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CRES Tree021209 Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 to call African-Americans to an awareness of a common heritage despite their many countries of origin and individual family histories, by Dr Maulana “Ron” Karenga (who became chair of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach).

Originally described as a “cultural” rather than a “religious” holiday, and still unlisted in most books on religion, it has since taken on spiritual significance for many of those who celebrate the seven-day holiday.

While its meaning is unrelated to either Christmas or Hanukkah, its dates (December 26-January 1) associate it with the Christmas holiday; and its lighting of seven candles in a kinara (candelabrum) recalls the eight candles (plus the server) in the Hanukkah menorah, corresponding to the days of the Jewish festival.

Kwanza means “first” in Swahili. An additional “a” was added to the festival’s name make the word seven letters long.

During Kwanzaa, friends and family celebrate their African-American heritage by exchanging symbolic, rather than extravagant, gifts.

The cultural significance of Kwanzaa lies in seven fundamental principles: Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. The seven principles are represented by seven candles (three red, one black, and three green) placed in a special candelabrum.

The holiday is increasingly observed by those who want to affirm solidarity with African-Americans and who cherish the values promoted by Kwanzaa.

© Copyright 2000 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS

Kwanzaa has grown beyond culture

A caller wants to know why I wrote about Kwanzaa. “The holiday is cultural, not religious.” Indeed, this is the way Maulana Karenga, its creator, conceived of it in 1966. Even today it appears in few books on religion.

MusiciansHowever, when I researched Kwanzaa in 1995 in Los Angeles where it originated, I learned that it had become an important religious observance. The Rev. Cecil Murray of the Los Angeles First AME Church justified this “because (Kwanzaa) deals with the totality of human experience, and religion is what ties human experience together.” He called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, one of which is faith, “a supplement to the Ten Commandments.”

This year, according to Janet Moss, executive director of Congregational Partners, members of the Leawood Cure of Ars Roman Catholic Church explained how they observed the Christmas-Epiphany holiday cycle with members of the Kansas City Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, who in turn explained Kwanzaa.

The caller may be correct in thinking the holiday does not belong to any particular religion, but it helps to “tie human experience together” with religious power.

Another example. Martin Luther King Jr was Christian, but his study, his work and his outreach was not confined to one faith. Is the King holiday cultural or also religious? Kwanzaa may be disputed, but the answer on King is increasingly clear.

© Copyright 1999 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS

Kwanzaa’s origins are inclusive

A caller complained that I ruined Christmas for him because a recent column mentioned that Christmas was recast from an earlier pagan holiday. Others find Christmas more meaningful by placing it in the history of all humankind.

CandlesReligions call us to the transcendent. But they are embodied in particular circumstances and historical settings.

The combination of transcendent reality and the historical and personal situation is sometimes revealed in the origins of holidays. Kwanzaa, for example, was first celebrated in 1966 in Los Angeles after the Watts race riot.

Kwanzaa celebrates seven transcendent principles, including unity, creativity and faith.

Kwanzaa has ancient Egyptian sources, as well as more recent African themes. It might never have developed except for the experience of slaves in America and the need for their descendants to affirm a healing identity.

Usually observed between Christmas and New Year's Day, Kwanzaa utilizes a set of candles, as does the Jewish Hanukkah festival.

Do I ruin Kwanzaa by disclosing these origins?

Or this? -- The correct Swahili spelling is “Kwanza,” with six letters. At the first program for this new holiday, there were seven children. Each wanted to represent and explain a letter. An additional “a” was added to accommodate all of them.

The charm of bending to the seventh child’s desire for inclusion perhaps matches the deep philosophy of Kwanzaa. The respect given to that child embodies its transcendent principles.

© Copyright 1998 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS

Kwanzaa celebrates the human experience

Kwanzaa originated in Los Angeles in 1966, after the Watts race riot. Its creator, Maulana Karenga, believed that the way to improve and enrich “African American life was the rescue and reconstruction of their culture.”

Kwanzaa was first called a “cultural” rather than a “religious” holiday. It is still is unmentioned in most religious reference books.

I asked the Rev Cecil Murray of the Los Angeles First AME Church whether Kwanzaa has become important in the life of his congregation. “Yes, because it deals with the totality of human experience, and religion is what ties human experience together.”

He then listed the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“This is what all the religions of the world talk about,” he said. “How can you extol a faith without also extolling an economic system that helps you feed the hungry, house the poor, educate the young, and provide jobs?”

“The seven principles are a supplement to the Ten Commandments.”

“We observe Kwanzaa at years’s end to review how well we've done putting our faith into practice, and to plan to do better in the coming year.” (Kwanzaa begins Dec 26 and continues through January 1.)

The Hanukahh candles kindled earlier this month recall the ancient Jews who, at the severest personal costs, secured liberty to practice their faith. Christmas candles glow in the season of darkness with divine hope. And the Kwanzaa candles, one lit for each principle, help in rediscovering a rich spiritual heritage.

Whatever our religion, or none, we can all use more light.

© Copyright 1995 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS