What Is Kwanzaa? 5 Things To Know About The Pan-African Holiday [PHOTOS]

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Kwanzaa, the pan-African holiday, kicks off today with a weeklong celebration of African culture and values. The African diaspora will celebrate the occasion by paying tribute to their roots and striving to lead better lives.

Here are five things to know about the holiday:

1.     Kwanzaa have a relatively short history compared to other traditional holidays

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, founder and chairman of the Black Nationalist Organization and current professor and chairman of Africana Studies at Cal State-Long Beach, as a way for African-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Kwanzaa got its name from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” the first-fruit celebrations in Africa thanking the gods for the harvest.  

2.     It’s not tied to a religion

While the first day of Kwanzaa starts on Dec. 26 – the day after Christmas – and is celebrated during the holiday season, it is not a religious holiday. The holiday ends on Jan. 1.

Although Karenga initially thought of Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas, he later changed his stance and encouraged African Christians and Africans of other religions to participate in Kwanzaa.

3.     Kwanzaa is rooted in seven principles

These principles are known as Nguzo Saba, and each value represents an aspect of African philosophy.

In his Kwanzaa 2013 message, Karenga explains the purpose of the principles:

“The Nguzo Saba stand out as a clear way to walk, work and struggle in the world as African people; a way of life that begins with the respect for the relational character of human life,” he wrote. “It is a cultural way we call communitarian, i.e., community-grounded, which understands that we come into being, develop and flourish relationships. And it is a way that teaches that the hub and hinge on which the whole of human life turns is the quality of relationships.”

The principles are: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-determination); Ujima (Collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).

A candle holder known as a kinara sets up seven candles, each representing one of the Kwanzaa principles. The kinara is lit during Kwanzaa.

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4.     Presents are exchanged, but at least some of the gifts should be educational

According to the official Kwanzaa website, which is maintained by Karenga, “Gifts are given mainly to children, but must always include a book and a heritage symbol. The book is to emphasize the African value and tradition of learning stressed since ancient Egypt, and the heritage symbol to affirm and reinforce the African commitment to tradition and history.”

5.     The Kwanzaa celebration

Kwanzaa observers are instructed to avoid mixing symbols of the holiday with other celebrations, such as Christmas.

“First, you should come to the celebration with a profound respect for its values, symbols and practices and do nothing to violate its integrity, beauty and expansive meaning,” the official Kwanzaa website advises. “Secondly, you should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture. This would violate the principles of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) and this would violate the integrity of the holiday.

“Thirdly, choose the best and most beautiful items to celebrate Kwanzaa. This means taking time to plan and select the most beautiful objects of art, colorful African cloth, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc., so that every object used represents African culture and your commitment to the holiday in the best of ways.”

Some of these items include the kinara, crops to symbolize African harvest celebrations, and corn, which represents children and the future.

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