Why You May Not Hear 'Happy Kwanzaa'

ByABC News
December 29, 2004, 4:26 PM

Dec. 29, 2004 -- -- Leaving the office last week, a black person on the street who recognized me from TV said: "Hi, Ms. Simpson. Happy Kwanzaa." I was a little taken aback but recovered in time to say, "Uh, and uh, Happy Kwanzaa to you." I never said that before.

How many black families do you know who celebrate the Kwanzaa holiday? There's only one person I know of here in Washington, D.C. -- and the stranger I encountered on the street was not that one.

I suspect you have all probably heard about Kwanzaa. It was started during the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. Kwanzaa, a Swahili word for "first fruits," was a wholly invented holiday for black people to begin on Dec. 26 and last through New Year's Day. For those seven days, people of African descent are to celebrate "the best of what it means to be African and human."

The holiday was thought up by an outspoken black liberation activist from California named Ron Karenga, head of a group called the Us Organization. In 1966, he decided black Americans should have their own version of a Christmas celebration. He made national news when he argued that it was ridiculous for young black children to seek out a jolly, fat white Santa Claus in the local mall and tell him what they wanted him to bring them on Christmas Eve. He said white Christians perpetuated the notion of "whiteness" being associated with Christmas celebrations -- a white baby Jesus, white angels singing on high and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," the best-selling record of all time.

Kwanzaa adopts the central symbol of Hanukkah, the lighting of candles. Instead of a Jewish menorah, Karenga came up with a candelabra called a "kinara" (another Swahili word). Each night of Kwanzaa, black people are supposed to light a red, green or black candle to observe one of the celebration's "Seven Guiding Principles" for respecting their African heritage. Each candle stands for one of the following: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.