- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Holidays in America illuminate our winter calendars. We light candles, gather with family and friends and share celebratory meals for Christmas, the solstice, Hanukkah and, since 1966, Kwanzaa. Like most holidays, Kwanzaa involves family, friends and good food. It’s also easy and fun for children to get involved, from cooking to making homemade gifts to taking part in nightly rituals at the evening meal. Although Kwanzaa is culturally a black American holiday, its messages of unity, family, togetherness, creativity and strength can be incorporated into any family’s cultural lexicon, and it can be a celebration of all the things that blacks brought to this country and to our collective culture.

Kwanzaa was started by Maulana Karenga, now chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach, to celebrate the roots and modern identities of the black community.

Celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 yearly, Kwanzaa is neither a religious nor a political holiday. It is a nationally recognized, purely cultural holiday of celebration and remembrance centered around the seven principles of Kwanzaa: umoja, or unity; kujichagulia, self-determination; ujima, collective work and responsibility; ujamaa, cooperative economics; nia, purpose; kuumba, creativity; and imani, faith.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the word “kwanza,” which is Swahili for “first.” A popular harvest celebration in Africa is called “matunda ya kwanza,” or “first fruits.” The extra “a” was added to kwanza to make it seven letters long.

In Swahili, the vowels are pronounced much like Spanish vowels, and the stress is almost always on the second-to-last syllable. For example, the Swahili word for purpose, nia, is pronounced NEE-ah, and the word imani, or faith, is pronounced ee-MAH-nee. Once you get the hang of it, the pronunciations are easy, and children seem to enjoy practicing the Swahili words during the Kwanzaa celebration.

A great way to get children involved, even before the holiday begins, is by having them decorate the home in streamers, balloons and other items in the colors of Kwanzaa: red, green and black.

Try having them draw pictures of black heroes to display or decorate the tables in the house with African cloths. Because Kwanzaa gifts traditionally are simple or homemade, children can easily fashion gifts of their choice for the celebration. This also is a great time to introduce them to traditional African dress and hairstyles. All these preparations not only will create excitement, but will provide opportunities to explain the principles and symbols of the holiday.

There are seven symbols, representations of which are easy to find in gift shops specializing in the holiday. Once you have gathered all seven, you can ask the children to lay them out on the Kwanzaa table in preparation for the nightly celebrations.

The mkeka represents African roots. It is a woven mat usually made out of straw, but it also can be cloth or paper. Mazao, or fruit, represents the bounty of the harvest. These fruits usually are placed on the mkeka. The other symbols are the kikombe cha umoja, or cup of unity; the muhindi, or ears of corn, one for each child in the household; the zawadi, or Kwanzaa gifts; and the kinara, a candleholder for the seven Kwanzaa candles, or mishumaa saba.

The first three of the seven candles in the Kwanzaa kinara are red, symbolizing hard work and a rich life. The center candle, which is lighted on the first night of Kwanzaa, is black. This candle represents the African and African-American people. The last three candles are green, representing hope for the future.

Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven nights. Some people fast until sundown each day of Kwanzaa. (Children should not take part in the fast.) Each night, the Kwanzaa meal begins with the lighting of the candle for the day and discussion of one of the seven principles. Try teaching your children to begin each night’s celebration by saying to one another, “Ha Bari Gani?” (“What is the news?”) and then answering with the Swahili word for the principle of that day. After the discussion, select one person to pour a little water from the unity cup in honor of dead ancestors. Then sit down and share your Kwanzaa meal together.

As with holidays around the world, Kwanzaa means lots of good food. This food traditionally is a mix of ingredients popular in Africa, such as yams (or sweet potatoes), peanuts and okra, and the traditional American soul food, which, of course, varies greatly throughout the United States but might include dishes such as black-eyed peas and rice, fried chicken, cornmeal mush or corn bread, sweet potatoes and coconut cake, or Caribbean foods such as red beans and rice.

Chicken fried or cooked with coconut is another popular Kwanzaa food. Cooking is a great way to get children involved in the holiday. This is the time to bring out family recipes as well as traditional African foods that your children might never have tasted before.

Dec. 31 is the night of the feast, or the karamu. This is the night to include song, dance, prayer, drumming or any other celebratory events. Children love to participate in the karamu by performing their own skits, dances or songs. Although gift giving is not central to Kwanzaa, if you do choose to exchange gifts, this is the night to do so.

At the end of the karamu feast, you might choose someone in the group to offer a farewell speech. The night is traditionally closed by the participants all shouting “Harambee” together seven times. “Harambee,” Swahili for “Let’s pull together,” is a joyful and noisy way to end the holiday. It also reminds us of how the principles of Kwanzaa can illuminate our lives every day of the year.

Here are a few easy and fun recipes that you can make with children for the Kwanzaa holiday.

Kwanzaa chicken chews

Children love to make these easy chicken chews, but they love to eat them even more.

1 cup of sweetened coconut

1 cup flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast

2 eggs, beaten

⅓ cup melted butter

1 jar apricot preserves

Combine coconut, flour, salt and pepper in a heavy-duty resealable plastic bag. Cut chicken breast into 1-inch strips. Dip chicken strips into beaten egg, then place in plastic bag and shake until chicken is coated with the coconut mixture. Place coated chicken strips in a shallow nonstick baking pan. Drizzle melted butter over chicken, and bake it in 400-degree oven for 25 minutes, turning once, or until chicken is cooked through. Serve Kwanzaa chicken chews with apricot preserves as a dipping sauce. Makes about 2 dozen.

Holiday sweet-potato fritters

Children love these crispy treats and can help with every step of this recipe except for the frying.

1 small onion, chopped

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and shredded coarsely.

3 eggs

3 tablespoons flour

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Vegetable oil, for frying

Spread onion and potatoes on a clean, dry towel. Roll up the towel and twist it tightly to blot out moisture. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, flour, salt and pepper until mixture has no lumps. Stir in onion and potatoes.

In a large skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to about 350 degrees on a hot-oil thermometer. (Keep children away from cooking oil. It will spatter and splash and could burn.) Ladle about 1 heaping tablespoon of batter per fritter into the skillet, as though you are making pancakes. Again, be watchful of children, as the oil may spatter when the batter hits it. You should be able to make four fritters at a time.

Flatten fritters with a spatula and fry for four minutes on each side, or until golden. (You may need to fry for a little less time or a little more, depending on the heat of your burner.) Drain fritters on paper towels. Add more oil as needed to fry remaining fritters. Serve warm. Makes about 6 servings.

Benne cakes

These are delicious, although they are more like cookies. “Benne” is the Swahili word for sesame seeds.

1 cup sesame seeds

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

¼ cup butter, softened

1 egg, beaten

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 cup flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, stirring constantly, or until seeds just start to turn color.

Cream together brown sugar and butter. Stir in egg, vanilla and lemon juice. Add flour, baking powder, salt and toasted sesame seeds. Drop batter by rounded spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet, allowing about 2 inches between each mound of batter. Bake in 325-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until edges of cookies are browned. Makes about 3 dozen.

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