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Kwanzaa: What Is It?

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The Kwanzaa celebration kicks off today and would you believe that two out of every five of you who read this just said, “what’s Kwanzaa?”

There’s such a lack of education surrounding the Kwanzaa celebration. As a matter of fact, a  “60 Minutes” and “Vanity Fair” poll found that only 60% of Americans knew Kwanzaa is a holiday that celebrates African-American heritage.

But wait, it gets worse.  23% said they had no idea what Kwanzaa is.   8% confused it with an abbreviated version of Ramadan and thought it was a “Muslim week of penance.” 6% thought it was a Nigerian term meaning an act of good will.  And 3% of people thought it was a city in the Ukraine.  I guess they confused it with Kiev?

If you have no idea what Kwanzaa is all about, it’s time to get yourself educated so that you don’t sound ignorant when it comes up in conversation.

Kwanzaa was created and first celebrated in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, an African-American professor of Africana Studies, activist and author. Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration which honors African heritage and which ends in a feast and gift-giving.

The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest”. Those who celebrate Kwanzaa decorate their homes with art,colorful African cloth and fresh fruits that represent African idealism.

On each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, the family gets together and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed. The principles are known as the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili) and each is a value of African culture which contributes to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans. The candle-lighting ceremony each evening gives those who celebrate the chance to get together and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa. The first night, the black candle in the center is lit. One candle is lit each evening and the appropriate principle is discussed.

The last day of the Kwanzaa celebration includes a huge feast and gift giving.

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