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What is Kwanzaa?

Seven-year olds now come home from school talking about Kwanzaa. Stores offer Kwanzaa greeting cards. Libraries display children’s books on Kwanzaa. But many Americans have no clue what Kwanzaa is or why it is celebrated.

In the 1960s, Dr. Maulana Karenga, who is now chair and professor of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach, traveled to Africa. He returned to America with the idea of creating a holiday to promote unity among African-Americans and provide them with identity and purpose. So in 1966, Karenga formed this new American holiday which is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 each year.
In crafting Kwanzaa, Karenga borrowed from African culture. For centuries tribes and communities in Africa have gathered to sing, dance, eat and drink and to celebrate the harvest. The people bring food they have grown or items they have made. Karenga borrowed traditions and customs from these African celebrations, and he chose Swahili, an East African language, to express the principles, ceremonies and symbols for this new holiday. In seeking to make the holiday distinctly American, Karenga added an “a” to the Swahili word Kwanza, which means “first fruits.”
Karenga developed the following seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, as the basis for Kwanzaa:
–Umoja promotes unity. African-Americans must strive for unity in the family, community, nation and race.
–Kujichagulia calls for self-determination. African-Americans must decide who they are as a group and as individuals.
–Ujima encourages collective work and responsibility. African-Americans must work together to build community and to solve problems together.
–Ujamaa demands cooperative economics. African-Americans must support each other in establishing and maintaining businesses.
–Nia stands for purpose. African-Americans must make their collective vocation the building and development of  their community.
–Kuumba means creativity. African-Americans must seek to use their unique gifts to create more successful communities.
–Imani demands faith. African-Americans must have faith in themselves and believe in their worth as individuals and a race.
Karenga identified seven symbols for Kwanzaa to aid in understanding the seven principles and to represent the deeper meanings and history of this celebration. These seven symbols are:
–The mkeka is a mat made of straw or fabric. It represents tradition or history.
–The kinara is a wooden candle holder. It holds the seven candles that symbolize the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
–The mishumaa saba are the kinara’s seven candles. A black candle is placed in the center, representing the unity of the African peoples. It also represents the richness of the black skin. Three green candles, symbolizing the hope that the future offers, are placed on the right side of the kinara. Three red candles, symbolizing the struggle for equality and freedom, are placed on the left. For each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, one of the seven candles is lit to celebrate one of the seven principles.
–The muhindi or ears of corn represent fertility and potential. An ear of corn is placed on the mkeka or the mat for each child in the family.
–Mazao are also placed on the mkeka. Mazao are fruits and vegetables which symbolize the earth’s abundance. 
–Kikombe cha umoja is a cup. It symbolizes unity, and on the first and last days of Kwanzaa, wine or juice is drunk from the cup by all who are present.
–The zawadi are the gifts given to the children on the last day of Kwanzaa. Adults give these gifts to reward the children’s successful efforts in meeting their parents’ expectations as well as their own expectations and commitments. The gifts are home-made as an expression of Kuumba or creativity. 
Kwanzaa has grown in popularity every year since its creation, and roughly 5 million African -Americans will participate in this year’s celebration.
Pam Durso is assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.