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Your FAQs About Kwanzaa Answered

Wondering whether you can celebrate Kwanzaa and Christmas? Wonder no more...

You've heard of Kwanzaa, and you know it goes down at the end of the year, but beyond that, perhaps you're a little confused. Here, at long last, are the answers to all of your Kwanzaa questions.

  • Who came up with Kwanzaa?
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    Kwanzaa was started by a professor named Dr. Maulana Karenga, who teaches at California State University, Long Beach, where he acts as the chair of Africana studies. Dr. Karenga holds two PhDs, one in political science, and one in social ethics.

  • Where does the name Kwanzaa come from?

    The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili word for "first fruits." Swahili is the language used for all Kwanzaa greetings as well, because it is a language that is spoken through much of Africa.

  • What religion celebrates Kwanzaa?

    People of various religions celebrate Kwanzaa, as do those who aren't religious at all. Kwanzaa is not intended to be a religious holiday, but rather a social one that celebrates unity within the African-American community.

  • So, if it's not a religious holiday, what's up with that menorah?
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    It's not a menorah. It's a kenara, or a candle holder used to hold the different candles that represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa. One candle is lit on each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. The black candle in the middle is always lit first, and lighting of the other candles starts on the outside of the kinara and alternates between red on the left and green on the right.

  • What are the principles that those candles represent?
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    The seven principles of Kwanzaa are: Kujichagulia (self determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). The colors of the candles also stand for significant concepts within the African-American community. Red candles represent the struggle to leave slavery; green candles represent the future, and the single black candle represents unity.

  • Are the items surrounding the kenara significant too?

    Yes. Kwanzaa celebrations are rich in symbolism, and all of the items that are traditionally set at the table have meaning. The woven baskets, for example, represent the Kwanzaa principle of collective labor. The corn that is set at the table represents the number of kids in the house - one for each kid. It is thus also a symbol for the future, another defining principle behind Kwanzaa.

  • Do you get presents on Kwanzaa?
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    Yes. It is common for gifts to be exchanged on Kwanzaa, but gift giving during the celebration is mostly focused on kids. Gifts given to kids should generally include some kind of book or heritage item. Many people celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas or Hanukkah, so it is common for kids to get gifts for both occasions.

  • Since when do people celebrate Kwanzaa, anyway?
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    In the summer of 1965, lethal, racially charged riots broke out in Watts, California. The rioting was so severe that it left 34 people dead and 1,000 injured. Dr. Karenga was deeply distressed by the rioting and wanted to create a holiday that stressed peace and heritage within the African-American circle. The first Kwanzaa was celebrated shortly after the idea's inception, on December 26, 1966.

  • So, is every dinner throughout Kwanzaa the same?

    Kwanzaa lasts a full week, but the most important dinner occurs on the sixth night. This meal is called the Karamu feast. At the Karamu feast, foods with African origins, such as couscous, lamb and okra are often served. It is also at this dinner that friends and family pass around the Unity cup, from which everyone present takes a sip, and then some of the beverage is poured out in honor of their ancestors and those who have died.

  • Are there Kwanzaa parades?

    There absolutely are. Cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Denver, host Kwanzaa parades, which use things like dance and music to spread the joy and spirit of unity at the center of the celebration.

  • What are some other big Kwanzaa events?

    Kwanzaafest, which takes place in Dallas, Texas is probably the biggest national Kwanzaa event. It generally occurs a week or so before Kwanzaa and hosts some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B. This year's performers included Schoolboy Q, Faith Evans and Teyana Taylor. In addition to a plethora of lively performers, Kwanzaafest also offers free healthcare services such as check ups and AIDS tests to attendees.

  • Do any celebs celebrate Kwanzaa?
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    Yup! Famous Kwanzaa celebrants include Angelina Jolie, the late poet Maya Angelou, NFL star Jim Brown, Oprah Winfrey, Holly Robinson Peete and her husband Rodney Peete, rapper Chuck D and many more.

  • How else is Kwanzaa a part of mainstream culture?
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    Lots of ways. Not least of which is the fact that the U.S. government has issued for Kwanzaa postal stamps, starting in 1997. The most recent Kwanzaa stamp was issued in 2013.