Happy Kwanzaa! What you should know about the 50-year-old celebration

Kwanzaa was created to help African-Americans and pan-Africans reconnect with their culture and heritage.
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Today is the first day of Kwanzaa – a celebration created 50 years ago to help African-Americans connect with their culture and heritage.

Here's a look at where Kwanzaa comes from, and how it's celebrated.

How it started

Kwanzaa goes back to 1966 – it was created by a Dr. Maulana Karenga as an African-American and pan-African holiday to celebrate community and culture, and "came into being in the midst of a struggle," Karenga writes.

That was two years before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during a time of civil resistance from America's black community in the face of increasing violence and overt racism.

"Kwanzaa is a celebration of freedom, of the freedom struggle itself in which Kwanzaa is grounded, a celebration of our choosing to free ourselves and be ourselves, as Africans, and to rejoice in the richness of our history and culture of awesome and audacious striving and struggle,"Karenga writes.

A 'first fruits' celebration

The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase, "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits," History.com says.

The holiday is inspired by the traditional first harvest celebrations in Africa, like those by the Ashanti and the Zulu. Karenga combined these different aspects into one, to form the foundation of Kwanzaa in the U.S., according to the site.

The 7 principles

Kwanzaa lasts for seven days, from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, and the number seven is a key part of the celebration.

On each day, one of the "seven principles" is discussed and gets the focus. (In Swahili, the term is Nguzo Saba.) So for example, on the first day the principle is umoja, which means unity. The rest are:

  • Kujichagulia – self-determination
  • Ujima – collective work and responsibility
  • Ujamaa – cooperative economics
  • Nia – purpose
  • Kuumba – creativity
  • Imani – faith

There is also a candle-holder, with seven candles – one is black (representing people), three are red (representing the struggle), and three are green (the future, and the hope that comes with it).

On the first day, the black candle is lit, and family and loved ones talk about umoja; unity and togetherness.

How it's celebrated

From there, the candles are lit from left to right, starting with the three red candles and working through the green.

You can read more about the symbols and celebration here. History.com says families can have different traditions to exactly how they celebrate, but they often include "songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal."

And while the holiday is "clearly an African holiday created for African peoples," the official website says, anybody is welcome to celebrate.

"Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world," the site says.

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