What to Give: Guide to Multicultural Holiday Celebrations


Although its roots date back centuries, Kwanzaa is the youngest of all the year-end holidays. In 1966, political scientist and ethicist Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa as a weeklong celebration to honor African-American cultural heritage. Each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, observes one of the Seven Principles (or Nguzo Saba) rooted in African cultures and that collectively constitute a full life and a tight community. These principles are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work), ujamma (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

While each night of Kwanzaa is centered on a different principle, the celebrations share the common theme of honoring ancestors, and reinforcing family, community and introspection. Kwanzaa is a time of not only solemnity, but also celebration and fun. If you're invited to a Kwanzaa party, prepare for both.

Kwanzaa etiquette is largely based around respecting the spirit of the celebration. Symbols, like ceremonial mats and ears of corn arranged to represent your host's children still living at home, intertwine with rich African rituals, such as the sharing of libations like ginger beer from a kikombe cha umoja (a communal chalice). Don't be surprised when a bit is poured on the ground -- it's done to share with ancestors. During the evening ritual, there will be a welcome ceremony that includes the reading of the day's principle, followed by a lighting of the mishumaa saba (the seven red, black and green candles) by your host's youngest child, ancestral stories and affirmation of the principles that brought all of you together.

You can expect delicious food like seafood gumbo, black-eyed peas, cornbread and plantains for the celebratory spread, with music, dancing and poetry. Ask your host if you can bring any food; Kwanzaa is a time of community, and the sharing of food and cooking duties is an ancient communal concept.

The principles of Kwanzaa are intentionally contrary to commercialization. However, according to Jessica B. Harris, author of A Kwanzaa Keepsake, as a guest at a Kwanzaa party, you shouldn't feel bashful about bringing a zawadi (gift). Parents give their children these presents to their children during Kwanzaa, but you can bring them as well. A good zawadi is intended to support the principles of Kwanza, so bringing toys or games that foster creativity or community is a good move. Any gift that contributes to personal or communal growth will be appreciated.