Top 10 Misconceptions About Kwanzaa

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Holiday traditions are the fabric that binds a society together. Holidays promote a sense of identity, brotherly love and good cheer as people join together in mutual celebration. The upcoming holiday season is a time period that truly represents these timeless concepts. Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, and Kwanzaa – holidays that are celebrated in close proximity to one another – all resonate in the hearts and homes of countless revelers.  And while all these holiday celebrations are special to many, some of them may be a little mysterious to others. This seems to be especially true of Kwanzaa. Here are the ten most common misconceptions (and factual explanation) about Kwanzaa.

List by Lee Standberry

10.  It’s a Religious Holiday

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Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture and universal truths that transcend religious boundaries. While one could assert that there is a spiritual content attached to Kwanzaa, the celebration itself is not associated with any organized religion or deity worship. In the words of Kwanzaa’s creator, Dr. Karenga, “Kwanzaa is above all a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one” (African American holiday of Kwanzaa, 33). Kwanzaa, in fact, is a blend of African and American cultural traditions. Its purpose is to recognize and celebrate the values associated with history, social structure, creativity, politics and economics. These are the components that form the foundation of society. The idea is that through reflection, one becomes appreciative of the struggles – past and present – that are inherent with progress and success in life. By celebrating culture we grow to become better people as the result of the experience. In short, Kwanzaa is not about religious worship rather it is a celebration of culture and our place in it.

9.  It’s an African Holiday

African

A more correct term, though a misnomer as well, would be that it is an African-American holiday. We will address the additional misnomer in a moment. Suffice to say, Kwanzaa is an American creative endeavor. The origins of Kwanzaa can be traced back to its creator Dr. Maulena Kerenga (an American). While living in Los Angeles, in the turbulent 60s, Dr. Kerenga organized a celebration based upon seven principles that he believed epitomized cultural identity. Dr. Kerenga recognized a need to develop cultural awareness (which would then infuse cultural values) within the African-American community. As Kwanzaa began to take shape, the celebration took on a distinct African flavor as many of the concepts and expression are African in nature. Swahili, for example, is the African language used to identify many of the terms and customs that comprise the celebration. So Kwanzaa, which is Swahili for harvest of the first fruits, is a home grown celebration which has definitive and deep roots in African culture.

8.  Kwanzaa is only for African-Americans

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This concept is less true today than it was at the inception of the holiday. Kwanzaa was specifically created to address particular needs and concerns within the African-American community. First, it was to be a reaffirmation of African traditions and culture. Secondly, it is to restore specific universal values within the African-American community (the seven principles). And third, it is to serve as a national time of celebration specifically for African-Americans. With this, one should consider that Kwanzaa was conceived during the height of the civil rights struggle and the need for cultural recovery was apparent. Thus, in this sense, Kwanzaa was and is Afro-centric in nature. However, as time has passed, both society and Kwanzaa has evolved. Kwanzaa has always been about the celebration of values that transcend through racial boundaries. The seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective work/responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith; find purchase in the mind and hearts of everyone. These principles reinforce the concept of community – in a community – not just African-American ones. As a result, Kwanzaa has an appeal across cultural and racial divide. Whites, Asians, Latinos and whomever find common ground in the Kwanzaa celebration. As such, Kwanzaa has found its way into the homes of many non African-American families. Kwanzaa, therefore, can be seen as an African-American cultural celebration that is inclusive of anyone who shares its values.

7.  Kwanzaa is a Substitute for Christmas

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Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st. Each day, one of the seven principles is recognized and celebrated. The time period in which Kwanzaa is celebrated was chosen not as a substitute for traditional holidays but rather as a means of taking advantage of the seasonal excitement that is present during this time of year. While Kwanzaa can serve as an alternative to other existing holidays if one chooses, that is not its expressed purpose. Rather, Kwanzaa stands on its own – an opportunity for people to celebrate the cultural values that it espouses. In other words, folks are free to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and anything else they desire in addition to Kwanzaa. One doesn’t have to be excluded for the other. Kwanzaa, at its core, is about bringing people together and not division or exclusion.

6.  Only Non-Religious People Celebrate Kwanzaa

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This is a misconception that is closely related with the first misconception of Kwanzaa being a religious celebration. Perhaps as a result of the erroneous belief that the celebration has a religious orientation, many people of faith have viewed Kwanzaa with apprehension. In turn, this has lead to a perception that only non-religious people participate in the event. Interestingly enough, the exact opposite is true. Because Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration people of all faith find commonality in celebrating values that they all share. The American social landscape is religiously diverse yet the majority of Americans embrace Kwanzaa concepts such as unity and communal cooperation regardless of the individual faith they practice. As a result; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, ect. can all be found celebrating the seven principles during Kwanzaa.

5.  Kwanzaa is Based on Someone’s Political Views

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This misconception is not surprising considering we can trace the origins of Kwanzaa to one particular person and political/racial strife that was prevalent at the time. No doubt, Dr. Kerenga’s political views served as a motivation to create Kwanzaa. However, the celebration itself has its roots in the concepts of the African first harvest celebrations and the philosophy of Kawaida. A number of African societies celebrate, in one form or fashion, the first harvest. Generally speaking, this was a time when the people would come together to celebrate and be appreciative of the bounties of their agriculture labors. Kawaida, for its part is a philosophy that stresses the idea of teaching values within a communal structure. Thus, Kwanzaa has the express intention of being a celebration that brings people together for the purpose of passing on/teaching social values.

4.  Kwanzaa Involves Pagan Rituals

pagan rituals

Like any holiday, Kwanzaa certainly has its symbols and rituals. The ceremonies found in Kwanzaa, however, fall along the lines of cultural practice and not pagan/religious worship.  For example, there is the pouring of the wine (tambiko). This activity, which is an ancient Egyptian tradition, is a ceremony that honors ones ancestors and their contribution. There is also the familiar lighting of candles (mishumaa saba); each day one candle is lit in recognition of one of the seven principles. Anyone can light a candle though it is traditional for a child to do so. The intent here is to highlight the days of instructive principle with a specific reinforcing action. Each action that is found in a Kwanzaa activity can be definitively traced to a specific historical tradition and purpose.

3.  Kwanzaa Has to Be Celebrated by a Large Number of People

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Kwanzaa is about bringing people together. Therefore, on the one hand, the more people that are involved in the celebration, the better.  At the same time, Kwanzaa is also about family and the passing on core values. So it is equally beneficial to celebrate Kwanzaa in one’s home with family and friends as it is to celebrate among a large gathering. In fact, many people do both; attend a communal gathering and perform some activities at home with family. Once again it’s not an either or proposition. Involvement is the key with as many or as little participants as are available.

2.  Kwanzaa is a Political Movement

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Nothing could be further from the truth. Kwanzaa has the intended purpose of uplifting people within their social circumstances. Kwanzaa stresses such goals as having meaningful purpose in life and engaging in collective work. Kwanzaa is a celebration, not a movement.  While politics swirl all around us, Kwanzaa attempts to rise above the mundane, and instead concentrates on the human condition.  Anyone and everyone recognizes when their situation is either good or bad and politics attempts to address these conditions. Kwanzaa, however, is about individual and communal growth through reflection and celebration. Politics, such as they are, are left to the politicians.

1.  Kwanzaa is a Made-Up Holiday

Make Believe

This misconception implies that there is little or no significance to the Kwanzaa celebration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even a cursory review of Kwanzaa will uncover a celebration steeped in rich and meaningful traditions. Indeed, every facet of the Kwanzaa celebration has a story and purpose behind it. With that said, every idea has a beginning. If one investigates the history behind any holiday or celebration, one eventually uncovers a reason for its existence. In this sense, Kwanzaa is no different than anything else. However, in the case of Kwanzaa, we see a very deliberate and considered process that went into its creation. It wasn’t, for example, an attempt to simply establish a festive celebration for no other reason than to eat and drink. Rather, its creator identified a social need and recognized a celebratory event could go a long way to resolving some of those issues. In his own words, Dr. Kerenga stated, “the holiday Kwanzaa is a product of creative cultural synthesis. That is to say, it is the product of critical selection and judicious mixture on several levels.” (African-American History of Kwanzaa, Introduction) So yes, Kwanzaa is a “created” holiday, but a created holiday with true meaning and purpose.


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8 Comments

  1. “Kwanzaa has the express intention of being a celebration that brings people together”

    Sorry but I have never seen white people celebrating Kwanzaa.

    I believe It is intended to celebrate the African American experience.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    Karenga was influenced in the creation of his ethos for Us by Malcolm X.

    “Malcolm was the major African American thinker that influenced me in terms of nationalism and Pan-Africanism. As you know, towards the end, when Malcolm is expanding his concept of Islam, and of nationalism, he stresses Pan-Africanism in a particular way. And he argues that, and this is where we have the whole idea that cultural revolution and the need for revolution, he argues that we need a cultural revolution, he argues that we must return to Africa culturally and spiritually, even if we can’t go physically. And so that’s a tremendous impact on US. And US saw it, when I founded it, as the sons and daughters of Malcolm, and as an heir to his legacy.” —Maulana Karenga

  2. #1 misconception – that anyone really celebrates this. A very small percentage of the US african american population does, but it never caught on and probably never will. It IS “made up” in the sense that real holidays grow out of a culture “organically”. Nobody sat down and designed them. e.g christmas.
    Romans had evolved a “saturnalia” holiday (from roman god Saturn) at the winter solstice. As christianly took hold, the people liked the holiday but the beliefs behind it no longer held so the church promoted the idea of celebrating christ birth at this time. Not previously done much which is why we don’t know when he was really born. Note they did not create a new holiday, they just built on one. Over the centuries new traditions evolved around it some related to christianity others more imported and repurposed. Finally some mostly secular traditions like Santa Clause, father christmas etc formed in the last few centuries.

    The holiday grew and changed bit by bit, not dropped full grown on a culture that had little interest in it.

  3. Absolutely horrible ignorant list… FACT: Karenga is a convicted torturer, FACT: Karenga is renowned militant black-National Socialist and the founder of “US”.

    Go read Karenga’s own words on his alleged holiday and you will find out what Kwanzaa is all about. Its about hating whites and celebrating Black National Socialism. Its astounding how society accepts this racist Kwanzaa nonsense for PC reasons..

    I’m sure people would be offended if David Duke created a holiday and people actually celebrated it, the same can be said about Hitler… In reality there is no difference between Hitler, Duke or Karenga.

    So whoever is celebrating this holiday is ignorant to it – or is celebrating it to embrace Karenga’s socialeconomic ideas…

      • Well, Ron Karenga is not Hitler, nor did he have Hitlers power per se, however their socioeconomic ideologies are practically identical. I compare Ron Karenga to Hitler because he was not a garden variety Marxist but rather a National Socialist, as a matter of fact, he was a national socialist out of opposition to the Black Panther Party.

        However he did – in fact – torture a couple of woman at his home in 1972, and what he did to those woman is extremely scary and extremely disturbing..

        There should be no holiday celebrated that this lunatic manifested.. And Kwanzaa is deeply political and deeply racial so I have no idea how the author of this list attempted to imply those two ideas, er facts are myth.

        It would take little more than a half hour of research for anyone to confirm what I just asserted.

        Oh, and to make it even worse this crackpot is teaching at the university level — hes tenured to boot.

      • I'm an individual on

        I agree that this day was instigated because of hatred of whites and our culture. If someone wants to celebrate their culture then that’s great. But everyone knows kwanzaa was started as an “up yours” to whites. I’ve travelled the world many times and I can tell you every non-white race I have meet are far more racist than whites, but we are expected to carry a guilty burden. Just reminding people that racism is a two-way street and being a minority doesn’t protect anyone from critisism.

  4. I likewise with the other commenter agree that it IS made up. And that much of this list is amazingly biased and definitely far below the usual unbiased veracity of Listverse.

    It’s made up in the same sense that conlangs are made up. No one spoke Esperanto until someone designed it, no one celebrated Kwanzaa until someone… made it up one day.

    Every other significant cultural holiday came organically from a combination of cultural and social forces, no one built it. That means that oftentimes they are less coherent yes.

    So Kwanzaa is made up, but that shouldn’t necessarily make it worth any less. Th

  5. My African-Americans acquaintances have laughed at me when I asked about celebrating Kwanzaa. I have the accoutrements and have read to prepare for a celebration. (I’m a biracial person from a “white, of course” family that forgot its African ancestry, calling it “Indian” and carefully rearranging the facts.)

    Ultimately, it all seems like a studied response to a frayed culture. African traditions, which would have been diverse, being lost, are hammered into a framework that simplifies things and pushes a prescriptive agenda. The “celebratory” process feels like a remedial six-step group-therapy program that simplistically works at abstract community principles.

    Is this really the way to regain a sense of African traditions and roots, celebrate common values, and have fun? It feels like a community college exercise that’s well-intended but simply too external to be real.

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