Why You May Not Hear 'Happy Kwanzaa'

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.

It sounds like a nice tradition. But a very limited number of African-Americans follow it. In scattered parts of the country -- the Bay Area of California, the city of Denver -- there are big observances. A lot of black churches encourage congregants to use the tradition to instill pride of Africa in their children.

Checking with friends and relatives throughout the country, I found none of them celebrates this African-American winter holiday, and they said they knew only one or two other families who do. Yet there's a U.S. postal stamp for Kwanzaa, greeting cards, wrapping paper and gala Kwanzaa balls, where everyone dresses in colorful African garb. You'll also hear local TV stations wish their viewers "Happy Kwanzaa," like you'll hear "Happy Hanukkah" and "Merry Christmas." President Bush even issued a Kwanzaa message last year.

The New York Times reports that up to 18 million people worldwide celebrate Kwanzaa. That's hard to believe. After visits to 11 African countries, I never found any Africans who celebrate Kwanzaa. In December, in those hot, sun-drenched countries, you will see Christmas decorations with Nativity scenes, Santa Claus, his reindeer and snowmen. You can even hear from the record stores the strains of songs like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Jingle Bells." It is so incongruous.

Ron Karenga now is Dr. Maulana Karenga and is chairman of the black studies program at California State University in Long Beach. He is still a staunch advocate of Kwanzaa. It just seems that during this holiday season, black Americans -- like the majority of other Americans -- find celebrating just Christmas and New Year's is enough.

Pan-Africanism (all black peoples coming together) popped up periodically during the 20th century. The Back to Africa movement could make a comeback and Kwanzaa might someday be more widely observed. But at this point in time, saying "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas" to African-Americans seems to be sufficient.

For those who do celebrate the black holiday, "Happy Kwanzaa."