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Everything About Kwanzaa – Meaning, Gifts and How to Celebrate  

It’s the most festive time of the year! Everyone is coming into the office with ugly Christmas sweaters, jelly donuts, candy canes, and baked goodies. While most people in our office are gearing up to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s – we realized our coworker, Linda, was getting ready to celebrate Kwanzaa. Even though it isn’t observed federally as a holiday, we knew she was getting ready for a big week of celebrating with their friends and family – and we all wanted to learn everything about Kwanzaa!

One day when Linda came into the office wearing traditional African garb, everyone was filled with curiosity.

people celebrating Kwanzaa


Most of us didn’t know much about the holiday. So Linda was quickly bombarded with different questions. When is Kwanzaa? What is Kwanzaa? Do you say Happy Kwanzaa? Do you give each other gifts? 

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration that honors African-American heritage and culture.

Kwanzaa origin started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies, and is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st.

There are seven days of Kwanzaa. Each day brings a new emotional goal and social responsibility for the individual.

Also read: Black History Month Gifting

Linda is a sweet woman. She loves sharing her culture with the rest of us and was excited to bring the celebration to the office, so everyone could learn more about her culture and upbringing. She rejoiced to see her coworkers were so interested in her favorite holiday and wanted to learn more. The best part? She was excited that her favorite holiday was being recognized in the workplace, the same way all of the other holidays were. 

Instead of giving her team members short, quick responses to their questions – she decided to turn it into a learning experience for everyone. Every day that week, she was going to teach everyone everything they needed to learn. 

So, sit back, relax, grab some popcorn, and get comfortable. We’re about to take you on a ride through Linda’s experience – so you can learn too. 

Kwanzaa Meaning 

Kwanzaa means first fruits.”

Kelly Navies, an oral histories specialist, explains that the term “Kwanzaa” originates from the Swahili expression “matunda ya kwanza”, which translates to “first fruits”. This is a reference to the agricultural harvest festivals that are a common tradition throughout Africa.

On that Monday, Linda decided to start with the basics behind the Kwanzaa religion, its origin, and its meaning. She started off by explaining that it isn’t actually a religious holiday. (which surprised many people!) Instead, it’s a cultural celebration and a spiritual awakening. In fact, those who celebrate Kwanzaa often also celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Ramadan, too! However, when the festive times end, and everyone else looks forward to the new year – they first focus on the Kwanzaa meaning

Linda didn’t get into too much detail each Kwanzaa day – she wanted to ensure everyone was following along. 

Kwanzaa Gifts and Kwanzaa Celebration Ideas

On Tuesday, Linda surprised her coworkers with a traditional communal feast. At lunchtime, she set the table in the break room and brought out her favorite foods for her coworkers to try. There was okra stew, gumbo, collard greens, buttermilk biscuits, and plantains. 

Her coworkers dived right into the delicious Kwanzaa celebration she created for everyone. As everyone filled their plates with delicious foods, she explained everything from who celebrates Kwanzaa, what religion celebrates Kwanzaa, and her favorite Kwanzaa celebration ideas.

Here are some gift ideas for the Kwanzaa celebration:

  • African-Inspired Artwork: Paintings, sculptures or tapestries, as a gift.
African statue
African statue
  • Cultural Books: Books written by African authors or about African history and culture are great gift ideas that celebrate African heritage and promote literacy.
Old books on a table, with one book open
Old books on a table, with one book open
  • Traditional African Clothing: Dashikis, kaftans, or kente cloth, are perfect to wear during Kwanzaa celebrations.
African inspired bright and colorful Dashikis!
African inspired bright and colorful Dashikis!
  • Decorative items with African Motifs: Wooden masks, figurines or baskets, make great Kwanzaa gifts.
African Woman Carving
African Woman Carving
  • Traditional African Food and Spices: Yams, plantains, jollof rice or berbere spice mix, to prepare Kwanzaa meals.
Baskets with North African dried herbs
Baskets with North African dried herbs
  • Traditional African Musical Instruments: Djembe drums or mbira thumb pianos, to create a festive atmosphere during Kwanzaa celebrations.
African music instruments
African music instruments
  • A Kwanzaa Set: A kinara (candle holder), seven candles (representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa), and other decorative items are a great gift for someone celebrating the holiday.
African American Kwanzaa festival. Seven Kinara candlestick.
African American Kwanzaa festival. Seven Kinara candlestick.

On Wednesday, everyone walked into their shift, ready to learn about what Linda was going to teach them today. This time, the topic was gifting! Linda reassured everyone that her whole family receives Kwanzaa gifts. (Yes, on top of their holiday gifts!) In fact – her family has a tradition. Everyone gets matching t-shirts in the Kwanzaa colors. They take turns creating different designs and showcasing their creativity. That’s just one of Linda’s favorite Kwanzaa gift ideas.

She explained that the best part about the holiday is that the gifts come from the heart. It can be a box full of yummy treats, a basket filled with their favorite goodies, or something they need around the office. There is no right or wrong answer!

Kwanzaa food spread

Kwanzaa Traditions

  • Lighting the Kinara – A Candle Holder
Kinara candleholder
Kinara candleholder

  • Celebrating the Seven Principles
Kwanzaa African seven values
Kwanzaa African seven values

  • Sharing the Kikombe Cha Umoja – A Unity Cup
Kikombe Cha Umoja

  • Displaying African Artifacts
African Mask Artifacts
African Mask Artifacts

  • Preparing and Sharing Traditional Foods
kwanzaa traditonal food
kwanzaa traditonal food

  • Exchanging Zawadi aka Small Gifts
Zawadi Gifts
Zawadi Gifts

  • Attending Community Events

Thursday was dedicated to traditions. Just like any other holiday, there are many Kwanzaa traditions. There is more than just Kwanzaa food, gifts, and celebrations!

To share her traditions with her coworkers, she decided to bring her favorite Kwanzaa decorations into the office. She filled her cubicle with black, red, and green colored decorations. There were streamers, traditional African patterns, and of course, some sweet food!

When a coworker stopped by her cubicle, she greeted them with a traditional Kwanzaa greeting. “Habari Gani?” she said. When they looked back with a confused look, she’d explain it meant how are you and hand them a branded item for them to keep. 

Two people celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa Days and Principles

The last lesson she taught her coworkers was each of the 7 principles of Kwanzaa. She hoped her team members could learn something from each of the seven Kwanzaa days and bring it back to their own families. 

During their lunch break, she grabbed a whiteboard and wrote down each of the Kwanzaa symbols and principles they all needed to know.

  1. Umoja (Unity): Focuses on the importance of unity in family, community, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): Encourages individuals to define themselves, speak for themselves, and create for themselves.
  3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): Stresses the importance of working together to build and maintain a strong community.
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Promotes the idea of building and supporting businesses that benefit the community.
  5. Nia (Purpose): Encourages individuals to work together to build and develop their community in order to leave it better than they found it.
  6. Kuumba (Creativity): Encourages people to use their creative abilities to enrich their community.
  7. Imani (Faith): Emphasizes the importance of believing in and honoring the traditions of one’s ancestors, as well as one’s own abilities to create a better future.

Kwanzaa Candles aka Mishumaa Saba

She explained there are seven Kwanzaa candles that are red, black, and green. They are called Mishumaa Saba. She wrote on the whiteboard exactly what each candle represents:

  1. The Black Candles – African People
  2. The Red Candles – The Struggles
  3. The Green Candles – The Future

Happy Kwanzaa. African American holiday. Seven candles red, black and green
Happy Kwanzaa. African American holiday. Seven candles red, black and green

Linda sharing the origin, traditions, and meaning behind Kwanzaa with her coworkers was more than just a history lesson. It was an opportunity to educate her team members on her African heritage and the struggles she and her ancestors faced in the United States. 

So, next time you see a flag or a traditional African head scarf – don’t forget the meaning.

After the week-long history lesson, Linda’s manager purchased matching shirts for the whole office using their corporate swag store! The shirts were red, black, and green. They were bold, colorful, and filled with life. Before everyone left for winter break to spend some much-needed time with friends and family, they took group photos together to remind them of their workplace family and the memories they shared exploring everything about Kwanzaa.

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