Kwanzaa has always been one of the world’s most exciting holidays, especially in North America. It is a burst of light and color, of sun and laughter, emerging brightly into the coldest and darkest days of the year. It’s a celebration of heritage, but it isn’t one stuck in the past. It creates a vibrant tapestry of the past, present, and future, looking toward the next day while honoring the last.
Kwanzaa is a unique holiday in that it comes after Christmas, but unlike Dia de la Reyes, or Three Kings Day, it isn’t a strict continuation of it. It is its own holiday, one forged during difficult times to create something beautiful. It is an inclusive celebration of community, one that is uniquely American, but that reaches across the ocean and across the vast, vibrant, and diverse nations of Africa.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of family and community and, as such, is a perfect occasion for gift giving. Whether you pick out Kwanzaa gifts to make or buy, the act of exchange is what brings people together. It’s saying that in these dark days, whether that refers to the early sunset or the challenges of life, there is brightness. There is hope. There are the smiles that come from two people connecting, from a group of people remembering what matters. Family. Community. And the love they share.
Why Kwanzaa Matters
1966 was a difficult year for much of the African American community. Systemic oppression boiled over in the destructive Watts riots, and the Civil Rights movement had begun to fracture. Into that heat stepped Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University in Long Beach. He researched traditional “first fruit” or harvest festivals in various African cultures, and combined these varying and beautiful ceremonies into something bigger. Kwanzaa isn’t just one holiday; Kwanzaa is pulled from the traditions of many different nations, including the Zulu and the Ashanti.
It is, in short, synthesis. It’s a combination of many similar, though unique, feasts and festivals, and through them it creates something new. That’s the spirit of Kwanzaa. Each family celebrates it differently—and each community forges their own traditions, borrowing and swapping and sharing.
Every community, every family, and every person who adds or alters the feasts, and dances a little bit, adds themselves to the tapestry. They add their own personality, their own quirks, and their own individual love to the celebrations. They are giving a gift. And that gift, that generosity of spirit, is what Kwanzaa embodies: That through our love for each other we are stronger against the darkness. There is light between us.
Homemade Kwanzaa Gifts to Make
Handcrafting a gift is a great way to demonstrate that you are taking the time to make something special for someone. And, it’s especially appropriate for Kwanzaa, a holiday that celebrates traditional ways of doing things.
Here are some ideas for people with the tools and time to handcraft presents, but for the rest of us, don’t worry: there are links to purchase similar items, and more handmade crafts to buy in the next section.
- A Kinara, or candle holder: Candles hold great significance at Kwanzaa, signifying unity, self-determination, cooperative economics, work and responsibility, purpose, faith, and creativity. A wooden candleholder celebrates all those virtues. There are easy ways to use reclaimed wood for DIY projects if you are so inclined. Pairing them with symbolically important and beautiful Kwanzaa candles completes the gift.
- A quilt or tapestry: A quilt is a story. It can tell many tales through pictures and even non-representational art, literally weaving the beautiful stories and legends of Kwanzaa, like Anansi and his Sons, into something heartfelt and lasting.
- A Kwanzaa scrapbook. A scrapbook or album filled with stories, memories, pictures of Kwanzaa past, song lyrics, recipes, and more is an incredible way to treasure the past while leaving room for the future. It’s in the perfect spirit of the holiday.
Kwanzaa Gifts to Give, Pre-Made
We admit that not everyone has the time to weave a quilt or forge a Kinara. But there are plenty of gifts you can give that are pre-made from local artisans and African craftspeople.
- African art: Each mask tells a different story of a different culture. Each hand-carved animal has a legend. There is folklore, from Ghana to Kenya and from the Sudan to South Africa. Across this vast and diverse continent there is a rich heritage that is explored through traditional art. These are gifts imbued with meaning that will last a lifetime.
- Kwanza storybooks for children: Kids need to know their heritage and traditions, and, as has happened for thousands of years, these are passed down orally. A Kwanzaa storybook is a way to keep the tradition of storytelling alive, so they can read, remember, and then pass it down to their own children someday.
- Traditional instruments: Music and songs are a huge part of any Kwanzaa celebration, whether that’s a traditional zeze like they play in Tanzania or the smooth sounds of the late and lamented Teddy Pendergrass above. Buying an instrument for someone keeps that tradition alive, and allows them to create songs all their own.
A Gift Exchange for This Year’s Kwanzaa
We’ve talked about how big a deal gifts are for Kwanzaa. It isn’t about the receiving, but about the giving, that alchemy of connection which transcends land and time and cultures. And whether you are near or far from your loved ones, sometimes the best way to celebrate this is with an online gift exchange program.
An online gift exchange is like a normal Secret Santa, only it allows for total anonymity and lets the recipient craft their list, update it, be asked questions by their Secret Santa, and be shipped a gift without giving away the game. This is perfect for large groups, or for those who are celebrating Kwanzaa far away from each other.
It’s a great way to celebrate any tradition, with technology so seamless you don’t even notice it. It can’t be hijacked by Zomo, the trickster rabbit. It just allows for people to come together, sharing their gifts, both literal and personal, sharing their love, and joining together as a community.
It might be cold outside, and the night may bring darkness, but inside there is light. Inside there is love. Inside, there is togetherness. That is Kwanzaa.