Kwanzaa: What is it and why is it celebrated?

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Opalanga Pugh lights the seven candles of Kwanzaa in her Denver home on Dec. 16, 2003.
Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post/Getty

You don't have to be black to understand or appreciate the history behind Kwanzaa. Here are the top things non-Kwanzaa celebrators should know.

Kwa ... nz.. a?

While the holiday is pronounced "kwahn-zuh," it is spelled either Kwanzaa or Kwanza. The name stems from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits."

While the origin of the name is something to keep in mind, don't assume that every black person who celebrates speaks Swahili.

When is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 - Jan. 1. Each of the seven days focuses on the Nguzo Saba or the seven principles.

They celebrate with a candle holder that looks similar to a menorah; it's not.

The kinara holds seven candles - one black, three red, and three green, which represents the people, the struggle, and the future.

They also represent seven principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).

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Some people think Kwanzaa is a knock-off Hanukkah. It's not. Each holiday has it's own history and meaning.

Can they celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa?

Yes, the holidays are not mutually exclusive.

While - depending on your religious view - Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus (or the day Santa delivers toys for those who are nonreligious), Kwanzaa is a nonreligious holiday for African-American families to come together and celebrate their ancestral roots.

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

It's not a reason to get more gifts

While some may think, another week of gift giving, it's quite the opposite.

Kwanzaa isn't all about gifts, in fact, gifts usually aren't received until the last day. And even then, they are homemade rather than store-bought.

They are given to share values and beliefs around African-American heritage.