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Kwanzaa - December 26, 2013
Kwanzaa (or Kwaanza) is a week-long secular holiday honoring African-American heritage, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year, almost exclusively by African-Americans in the United States of America.
Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift-giving. It was founded by controversial black nationalist Ron Karenga, and first celebrated from December 26, 1966, to January 1 1967. Karenga calls Kwanzaa the African American branch of "first fruits" celebrations of classical African cultures.
History and etymology
Ron Karenga created Kwanzaa in California in 1966, during his leadership of the black nationalist United Slaves Organization (also known as the "US Organization"), in order to give African Americans an alternative holiday to Christmas. He later stated, "''...it was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.''"
Concerning those who thought he was adapting kwanzaa from a traditional African practice, Karenga noted "People think it's African, but it's not. I came up with Kwanzaa because black people wouldn't celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that's when a lot of Bloods were partying."
The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "''matunda ya kwanza''", meaning "first fruits". The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960's, though most African-Americans have West African ancestry.
An additional "a" was added to "Kwanza" so that the word would have seven letters. At the time there were seven children in Karenga's United Slaves Organization, each wanted to represent one of the letters in Kwanzaa Also, the name was meant to have a letter for each of what Karenga called the "Seven Principles of Blackness". Kwanzaa is also sometimes spelled "kwaanza".
It is a celebration that has its roots in the civil rights era of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with what Karenga characterized as their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study around principles that have their putative origins in what Karenga asserts are "African traditions" and "common humanist principles."
In 1967, a year after Karenga proposed this new holiday, he publicly espoused the view that "Jesus was psychotic" and that Christianity was a white religion that blacks should shun. However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so as not to alienate practicing Christians, then claiming in the 1997 ''Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture'', "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."
That same year the first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service on October 22 at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, California. In 2004 a second Kwanzaa stamp , created by artist Daniel Minter was issued which has seven figures in colorful robes symbolizing the seven principles .
Principles of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called "The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa", or ''Nguzo Saba'' (originally ''Nguzu Saba''), which Karenga claimed "is a communitarian African philosophy" consisting of Karenga's distillation of what he deemed "the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world." These seven principles comprise ''Kawaida'', a Swahili term for tradition and reason that Karenga used to refer to his synthesized system of belief. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, which are explained by Karenga as follows:
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth, especially the wearing of the Uwole by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, "''Kikombe cha Umoja''" passed around to all celebrants.
A model Kwanzaa ceremony is described as a ceremony which includes drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the "African Pledge" and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast. The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is "Habari Gani", Swahili words for "What's the News?"
At first, observers of Kwanzaa eschewed the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values and practice with other holidays. They felt that doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, many African-American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African-American roots, share space in kwanzaa celebrating households. To them, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.
It is unclear how many people celebrate the holiday. According to a marketing survey conducted by the National Retail Foundation in 2004, Kwanzaa is celebrated by 1.6% of all Americans, or about 4.7 million. In a 2003 interview Karenga asserted that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa.
In President George W. Bush's, as in several previous messages, he said that during Kwanzaa, "millions of African Americans and people of African descent gather to celebrate their heritage and ancestry."
Evolution in Kwanzaa's observance
In 1977, in ''Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice'', Karenga stated, that Kwanzaa "was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
In 1997, Karenga changed his position, stating that while Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday, it can be celebrated by people of any race: "other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans."
Currently, according to the Official Kwanzaa Website authored by Karenga and maintained by Organization US, which Karenga chairs, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one."
Karenga's most recent interpretation emphasizes that while every people have their various holiday traditions, all people can share in the celebration of our common humanity: "Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world."
There has been criticism of Kwanzaa's authenticity and relevance, and of the motivations of its founder, Karenga.
Some criticize Kwanzaa because it is not a traditional holiday of African people, and because of its recent provenance, having been invented in 1966. Black civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson wrote, "...the whole holiday is made up! You won't find its roots in Africa or anywhere else.". The origins of Kwanzaa, however, are not secret, and are openly acknowledged by those promoting the holiday. It was never advanced as an indigenous, African celebration.
Some are concerned that Christians who choose to celebrate Kwanzaa are diluting their love for Christ. In contrast, the African American Cultural Center considers Kwanzaa not a religious holiday, but a cultural one which does not require people to compromise their religious beliefs.
Other criticisms center on Karenga's criminal record, including time spent in jail for crimes against blacks, such as felonious assault and false imprisonment, which some critics, among them Les Kinsolving and William J. Bennetta, feel detract from Karenga’s claim that he created Kwanzaa to celebrate and strengthen the unity of black people.
Christian freelance writer, Carlotta Morrow, uses Karenga's own writings on her website to show his contradictions and true reasons for creating Kwanzaa. She writes that Karenga claims Kwanzaa was created as an alternative to Christmas in his early writings, but contradicts himself in his most recent writings by saying that Kwanzaa is not an alternative.
William Norman Grigg noted the seven-branch candle holder, the "Kinara," was not used in African traditions, and suggested a symbol of Judaism, the Menorah, was borrowed to match the seven principles of Kwanzaa. There is, however, a history of blacks in Judaism, going back to at least the time of Sheba. Also, historically for African-Americans, the Exodus, the "going forth" of the Children of Israel, has served as a metaphor for their struggle as a people.
There are those who regard much of the antagonism toward and derision of Kwanzaa on the part of non-blacks as a symptom of anti-black animus or racism. When President George W. Bush extended Kwanzaa greetings to the African-American community in a holiday message in 2005, controversial neocon columnist and commentator Ann Coulter responded with a racist ditty to the tune of "Jingle Bells": "Kwanzaa Bells, Dashikis Sell, Whitey Has To Pay; Burning, Shooting, Oh What Fun On This Made-Up Holiday!"
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