15 Things everyone should know about Kwanzaa

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Kwanzaa, established during the peak of the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s, is an African-American and Pan-African holiday focused on reconstructing and affirming familial, communal and cultural bonds. Though just over 50 years old, Kwanzaa's beginnings can be traced back centuries to ancient first-fruits celebrations across the African continent wherein communities gather to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest, while recommitting themselves to shared cultural values.

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Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966

Dr. Maulana Karenga and others founded the Organization Us in 1965 in direct response to that summer's Watts Riots, a series of violent confrontations between California National Guardsmen, Los Angeles police and civilians in the predominantly black Watts neighborhood. Long-simmering frustrations over unfair and racially biased housing policies, underfunded schools and more flared following a traffic stop. Over six days, 34 people died, more than 1,000 others were injured and 4,000 were arrested. Out of this struggle, Karenga and Organization Us grew. A year later, Karenga introduced Kwanzaa.

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Kwanza means 'first' in Kiswahili

The word "Kwanzaa" comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," or first fruits. After Arabic, Kiswahili is the second most understood language in Africa. Kiswahili functions as a lingua franca, a common language by which speakers of other native languages can communicate.

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There was a spelling change

While Kwanzaa is spelled with six letters in the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," the holiday is often spelled with seven. At the time of Kwanzaa's creation, seven children involved with the Organization Us each wanted to represent a letter in the new holiday's name. The adults obliged, and a third "a" was added.

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Kwanzaa was formed out of the Kawaida philosophy

Throughout the latter half of the 1960s, Karenga and the Organization Us developed the philosophy of Kawaida. Kawaida centers culture and community as the mandatory basis of any liberation movement and fundamental to all people's identity. This means engaging in cultural resistance by bringing forth new ideas to the culture and reaching back toward the past to reclaim old ones.

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It is a cultural, not religious, holiday

Kwanzaa does not hold claim to any single religion. For this reason, it is celebrated by people of all faiths or lack thereof. The focus is not on religion but on furthering a set of shared values and culture.

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Celebrations run for a whole week

The holiday runs for a full week, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. This is specifically modeled after Southern African first-fruits celebrations, which traditionally run seven days. It also allows for seven days to coincide with the seven principles, or the "Nguzo Saba."

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There are seven principles, the 'Nguzo Saba'

The seven principles are: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). First, unity among family, community, nation and race. Then, freedom to define, name and speak for oneself. A collective responsibility to create a better future. And, finally, continued faith in the community's eventual victory.

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Seven candles, the Mishumaa Saba, are lit on the kinara

The Nguzo Saba are represented by seven candles called the Mishumaa Saba. On the first day of Kwanzaa, the black candle, symbolizing Umoja (unity), is lit. The rest of the week, families light six more candles from left to right, starting with three red candles representing self-determination, cooperative economics and creativity, followed by three green candles representing collective work and responsibility, purpose and faith. The kinara, the candleholder, is symbolic of continental Africa.

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The candle colors have a deeper meaning

The unity candle, placed at the center of the kinara, is black for the people. The candles to its left are red for the struggle and the candles to its right are green for the future.

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There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa

In addition to seven letters in the name, seven principles, seven candles and seven days, there are seven symbols. We've already covered two: the Mishumaa Saba and kinara. The Mkeka or mat is symbolic of tradition, the foundation on which all else is built. All other symbols are placed on the Mkeka. The Mazao, crops, call back to the first-fruits and harvest celebrations Kwanzaa was modeled after. Muhindi, corn, represents children while Zawadi, the gifts given to them by parents, are a showing of commitment and love. The Kikombe cha Umoja, the unity cup, rounds out the final group of seven.

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People are greeted with 'Habari gani,' meaning 'how are you?' in Kiswahili

Responses to this universal greeting depend on which day it is and which symbolic candle is being lit. On Day 1 of Kwanzaa, for example, the response to "Habari gani" would be "Umoja," or unity.

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Dec. 31 marks Karamu, a day of feasting

On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, family and loved ones gather for Karamu, which typically involves plenty of food, guest speakers and performers. The traditional Karamu program includes a Kukaribisha (welcoming), Kuumba (remembering), Kuchunguza Tena Na Kutoa Ahadi Tena (reassessment and recommitment), Kushangilla (rejoicing) and the reading of the Tamshi la Tambiko, a libation statement, as water is poured in the four cardinal directions.

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There are gift guidelines

Kwanzaa gifts are mostly reserved for children. Included in the gift-giving must be a book and heritage symbol to keep with the values expressed in the Nguzo Saba. Handmade or artistic gifts are common during Kwanzaa, as they reflect Kuumba and Nia, creativity and purpose. So are gifts purchased at black-owned and -operated businesses as they promote Ujamaa, cooperative economics. Gifts are exchanged on the holiday's last day, Jan. 1.

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Kwanzaa ends with meditation

Along with the gift-giving, the first day of a new year is marked with meditation and assessment. People are asked to reflect on core Kawaida questions including: "Who am I?" "Am I who I say I am?" And "Am I all I can be?" Jan. 1 is a time to remember the past and once again commit oneself to the values symbolized by the lit candles on the kinara.

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It's hard to know how many people celebrate Kwanzaa

Numbers on how many people celebrate Kwanzaa are hard to come by and vary greatly. One national 2012 survey found that 4% of respondents primarily celebrated Kwanzaa. However, Kwanzaa, unlike many other holidays, can be celebrated alongside other traditions. Still, other researchers have estimated half a million to 2 million people in the United States celebrate Kwanzaa. Regardless of how many, the holiday is dear to the communities who have adopted the tradition and stand proudly for the values it represents. Kwanzaa's ideals like creativity, faith, unity and gratitude are not reserved for a single week, but should be shown every day.

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