What You Should Know About Celebrating Kwanzaa

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By Kiki, Guest Author - December 12, 2014 - Updated December 13, 2014

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I celebrate Kwanzaa, a holiday that honors family, community and culture. My family and I have done so for years. In this climate of religious and cultural intolerance in America, I can sympathize with Muslims here who feel like outsiders.

Many white Americans are suspicious and fearful of Kwanzaa. Like other holidays that are celebrated predominantly by people of color -- such as Ramadan, Juneteenth, Hispanic Heritage Month -- Kwanzaa ought to be an opportunity for those who are unfamiliar with it to learn more.

It is a seven-day, Pan-African, secular holiday that has cultural roots. Because of its Swahili name and because it begins the day after Christmas, many folks think Kwanzaa is a religious holiday. Many refer to it as the "black Christmas."

Its origins are from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But because of founder Ron Karenga's former ties to the United Slaves Organization, a black nationalist group, Kwanzaa is constantly attacked for being separatist and black nationalist.

It is neither.

Over the years, there have been quite a few non-African-Americans present at our gatherings, and the atmosphere has been celebratory. People who are not of African descent are happy to be included because they often have family members or friends who participate.

Kwanzaa's seven principles -- of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith -- are ones that many people, irrespective of background, can appreciate.

Millions of people, regardless of race or religion, now celebrate Kwanzaa worldwide. But even as our communities become increasingly multicultural and cross-cultural, acceptance has diminished for those who don't follow mainstream traditions around this time of year.

In the age of terror, we would all benefit to learn more about one another, and to embody Kwanzaa's ideals of happiness, unity and peace.

Here are some KWANZAA questions and answers:

Q: Isn’t Kwanzaa a made-up holiday?

A: Yes, it was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga. But a lot of holidays are made up. What matters isn’t the origin of the holiday but the meaning we give to it.

Q: Isn’t Kwanzaa the black Christmas?

A: Kwanzaa starts the day after Christmas. And because of its proximity to Christmas and because it is an African-American holiday, it’s often mistakenly called the black Christmas. But most African-Americans celebrate Christmas on December 25th.

Q: Can non-African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa?

A: According to the founder, “other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans.”

Q: Aren’t the values of Kwanzaa exclusive to African-Americans?

A: Quite the contrary. The seven principles of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith — apply universally.

Q: What language is the word Kwanzaa from?

A: Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, the largest spoken language on the African continent. Kwanza, with one “a,” literally means “first fruit.” Many African countries have celebrations of the first harvest of the year.

Q: What African countries celebrate Kwanzaa?

A:  None. Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday, created and celebrated in the United States.

Q: Wasn’t the founder a separatist, felon and anti-white?

A: Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Evert) founded Kwanzaa and co-founded US (Us Black People), a black nationalist and social change organization. Karenga did have a felony conviction. He is a nationalist, but not a separatist, and there is no information about his being anti-white, just pro-black.

Q: Doesn’t Kwanzaa have the same number of candles and candleholders as Hanukkah?

A: No, the candleholder in Kwanzaa is called a kinara and holds seven candles. Hanukkah has a menorah, which holds eight or nine candles, depending on whether you count the Shamash (candle used to light the others).

Q: Do you have to celebrate all seven days?

A: Like most multi-day holidays, folks celebrate when they can and on various levels. Personally, I have never celebrated all seven days.

To the millions of people who will celebrate Kwanzaa, I say, “Harambee,” or, “Let’s all pull together.” I also say, “Happy Kwanzaa!” and "Happy Holidays" to be inclusive.

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