated rhyming book is also a good option for introducing children to everything about Kwanzaa, from the seven principles to the traditional kente clothing that is worn. It also gives a brief history of the creation of the holiday.
Kevin’s Kwanzaa by Lisa Bullard and Constanza Basaluzzo
Kevin and his family always look forward to the weeklong Kwanzaa celebration. Between decorating with his mom and lighting the candles with his grandparents, they count down the days leading up to Karamu, the feast held on the sixth day. This book is a fun and colorful way to introduce young children to the holiday.
Together for Kwanzaa by Juwanada G. Ford and Shelly Hehenberger
Kayla loves Kwanzaa, but this year she’s worried that a snowstorm will prevent her big brother Khari from being able to attend the celebration. Will he make it home in time, or will the siblings have to think of a new and unique way to celebrate together as a family?
Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa by Donna L. Washington and Shane W. Evans
Li’l Rabbit is very sad this year. Since Granna Rabbit is sick, the family won’t be celebrating the Karamu, the feast that takes place on the sixth night. Determined to help his grandmother feel better so she can still enjoy Karamu, he sets out to find her a special treat. This sweet picture book is a good way to introduce children to the holiday as well as teach them caring and compassion.
Santa’s Kwanzaa by Garen Eileen Thomas and Guy Francis
After a night of delivering presents, Santa is ready to enjoy the week after celebrating Kwanzaa with his family. As the final day approaches, Santa is still filled with holiday joy and comes up with a way to show his love for all of humanity. This book is told in a rhyming scheme similar to The Night Before Christmas and is a wonderful story that shows that there is room in everyone’s home and hearts for both holidays.
A Very Special Kwanzaa by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate
After being teased mercilessly last year, Charlie wants no part of his school’s Kwanzaa festival this year. Will he end up changing his mind after he begins to remember what the true meaning of Kwanzaa is and decide to join in the celebration after all? This book would be perfect for older elementary and lower middle school students to help them remember that tradition is important, no matter what others may think or say.
Kwanzaa Klaus by James Henry
When a well meaning but down on his luck dad ends up messing up Christmas for his family, he looks to Kwanzaa to help redeem himself and still give them a holiday worth remembering. This is another one that shows that you don’t have to choose one holiday over another when it comes to Christmas and Kwanzaa, as there is room for both.
This is not a comprehensive list. It is just a jumping off point for learning more about the holiday. Let me know over on social media if there are any that I may have missed. You can also let me know which ones you’re eager to pick up this season. Happy holidays and happy reading!