‘A chance to come together’: What is Kwanzaa, and when is the … – USA TODAY

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  • As 2022 comes to an end, Kwanzaa is approaching.
  • The 7-day holiday begins Monday and ends on Jan. 1.
  • Here’s what to know about Kwanzaa, an “African American celebration that highlights the culture of the entire African diaspora.”

The end of the year brings many holiday traditions and gatherings with loved ones.   

Some families are already lighting their menorah or spinning a dreidel to celebrate Hanukkah. Some are decorating the Christmas tree and hanging stockings. And some might be preparing to light candles on a kinara during Kwanzaa. 

The name Kwanzaa comes from a phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Though it was started in the United States, the holiday has links to harvest festivals in Africa and communities around the world. 

But what is Kwanzaa? When does it start, and how is it observed? Here’s what you need to know. 

Celebrating Kwanzaa: The principles, traditions and everything else you need to know

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When does Kwanzaa start?  

Kwanzaa is an annual 7-day holiday that begins on Monday and ends on Jan. 1.  

What is Kwanzaa?  

Kwanzaa is an “African American celebration that highlights the culture of the entire African diaspora and gives the community a chance to come together to reflect upon important values,” Kelly E. Navies, a museum specialist in oral history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told USA TODAY.  

There is no specific religion associated with Kwanzaa, so people can celebrate Christmas or other holidays and practice Kwanzaa. That “allows it to unify people rather than divide on religious belief,” Navies explained.  

“I know people from all faiths who practice Kwanzaa, and that’s what makes it special,” she said. “It’s a unifying holiday.”    

Why is Kwanzaa celebrated?  

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, who currently serves as the chair of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach. 

The holiday is based on traditions from cultures across the continent of Africa, Navies explained.  

“(Karenga) found that there were these festivals, these first fruit festivals that are found throughout the continent that go back as far as ancient Egypt and come to the present day,” she said.  

“There are common values associated with these,” she noted. “Communitarian values, values about the community coming together to give thanks for the bounty of the year, to express reverence for creation, for their ancestors, for their elders. And these are the things that he wanted to transfer to the holidays that African Americans were celebrating, and also people throughout the African diaspora.”   

What do the seven days of Kwanzaa mean? What is a kinara?

A different value is celebrated on each of Kwanzaa’s seven nights. These values are marked by lighting candles on a holder called a kinara – which holds three red candles, three green candles and a black candle in the center.  

The seven principles of Kwanzaa include:  

  • Umoja, or unity 
  • Kujichagulia, or self-determination 
  • Ujima, or collective work and responsibility 
  • Ujamaa, or cooperative economics 
  • Nia, or purpose 
  • Kuumba, or creativity 
  • Imani, or faith 

People observing Kwanzaa may also display a Kikombe cha Umoja, or a unity cup that represents family and community, in addition to corn, which represents children, among other symbols. 

Some communities might celebrate by reading poetry or dancing, among other cultural festivities. And Navies said feasts are one of the most “exciting parts” of the holiday.  

“It often reflects the entire African diaspora, and there can be food from Southern American soul food, and food from the continent of Africa and food from Jamaica all in one piece. So that’s one of the most fun parts of Kwanzaa,” she said.  

How do you greet someone celebrating Kwanzaa?  

If you don’t practice Kwanzaa but want to greet a friend, coworker or family member who does, “happy Kwanzaa” is an appropriate greeting.

When two people who celebrate the holiday greet each other during the Kwanzaa, one may say “habari gani,” while the other responds with the the day of the holiday, such as umoja. 

Contributing: N’dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY; Kirby Adams, Louisville Courier Journal; Abbey Marshall, Akron Beacon Journal