Kwanzaa 2021: What to know about the holiday

The holiday celebrating African culture and heritage lasts from Dec. 26 to Jan 1.

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Each year, December 26th marks the beginning of the seven-night celebration of PanAfrican culture, known as Kwanzaa. 6abc's Sharrie Williams breaks down the origins, 7 principles and traditions of the holiday.

Dec. 26 marks the beginning of Kwanzaa, the seven-night celebration of Black and African family, community and culture.

The holiday has grown to be celebrated by millions across the world, strengthening roots to both African heritage and the African community as a whole.

Here's what you need to know about Kwanzaa:

What are the origins of the holiday?

Dr. Maulana Karenga greets people during the "First Day of Issuance" dedication ceremony for the U.S. Postal Service's first-ever Kwanzaa stamp, in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 1997.
Reed Saxon/AP

Dr. Maulana Karenga, an influential professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the Black Freedom Movement.

The origins of the non-religious holiday are tied back to the first harvest celebrations in Africa, according to the official holiday website.

What does Kwanzaa mean?

Kwanzaa decoration at the 5th Annual Regeneration Night Kwanzaa Celebration at The Apollo Theater on Dec. 30, 2011 in New York City.
Shahar Azran/Getty

The name of the holiday comes directly from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" meaning "first fruits." Celebrations surrounding "first fruits" have a deep history in African culture and major religions, although Kwanzaa itself is not a religious holiday.

What do the colors red, green and black symbolize?

This photo taken Dec. 8, 2009 shows Ruth Ndiagne Dorsey with a Kwanzaa setting set up for a media photo at her church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna, in Atlanta.
AP Photo/John Amis

The official Kwanzaa website says that black symbolizes the people, red for their struggle and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle. Black, red and green candles are lit on the Kinara, a candle holder, during the holiday.

How is Kwanzaa celebrated?

Many join hands during the annual Kwanzaa celebration at the Museum of Natural History, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004, in New York.
AP Photo/Jennifer Szymaszek

During the holiday, families and communities organize around what are known as the seven principles, or Nguzo Saba.

The seven principles include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

People celebrate with feasts, also known as karamu, music, dance, poetry, narratives and gifts that are encouraged to be educational and promote African heritage.

The holiday ends with a day that is dedicated to reflection and recommitment to the Seven Principles and other core cultural values.

What are the seven symbols of Kwanzaa?

The Tonel LaKay Drum and Dance ensemble performs during the annual Kwanzaaa celebration at the Museum of Natural History, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004, in New York.
Jennifer Szymaszek/AP

The seven symbols of Kwanzaa are the Kinara, a candle holder; Mishumaa Saba, seven candles; Mkeka, the mat; Mazao, crops; Muhindi, ears of corn; Kikombe Cha Umoja, a unity cup; and Zawadi, gifts.

At the beginning of the holiday, a central place in the home is chosen to spread out an African cloth on a table, then the mat, followed by the other symbols, like the candle holder, crops, corn and unity cup.

Who can celebrate Kwanzaa?

Third-graders at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic School in Denver celebrate and learn about Kwanzaa on Dec. 17, 2003.
Kathryn Osler/The Denver Post/Getty

While the holiday honors both African American and Pan-African culture, anyone is welcome to celebrate Kwanzaa. Additionally, because Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday in nature, it can be celebrated alongside other major religious and secular holidays.