Holidays 101: Who Celebrates Kwanzaa?

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Kwanzaa is celebrated by Africans and African Americans around the world. It was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, and it honors African culture through celebrations like songs, food and dance.

The word "Kwanzaa" translates to "first fruits" in Swahili. It is celebrated in different ways by families of differing communities, tribes and countries. However, Kwanzaa is a day that honors African culture and the impact of African nations on the world. In addition to songs and dances, people celebrate Kwanzaa with storytelling and African drumming. Some people also include poetry reading in their Kwanzaa celebrations. Food is an important part of the holiday too, and a Kwanzaa celebration usually includes a large traditional meal.

Kwanzaa's History
Although Kwanzaa is a holiday that celebrates the cultures of Africa, it was actually created in the United States. The concept of Kwanzaa was developed by Dr. Karenga, who was a professor at California State University at Long Beach. Dr. Karenga wanted a way to unite African and African American communities around the world following the Watts race riots in Los Angeles. To accomplish his mission, Dr. Karenga put together a cultural organization in the U.S. to look for "first fruit" celebrations in Africa. He pulled together concepts from several such celebrations, including the Ashanti and Zulu celebrations, to create Kwanzaa.

Principles of Kwanzaa
The entire Kwanzaa celebration takes place during a period of seven days. Each day is marked by lighting a candle on the Kinara, which is a special candleholder. A series of seven principles, which are central to the holiday, are read throughout the week. Traditionally, one principle is read aloud each day of the holiday, and the meaning of that principle is discussed by the family. These principles are called the Nguzo Saba. They are traditional principles in Swahili. Collectively, the seven principles demonstrate the values of African culture, which emphasize the importance of communities and building bonds that hold communities together. In addition to the seven principles, there are seven symbols associated with Kwanzaa. Together, they represent the values and important concepts that are central to African cultures. The Kwanzaa celebration culminates with a large feast, called the Karamu, which is held on December 31.

Honoring Agricultural Traditions of Kwanzaa
In addition to community and humanity, Kwanzaa pays tribute to agriculture and harvests as agriculture is an important component of many African societies. One of the seven symbols that is a part of the Kwanzaa holiday is called Mazao, which represents important crops like fruits, vegetables and nuts. Mazao honors the hard work that people put into collecting crops during the harvest season, and the celebration at the end of the harvest. Mazao acknowledges that the collection of crops is often a community effort, and it emphasizes the value of teamwork and communal bonds. Mazao also conveys the value of the family unit, as families are the backbone of communities. During Kwanzaa, people in families reaffirm their commitment to and responsibilities within their families. During the Mazao discussion, people put symbolic fruits, nuts and vegetables on their mkekas, which are placemats that are made of cloth or straw. Mkekas, which come from Africa, symbolize culture, history and traditions of the African nations.