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The History of Kwanzaa

A non-religious holiday, Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage, pride, community, family, and culture. The seven-day festival commences the day after Christmas and culminates on New Year's Day.

Inspired by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and based on ancient African celebrations, Kwanzaa has become increasingly popular over the last decade. More than 20 million people celebrate in the United States, Canada, England, the Carribean and Africa.

Kwanzaa's ancient roots lie in African first-fruit harvest celebrations, from which it takes its name. The word Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits."

Those roots are the foundation on which the modern holiday was built. Maulana Karenga, an African-American scholar and activist, conceived Kwanzaa in 1966 following the Watts riot. Currently, Karenga is chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach.

Karenga says Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental activities common to other African first-fruit celebrations:1

  • the ingathering of family, friends, and community;

  • reverence for the creator and creation (including thanksgiving and recommitment to respect the environment and heal the world);

  • commemoration of the past (honoring ancestors, learning lessons and emulating achievements of African history);

  • recommitment to the highest cultural ideals of the African community (for example, truth, justice, respect for people and nature, care for the vulnerable, and respect for elders); and

  • celebration of the "Good of Life" (for example, life, struggle, achievement, family, community, and culture).

Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, United Press International, San Francisco Chronicle, Encarta 96 Encyclopedia

1From Karenga's contribution to Encarta 96 Encyclopedia

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