5 Kwanzaa Traditions



Back in 1966, Dr. Karenga was adamant in his desire that Kwanzaa not go down the overcommercialized path that so many holidays have followed. Kwanzaa is about more than gifts, and he didn't want the holiday's message to be watered down by insignificant presents being given all seven nights. And while time has worn down some of his dictates (about food, for example, and Kwanzaa not being celebrated along with Christmas), his vision for gifts has stayed clear and largely unchanged.

According to Dr. Karenga, children should be the only recipients of presents (known as zawadi) during Kwanzaa. Exchanges between immediate family members are common, but it's mostly for children. And if you're giving your kids PlayStations and DVDs every night of Kwanzaa, you're missing the point. Gifts are given only on the final night, and they should have meaning.

There's always a book -- one that has cultural and historical significance, preferably -- and some sort of heritage symbol. Zawadi are one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, so they're displayed on the mkeka, which is yet another reason to make sure they're appropriate. A box of Legos won't look quite right sitting next to the kinara and kikombe cha umoja.

There are numerous ways to fulfill the heritage symbol part of the equation. A gift that comes from the heart (and hands) is always preferable to a store-bought one; handmade gifts are, in Dr. Karenga's words, "a wall of resistance against commercialization" [source: Official Kwanzaa Web Site]. Create a family photo album, cookbook or framed family tree. Weave a mkeka or make your own kinara. Ideally, the zawadi portion of the evening shouldn't be a big deal -- gifts are not the focal point. They're to be given out quickly and admired, and then it's on to the next activity. Gifts take a backseat after a day of introspection and meditation, and it's more important to focus on winding up the seven-day holiday and getting ready for the new year.

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More Great Links


  • History. "Kwanzaa." (Aug. 2, 2011) http://www.history.com/topics/kwanzaa-history
  • Official Kwanzaa Web Site. (Aug. 2, 2011) http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml
  • Raskin, Hanna. "History of Kwanzaa Food." Slashfood. Dec. 22, 2009. (Aug. 2, 2011) http://www.slashfood.com/2009/12/22/kwanzaa-food-history/
  • Scholer, J. Lawrence. "The Story of Kwanzaa." Dartmouth Review, Jan. 15, 2001. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://web.archive.org/web/20080401093652/http://dartreview.com/archives/2001/01/15/the_story_of_kwaanza.php


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