Celebrating Kwanzaa in Your Congregation

Dec 13, 2022 9:00:00 AM / by Rev. Carla Wilson

In most of our congregations, December is a time to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus. For Black/African Americans it is also a time for many families to celebrate Kwanzaa, a holiday invented by Dr. Mulana “Ron” Karenga in 1966. Because Kwanzaa is a cultural festival featuring aspects of many different African traditions, and not a religious holiday, it can absolutely be incorporated into congregational faith formation. Kwanzaa is a joyful way of supporting youth in multicultural celebration and learning. In the 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, Dr. Karenga stated that "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." Many Black/African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.

Kwanzaa is traditionally celebrated from December 26 through January 1, and each day of the seven-day holiday uplifts a different community-enriching value. The days and principles of Kwanzaa, known as the Nguzo Saba, are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Seven candles (or a single candelabra which holds seven candles, called a Kinara) are placed on a mat called a Mkeka. A candle is lit for each of the seven days as they are discussed and gifts relating to the themes (referred to as Zawadi) are exchanged. Juice or water is placed in a unity cup, called the Kikombe cha Umoja, and fresh fruits or corn, symbols of life and the rewards from hard work, are added for decoration. Traditional greetings include wishing friends a “Joyous Kwanzaa” or, continuing the use of Swahili words and phrases, greeting one another by saying, “Hbari gani?” (“What is the news?”) to which one answers with the principle of the day.

The eating of African foods or desserts and listening to African music or singing hymns from the African church and playing African percussion instruments can all enrich the honoring of this holiday. Practicing traditional African crafts such as weaving, clay, or bead work are also excellent hands-on activities. Learning about African-descent ancestors and members of the early church who have enriched our faith tradition is also an excellent activity. Tying these principles to Christian community and examples of how Jesus and the disciples call up to Christian community is also an important way to connect this celebration to faith formation. Many youth are unaware that the disciples specifically kept a common purse and shared their wealth to care for each other with equity. Examples of collective work and responsibility can be easily demonstrated in aspects of church service from being an acolyte to reading or cleaning up after worship. We practice unity when we sing together and self-determination when we affirm the different spiritual gifts that make up our diverse body of Christ.

It is important to remember that, while it is absolutely acceptable for non-Black people to celebrate Kwanzaa, its original purpose was to honor and educate around African and Black culture. We have the chance to show families and children of all ethnicities that God loves and is present in many ways and many places, not just familiar communities and neighborhoods. The more Kuumba, or creativity, you bring to uplifting the gifts of African Christians to the church and African culture to the world, the more you have the chance to promote empathy and cultural celebration among a new generation of faithful children.

Topics: Kwanzaa

Rev. Carla Wilson

Written by Rev. Carla Wilson

Still a professional diversity trainer and cultural competency consultant, The Rev. Carla Christopher Wilson also serves as Assistant to the Bishop in Charge of Justice Ministries for Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA. A former Poet Laureate of York, Pennsylvania and an adoring dog mom, Carla lives in Lancaster, PA with her family.


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