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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.